In Focus: Cuba

“Afro-” and “-Cuban”: A Possible Nation?

Are black Cubans perceived – by themselves and others – as Afro-Cuban? How do the island’s artists confront this question? A walk through the unfinished history of the relationship between the visual arts and Afro identity in Cuba, written by Yasser Socarrás for Contemporary And (C&) América Latina.

From the twenties and thirties onward, figures appear in the Cuban artistic avantgarde such as Wifredo Lam (1902-1982). His work covers various aesthetic movements such as primitivism, surrealism and cubism. However, one recurring element underlies his work: a treatment of the Afro-Cuban myths and legends, in which the representation of the Orishas serves as a forceful manifestation of poetry and social criticism. An illustrative example is the piece La jungla (The Jungle, 1943) currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

In his text “Syncretism, Postmodernism and Culture of Resistance”, Osvaldo Sanchez argues that “the importance of the mythical, the cosmogonenic and the ritual in Cuban art from the eighties can be derived from an urgency to establish spiritual archetypes, and to acquire models of better coherency between the ethos and the ethnic in the social life”. It is precisely in alignment with this idea that an artist like José Bedia (born 1959) develops his work. Bedia is one of the leading figures in the so-called New Cuban Art Movement, a focal point within Cuban visual arts throughout the eighties and, above all, a new way of assuming art and its social role on the island.

Bedia’s work is influenced by his own religious practise: the artist was initiated into the Palo Monte religion, which, along with the Ochá or the Santería religion as well as the secret Abakuá Society, exclusive to male members, make up the three cults of African origin most widespread in the Caribbean. Thus, dances and songs stemming from the Palo rituals are recurrent motives in Bedia’s work. But his oeuvre, as reflected in his most recent production, also extends to other spiritualities such as Mesoamerican cultures.

In 2010, Alejandro de la Fuente and Elio Rodriguez got together under the name “Queloides”, a group of twelve Cuban visual artists whose work examines the topic of race, African religion as well as the historic legacy of the enslaved communities.
This joint exposition was preceded by three exhibitions held in Havanna in the late nineties: Queloides (1997, Casa de África), Neither musicians nor athletes (Ni músicos ni deportistas, 1999, Centro Provincial de Artes Plásticas y Diseño) y Queloides II (1999, CDAV). For the first time, these exhibitions focused on the discussion of the racial problem in Cuban visual arts.

In these exhibitions, artists from various generations dissected the Cuban reality. Among them is Belkis Ayón, who in her short life (1967-1999) developed an oeuvre which is indispensable when talking about Cuban visual arts. Part of her artistic creation revolves around Princess Sikán, a character from Abakuan legend, who narrates the story of a violation of a secret by a woman. This character and her knowledge of the Abakuan environment serve Ayón as a vehicle for questioning reality.

The artist is more interested in confronting daily life, departing from this semblance, than pretending that her work could be a truthful documentation of this universe. She revisits the legends of African origin and questions the division between high and low culture, and does so at moments where new ways of making art are reconsidered in the country.

Another member of the Queloides was Juan Roberto Diago (born 1971). He uses the quotidian as material for his art, taking advantage of everyday paraphenilia, rendering them symbolic, thus turning this act into one of cultural resistance. His work entails forms of expression from installations to graffiti and is centered around blackness and the black universe, people from the neighborhood and marginalized people. He questions the place where the legendary African history is found in Cuban society and how society percieves it.

Amidst this unfinished process, the exhibition Without Masks: Contemporary Afro-Cuban Art arrived in Havanna, with works from forty artists in highly diverse formats, conversations and conferences. Just like the “Queloides” project, “Without Masks” reveals the persistence of racism and racial discrimination in Cuba. In today’s Cuba, said racism resurges in the shape of “keloids”, scar tissue from lesions or traumatic wounds. The keloids that these artists confront us with are an attempt to contribute to the process of reinvention of the nation: where the prefix “Afro-” does not exclude being “Cuban” and where pluralism and a multiplicity of identities can coexist in harmony.


Yasser Socarrás is a filmmaker and researcher. He studied at the University of Arts (ISA) in Cuba and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in social anthropology at the Federal University Santa Catarina in Brazil. He is a member of the Center for Studies on Identities and Interethnic Relations (NUER) at the same university.

Translated from the Spanish by Zarifa Mohamad Petersen