Indiscipline and Counter-memory in Afro-Cuban Art

El pasado mío (My Own Past) examines the expressive textures of a Cuban population that is underrepresented in the official discourse of the island. In addition to exploring the aesthetic folds of African-rooted creation in Cuba, the exhibition sheds light on the real contexts in which black artists developed.

Putting more than fifty pieces in dialogue, the exhibition combines a repertoire that ranges from Vicente Escobar’s colonial portraits and modernist compositions to more contemporary iconographies such as those of Belkis Ayón Manso, Manuel Mendive Hoyo, René Peña, Juan Roberto Diago Durruthy and Susana Pilar Delahante Matienzo. It allows for an immersive experience into the visual poetics of those who, being the bearers of an ancestral heritage, have embodied a mixed Afro-Cuban cosmo-perception.

Canvases, sculptures and dissimilar techniques regenerate questions about the subaltern lives of those who came to Caribbean land as the economic arms of a society that later relegated them to the margins and reveal the artist as a site of dispute around othering, heterogeneity and the exploited identities of Cuban negritude. With this, each work emerges from an immersive practice in power relations, a silent witnessing of the tensions that the artists had to go through to position themselves within their context where the visual worlds are the testimony of their resistance within an exclusive social architecture.

In addition to exploring the aesthetic folds of African-rooted creation in Cuba, the exhibition sheds light on the real contexts in which black artists developed. This is embodied in a museography that incorporates the archival format to rescue its itineraries throughout history, from which, until now buried in the annals of time, authors emerge. This is the case of Caridad Ramírez and numerous others who, tucked away in the drawers of the San Alejandro Academy, the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana, and the San Fernando Fine Art Royal Academy (Madrid), are recovered through archeological work, a kind of counter-memory stitched together through works, visualities, pages, records, and documentary registers and evidence. A gesture with which they highlight the work of racialized women within the island’s creative geography. An invaluable success that allows their presence to be highlighted within the predominantly white male template of Cuban art.

In this restorative way, El pasado mío shows the universes and perspectives of Afro-descendants as active agents in the substratum of Cuban imagination. The rhythms and counter-times of their spiritualities and carnalities break free as constitutive zones of a nation woven from processes of violence and clashes.

Men, women, and black subjects in Cuba have gone through economic and social segregation, been denied their identities by colonial domination and experienced ethnic erasure, struggling to keep their cultures, knowledge, and subjectivities alive. El pasado mío embraces that legacy, speaking of that unhealed wound across time, reincarnated in current racism, where the markings of discrimination are remade repeatedly on the skins of those who have still not escaped from their marginality.

In the current Cuban environment, inequalities are reproduced on Afro-descendant groups who have not been able to emancipate themselves from their borders within which they have been denied the real capacity for social mobility and faced the growing gap of inequality. In this sense, the exhibition makes silenced voices and processes visible so that the present, always made with threads of the past, is illuminated and embraces its children.


The exhibition El pasado mío opened on September 16th and runs through December 21, 2022, at the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center, United States.

Elizabeth Pozo Rubio holds a degree in Art History from the University of Havana. She writes and researches on Cuban art. She is currently completing a Masters in Latin American Cultural Studies at the University of Buenos Aires.

Translation: Sara Hanaburgh