Has the question of identity ceased to function as a vehicle for artistic creativity in Latin America? Certainly not, says our author. As shown in recent works by Afro-Latin American artists, the question remains essential and continues to spark new and very original forms of expression.
Mara Sánchez Renero, El cimarrón y su fandango – Los diablos, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.
Susana Pilar Delahante, Dibujo Intercontinental, 2017, foto: Marnix Van Den Berg. Courtesy of the artist.
Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, De las dos aguas, 2007. Courtesy of the artist.
José "Bubú" Negrón, from the series The Spirit Behind the Vejigante Mask (Ethnographic Abstractions), 2014. Courtesy of the artist.
Afroamerica is not just the Batey (sugar mill), the cleverness, the mantrap and the whip, the horse-drawn carriage or the coachman; Afroamerica is not just Changó and Ochún sizzling with sensuality in the mountains, Afro-America is not only the redemptive machete of the liberating mangrove, Afro-America is the enduring enigma between the waters where we are headed, who we are, where we have come from. Afro-America is a predicament of pain that concerns the entire continent. (Nancy Morejón, “Afro-America. The Invisible?”)
When in 1996, during the ARCO art fair in Madrid, the Cuban critic and curator, Gerardo Mosquera, declared a group of new artists disinterested in the question of identity, he may not have taken into account the production by non-white artists in the region. Those artists, mostly blacks and mestizos, continue to reflect upon their racial identity; identity understood as the capacity of recognizing oneself with regard to the color of the skin and acting accordingly. “Identity as a black citizen”, says Victor Fowler, “implies a type of pain which manifests its existence beyond the paradox of deculturalization, seeing as the stimuli come from history, culture, feelings associated with color, family stories, everyday life and the mass media”.
These artists appeal to the historical memory characterized by the experience of slavery. The colonial servitude, racism and the specific forms of black resistance as part of a strategy for visibilization and political questioning of the black population’s position in contemporary society.
From an extensive list, artists stand out such as María Magdalena Campos (Cuba, 1959), Joscelyn Gardner (Barbados, 1961), Rosana Paulino (Brasil, 1967), Ayrson Heráclito (Brasil, 1968), Paulo Nazareth (Brasil, 1977), José Bubu Negrón (Puerto Rico, 1975), Renata Felinto (Brasil,1978), Mara Sánchez Renero (México, 1979), Wagner Viana (Brasil, 1981), Thiago Gualberto (Brasil, 1983), Susana Pilar Delahante Matienzo (Cuba, 1984), Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara (Cuba, 1987), Carlos Martiel (Cuba, 1989), and De Costa a Costa (Colombia, artist collective).
When examining the African presence in contemporary Latin American art, one is very soon confronted with the migratory issue. The detachment from the African motherland has been addressed in the work Dibujo Intercontinental (Intercontinental Drawing, 2017), a performance in which Susana Pilar Delahante drags a boat tied to her waist, or A donde mis pies no lleguen (Where my feet cannot take me, 2011), an act by Carlos Martiel, which sees him anesthetizing his body and drifting down a river inside a boat. Both performances recreate the trauma of the separation from Africa, not from a desire to return, but as part of a process of historical recognition, of the notion of feeling split between two continents.
This topic is explored by the artist María Magdalena Campos-Pons in De las dos aguas (Between Two Waters, 2007). The work constitutes a photographic installation where two figures – images of and by the artist herself – appear, joined by the hair in front of a blue background and holding between them a boat with four carved seafarers, each representing Yoruba deities. The hair becomes a bridge between the two regions, America and Africa, a path intending to reconstruct history, and an element of connection with the ancestors.
In the series Sacudimentos (The Shakings, 2015), Ayrson Heraclitus revisits the points of embarkment for the slaves in Africa (House of Slaves, Gorée Island, Senegal) and their arrival in Brazil (Tower House) using the architectural space to perform a religious shaking or “exorcism”, according to Cuban popular slang. In the previous Transmutación de carne (Transmutation of Meat, 2000), Heráclito also addressed the slave drama by leaviNg hot iron markings on actors covered in charqui (dehydrated meat), in allusion to the violations committed against blacks in Brazil.
In the same manner, the work of Joscelyn Gardner obtains relevance through the study of the social conflicts that slavery caused for black women. In the lithographs from the series Creole Portraits (2002-2011), Gardner analyzes travel journals, publications and plantation records and then uses these documents to generate images, in which different African hairstyles are girdled by instruments of torture, or by tropical plants used to terminate pregnancies resulting from rape.
The artists also approach the topic of Africa through the use of a ritual symbology indebted to the African cosmogonic systems, as well as through the presentation of syncretic practices and cultural resistance in America. Particularly prominent are the photographs by Ayrson Heráclito in close relation with those of María Magdalena Campos, Marta María Pérez and René Peña.
The human body appears adorned with objects, foods and expressions inherent to those initiated in the Candomblé or Santería religion. The series The Spirit Behind the Vejigante Mask (Ethnographic Abstractions), by José “Bubú” Negrón, makes reference to popular culture and syncretic processes in Puerto Rico. The tradition of the masks, transported by the African slaves, has passed from generation to generation. Today, the masks are used on the island during the carnival, to invoke demons and spirits.
Another significant example is a performance by the Colombian collective De Costa a Costa during the 13th biennal Pacific Region Art exhibition (Salón Regional de Artistas Región Pacífico, 2010). The performance was presented as the curatorial project Ruta de tropas (“Troop Trails / Braiding Trails”) proposing an artistic space to visualize and recover the art of hairstyling. As the group pointed out: “The knowledge of the braiding technique transitions as a significant part of the cultural legacy of the Afro community. Not only to the person doing the braiding but just as much for the person whose hair is being styled; the action entails a trait of identity.” Moreover, braiding techniques were part of the African resistance strategies in the struggle for freedom during the period of slavery in America.
The criterion for mentioning the previous works was, first and foremost, to establish relations between the art of the so-called Afro-America (assuming the prefix “Afro” in its political dimension). However, these artists obviously also examine other topics related to the social conditions of blacks in their specific contexts. The photographs by Mexican artist Mara Sánchez Renero, for example, approach the living conditions of Afro-Mexicans, the Brazilian artist Paulo Nazareth problematizes the black stereotypes continuously settled in the social imaginary and, in other works, like those by Carlos Martiel, the racial drama is extended in order to open the discussion for other forms of social injustice, including class and gender issues.
For Latin American artists, the problem of identity remains an important reference. Only the historical paradigm from which identity is discussed has been modified. If Africa was once a providing source for art in the process of shaping Latin American cultural identity, today a rewriting is taking place, in the sense which Jean-Francois Lyotard described as the attempt to seize the past to evolve and to overcome the colonial state. To re-write colonialism means to have “digested” it in such a way that it ceases to be a determining category, and opens the possibility of questioning the contemporary social environment.
Aldeide Delgado is an independent historian and curator. She has been awarded the 2017 Critical Text Research and Production Grant issued by Teor/etica. Her interests include gender, racial identity, photography and abstraction in visual arts. She has spoken at the California Institute of Arts, the CCEMiami, the University of Havana, Casa de las Americas, the Cuban National Library and the 12th Havana Biennial. She studied art history at the University of Havana (2011-2016). Her articles have been published in Art OnCuba, Cuban Art News, Arte Al Límite and Artishock. She is an associate at Artishock in Miami.
Translated from the Spanish by Nicolás Gelormini