On the occasion of the exhibition “Diago: The Pasts of this Afro-Cuban Present” at the Lowe Art Museum in Miami, C&AL spoke with curator Alejandro de la Fuente about Cuba’s official history, the current Cuban art scene and the role of Afro-Cuban artists.
Juan Roberto Diago, Tu lugar (Your place), 2006. Mixed media on canvas. Courtesy of the artist and the curatorship of “Diago: The Pasts of this Afro-Cuban Present”.
Juan Roberto Diago, no title, 2011. Mixed media on canvas. Private collection. Photo courtesy of the artist and the curatorship of “Diago: The Pasts of this Afro-Cuban Present”.
Exposición “Diago: The Pasts of this Afro-Cuban Present” at the Lowe Art Museum, Miami, 2019-2020. Courtesy of the curatorship.
C&AL: In the introduction to the exhibition Diago: The Pasts of this Afro-Cuban Present, it says that Cuban artist Juan Roberto Diago (born 1971) has “produced a body of work that offers a revisionist history of the Cuban nation.” What does this mean?
Alejandro de la Fuente: Diago often inserts a critical rewriting of the official Cuban narrative in his work. The official narrative often portrays the nation as the creation by a group of white patriots, many of them slave owners, who renounced their wealth and privileges in order to build a national, multiracial and fraternal community. Meanwhile, Diago’s Cuba is a country built on the hard labor and pain of millions of enslaved Africans; a country born out of violence, abuse and greed. For Diago, the fraternal country as depicted in the official narrative has yet to be built.
C&AL: As an artist, Juan Roberto Diago has enjoyed great international success. But, in your opinion, what other artists besides him are representative of what is happening in contemporary Cuban art today?
ADF: Diago himself refers to his art as part of a collective effort to propose a debate on issues that are taboo in Cuba such as racism, discrimination and exclusion. Countless other Cuban intellectuals participate in this effort, including musicians, filmmakers, writers, playwrights and academics. Among the visual artists who have made fundamental contributions towards this struggle are the artists linked to Queloides (Alexis Esquivel, Elio Rodríguez Valdés, Douglas Pérez, René Peña, Manuel Arenas, María Magdalena Campos Pons, Gertrudis Esquivel, Andrés Montalván Cuéllar, Marta Maria Perez Bravo, Armando Mariño, among others). Also worth mentioning are younger artists such as Susana Pilar Delahante, Carlos Martiel and Javier Castro. Many of these artists have received international recognition, not just from critics but also from collectors and institutions.
C&AL: How would you describe the relationship between contemporary Cuban artist and the government?
ADF: It’s impossible to describe that relationship in the singular. Some artists are barely tolerated (like Sandra Ceballos), or even openly repressed (like Tania Bruguera). Others, like Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, are not even recognized as artists by the cultural authorities. Sadly, the proclamation of decree 349 of 2018 gives new legal basis to censorship and represents a bureaucratic and backward assault on creative freedom. [Note of the editor: According to this decree, all artists, including collectives, musicians and performers, are prohibited from operating in public or private spaces without prior approval by the Ministry of Culture.] But many other artists have developed strategies to dodge censors and bureaucrats (who are often one and the same).
C&AL: How have racial dynamics developed on the island in recent years and how is this reflected upon in contemporary Cuban art?
ADF: Racial inequality has increased significantly in Cuba over the past two decades; in part because the families financially supporting the Cuban private sector largely belong to a white community. This sector is home to openly racist employment practices. You only have to read job advertisements that favor white people with no shame whatsoever. But there are also major shortcomings with regards to public attention to the issue. I agree with the outstanding dancer Carlos Acosta – a glory of Cuban culture – when he says that no deep debates have taken place on this subject, an issue that continues to be uncomfortable for many Cubans, especially for the authorities. There is no shortage of voices. What is missing are platforms of expression, particularly ones that involve the government. As intellectual and activist Tomás Fernández Robaina puts it, the problem is not silence – it’s deafness.
C&AL: How are Afro-Cubans represented in the contemporary art scene?
ADF: To me it seems like a permanent fight. There are Afro-Cuban artists like Manuel Mendive who, after many years of serious work, managed to become a permanent fixture in galleries and institutions. But that has taken a lot of effort. People often forget that there were stages in his career where Mendive faced great obstacles to exhibit in Cuba. There are curators and critics who persist in articulating a Eurocentric and white vision of Cuban culture. Nevertheless, I want to highlight, and celebrate the fact that in recent years, the National Museum of Fine Arts has hosted two important exhibitions that touch on issues of race and identity in Cuba: Sin máscaras, curated by Orlando Hernandez (2017) and Nada personal, curated by Roberto Cobas (2019).
C&AL: Can you tell us something about the reception of Cuban art in the United States today?
ADF: My impression is that the American public remains eager to know more about Cuban art and that this interest goes beyond an initial curiosity for the exotic and the forbidden. Lately, we have been moving towards a more sustained interest from collecting, museums and galleries. Contemporary art auctions illustrate that interest as does my own experience. In recent years, the exhibitions I have organized (Queloides, Drapetomania and now Diago) have been shown in San Francisco, Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Miami. Right now, the University of Miami’s Lowe Art Museum is exhibiting not only Diago’s retrospective but also a show by another prominent Cuban artist, Carlos Estévez.
C&AL: After a certain softening of political relations between Cuba and the United States during the Obama administration, how has the renewed cooling of the political climate under Donald Trump affected contemporary Cuban art?
ADF: I think that ‘cooling’ is already very close to the freezing point. Obviously, it is much more difficult to organize projects and exhibitions under the current conditions, and that can discourage a lot of good ideas. But we’ve seen this film before. Devotees of Cuban art and culture, the people who study, promote and work from, for and with that intellectual production, are not going to stop doing it no matter how detrimental the situation may become. Also, there are issues in Cuban art, such as those addressed by Diago in his work, that have acquired even greater relevance under Donald Trump, a president who has transformed the White House into the House of Whites.
The exhibition Diago: The Pasts of this Afro-Cuban Present is shown at the Lowe Art Museum in Miami and open until 19 January 2020.
Alejandro de la Fuente, curator of the exhibition, is the director of the Afro-Latin Research Institute, Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University (United States). He is a Latin American and Caribbean historian specializing in the study of comparative slavery and race relations. De la Fuente is the author of Havana and the Atlantic in the Sixteenth Century (2008), and Una nación para todos: raza, desigualdad y política en Cuba (2001). Winner of the 2003 prize from the Historical Association of the South for the “Best History Book in Latin America”. He has also curated the exhibitions Queloides: Race and Racism in Contemporary Cuban Art (Havana-Pittsburgh-New York-Cambridge, 2010-12) and Grupo Antillano: El arte de Afro-Cuba (Santiago de Cuba-Havana, ongoing since 2013).
Interview by Hernán D. Caro, co-editor of Contemporary And América Latina (C&AL).
Translation from Spanish by Zarifa Mohamad Petersen