Ni Musicos ni deportistas : sobre los imagines del negro en el arte cubano, escrito por Ariel Ribeaux
Queloides I, 1997
Centro de Desarrollo de
las Artes Visuales de La Habana
The Centro is a major institution on visual arts in Havana. The Queloides exhibit below was preceded by one or two others with similar themes, but was the largest and best attended to date. The reaction was mixed, as focusing on issues of black identity in Cuba is somewhat taboo. Many white artists and even some black artists referred to the artists presenting this exhibit as "los fundamentalistas negros," the black fundamentalists. The curators were Ariel Ribeaux and Alexis Esquivel.
In 1999, eleven artists participated in an exposition of their works in Havana dealing with the theme of racism in Cuba at the Centro de Desarrollo de las Artes Visuales de La Habana, a government institution. People in Cuba are more and more acknowledging that racism has not only not been eliminated but, due to economic and social stresses, is actually on the rise.The exhibit is entitled "Queloides" from the scars that AfroCubans carry. In something of a first in contemporary Cuba, the artists identify themselves as white, black, "telephone black," indian, and mulato. In Cuba, all telephones are black, so "negro telefono" means very black. Cubans have long been loath to proclaim their identity or that of other Cubans, a trend that dates back to founding father Jose Martis proclamation that "we are all Cubans," and one which has frequently served to mask real problems.
Art historian Ariel Ribeaux organized the exhibit, aided by Havana artist Alexis Esquivel. Their goal was to go beyond racial stereotypes and deal with the resurgence of racism in Cuba in a broad historical, sociological, and personal context including the relationship of the artist to his work.
Some of the works stand out. Painter Manuel Arenas has two, "Cuidado, hay negro" ("Look out, theres a black man") and "Carné de identidad" ("ID Card"). "ID Card" shows the face of a black man in the center of the national emblem opening his ID card. One of the laurels in the emblem, a symbol of power, is replaced by a penis. This could be a reference to the frequent preferential stopping of AfroCubans in tourists areas by police (many of whom are black!) in order to discourage them from mingling with foreigners.
Alexis Esquivel created images around the theme of the soga, a kind of rope once used to separate whites from blacks in dances, in his "Actuación el día de la inauguración" ("Inaugural Performance"). José Toirac has with a photo of the Pope with the Caridad del Cobre, a Cuban Virgin Mary who is Oshun, the Yoruba Orisha of love and riches. He starts with this to look at various aspects of racism. René Peñas photo series, "Man made material," shows various body parts marked by queloid scars. The "Queloides" show has been noticed in the international press, and reported on by Mauricio Vicent, Havana correspondent for El Pais, a leading Spanish daily.
"Queloides" is to be seen in the context of a Cuba which may in fact be ready to begin dealing with the inevitable cultural heritage of racial antagonisms that still exists after centuries of tormented history. The leadership has until recently not wanted to tackle these issues, arguing that the dire economic conditions were forcing them to put it on the back burner. Other voices are arguing that it is these very economic necessities which should drive Cuba to take advantage of the riches of its African cultures and, in a dignified way, promote them as has been done in places such as Bahia and Trinidad. To do so means tackling issues around racism and white supremacy head on, since often times those charged with promoting Cuban culture are gallegos, of Spanish origin, and somewhat clueless as to how to promote African culture.
These economic hard times are also a driving mechanism in the aggravation of racism in Cuba. While the economy in general received a severe setback with the end of the Soviet Union and its trade and economic development projects, dollars have been flowing preferentially from the largely white exiles to their families to the tune of over $800 million a year. The tourism sector, dominated as it is by Spanish, German, Italian, French, and Canadian firms, preferentially hires white Cubans. The government is left trying to perform a balancing act which forces it to resort to awkward measures instead of attempting to grow a more AfroCuban oriented business sector, which hitherto cannot be done since "we are all Cubans here!" AfroCubans, following the market customs of Africa, have taken to the streets in droves to sell goods and services, but there have been numerous crackdowns and hyperregulations around this activity. There have also been attempts to grow some grass roots organizations focused on the African cultures of Cuba, such as the various projects of Cultura Communitaria. [See Gisela Arandia article - AfroCubaWeb.]
There's been a realization that an earlier attempt to market Cuba on the basis of exoticism, which included Fidel's pronouncements on the dark skin beauties of Havana, actually led to a rise in prostitution. And there is a competitive limit on how much you can promote the island based on beaches and hotels. The current trend is to present a more hispanic face to the island for the consumption of Spanish, Italian and other tourists. Supposedly gone are the posters with the alluring mulattas! However, this is throwing the baby out with the bath water. What Cuba needs is a more concerted effort to promote the things that it does have, such as an incredibly rich and talented music sector and a very creative art sector. Last year's Havana Jazz Festival, for example, drew many people, including thousands of Americans who went down, many illegally. And this despite the fact that the Centro de la Musica was unable to release a playlist until 2 days before the event!
The exhibit is a welcome change in this discourse.
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