For these artists, African origin is the foundation that should guide the development of Cuba’s national personality and consciousness.
Drapetomania: Grupo Antillano and the Art of Afro-Cuba at The Cooper Gallery, 102 Mt. Auburn Street, Cambridge, MA, through May 29.
By Kathleen C. Stone
What does it mean to be Cuban? That’s a complicated question, bound to evoke different answers, depending on whom you ask. Raoul Castro might say one thing, Marco Rubio another. The descendant of a Spanish sugar producer, an African slave’s great-great grandchild another. And the many Cubans from multiracial families might have their own way of looking at identity. For a group of Cuban artists known as Grupo Antillano, their answer, proclaimed in a 1978 manifesto, was: “We are Latin-Africans.” African origin was, for them, the foundation that should guide the development of Cuba’s national personality and consciousness, and the Antilles was their “common real environment.” An exhibit now on view at the Cooper Gallery in Harvard Square reveals how the group translated their political manifesto into visual art.
From the seventeen members of the original group, plus twelve others working in the same vein, the organizers have collected a varied range of work – painting, sculpture, and mixed media, all of it affirming a black presence in the Caribbean. That was nothing new, of course, but proclaiming it artistically as a national identity was new in Cuba and, from an aesthetic point of view, often effective.
Most of the art tends toward figurative rather than purely abstract, and it incorporates artistic influences from both twentieth century Europe and Africa. For instance, in an untitled painting from 1977, Manuel Couceiro deconstructs brown bodies and rearranges them on the canvas in a setting strewn with pineapples and bananas; the body parts are both suggestively and explicitly sexual. In a more recent work, Family on the Pond, the artist Ever Cervino shows a family at play. The figures are rendered in shades of brown, olive and rust, reminders of the variety of skin tones in Cuba, and the location in blue – medium blue for pond water, pale blue tinged with pink for a late afternoon sky, and bits of dark greenish blue to indicate deeper water and, perhaps, the sea that encircles Cuba. Both Couceiro and Cervino work in the cubist idiom; in particular, the curvature and poses of Cervino’s figures are reminiscent of Picasso’s Guernica. When the small female figure at the center of Cervino’s family tilts her head back to look at the sky, while simultaneously positioning her torso in the direction of the viewer, her contortion reminds us of Picasso’s figures. The difference is that Cervino’s family smiles at the viewer, unlike the bombing victims who scream in horror.
It may seem contrary to the artists’ Afro-centric views to compare their work to European cubist paintings, but let us not forget that when Picasso, Braque, and others deconstructed figures and reinterpret them geometrically, they were drawing from what they saw in African sculpture and masks, among other sources. In Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, for instance, the two women with mask-like faces are a testament to the geometric abstraction, flat perspective, and mixed media that African art contributed to European modernism. Here, Cuban artists loop back to their African origins, by way of Europe.
Actually, the artists who made up Grupo Antillano were both black and white. A photograph mounted on the gallery wall shows them clustered around Wifredo Lam, their skin tones ranging from white to dark ebony. The multiracial Lam provided inspiration for the group as he, too, pioneered the idea of incorporating Cuba’s African heritage into painting. The cafe table where they gather is littered with glasses and bottles, and everyone is laughing; despite the seriousness of their collective purpose, they were having a good time.
In his painting Underworld, Oscar Rodriquez Lasseria gives us a side view into a crypt. At the bottom lies a black male body, a death mask on his face. On top is an identical figure, except it is white, as though a marble replica of the deceased. The canvas is full of texture. The white and gray paint of the crypt is thick, probably applied with a palette knife, and the deceased’s body is scored with a fine needle, leaving white hatch marks on the black skin. Perhaps Lasseria’s goal is to show the relative status of a black body underneath a white one, or perhaps what I see as a crypt is, instead, the nether world we all must travel someday. But however one interprets the visual image, the undeniable feeling is of the solitude of death.
Texture also enters into multi-media pieces such as Julia Valdes’s Interior of Old Havana, a canvas with paint, fabric, and rope, and Adelaida Herrera’s Neighbors, a pair of wooden shutters into which notes and ration cards are stuffed. We get the idea that the neighbors who live behind the closed shutters know one another well and act as helpmeets, trading notes and even, perhaps, rationed foods.
Cuba has a strong tradition of three dimensional art, and this exhibit includes several noteworthy examples. Wood is the material of choice, as it often is in African sculpture, and the forms are both abstract and exaggerated, another hallmark of African art. One, a tall, thin piece carved from indigenous acana wood, is an abstract human form, the two halves mirroring each other. A gap in the middle suggests female genitalia and, indeed, the piece is titled Female Twins. Another is Ramon Haiti’s The Family, a complex work best seen in the round. Carved from one block of wood, with multiple figures embracing one another, it is a dense, layered work, just as families are.
One of the most heralded works in the show is Resurrection, by sculptor Rafael Queneditt, the organizer of the original Grupo Antillano. An angel stands in front of a cross, wings striped with the red, white, and blue of the Cuban flag, face painted half black, half white, reflecting the Cuban nation. On the back side of the cross we see metal shackles dangling like jewelry, and then the cross takes on a new meaning: it’s a stock, an instrument of torture for shackled slaves. On the ground are candles, likely associated with the Santeria religion, one of the only refuges for a slave. Even in a multiracial society, the artist reminds us, we must not forget slavery’s terrible legacy.
The artists of Grupo Antillano ceased exhibiting together in 1983, for reasons not explained, but they continued making art, and other artists have taken up the mantle of exploring Cuba’s identity. One of the newer affiliates, Andres Montalvan Cuellar, contributes a compelling wooden sculpture, The Eternal Idea of Return, of a long line of thin bodies stacked close together, as slave bodies would have been. And there is Rene Pena’s digital photo of a naked man carrying a royal blue plastic bucket; neither historical nor overtly political, it is still a vivid visual reminder of Cuba’s heritage.
The show was organized by Alejandro de la Fuente, a history and economics professor at Harvard and director of the Afro-Latin American Research Institute at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, where the Cooper Gallery is located. Because so many of the pieces are recent, the show is less a look at art that was exhibited together during the years Grupo Antillano was active, and more an exploration of artists’ belief that Cuba’s proper identity is Afro-Latin.
Shows of political art often include pieces that are overly didactic, more concerned with making a point than with aesthetics. Grupo Antillano’s manifesto even professed: “our objective is not simply aesthetic . . . the basis of our path is, in sum, what is Cuban.” Yet every artist must deal with questions of aesthetics, for it is only through the practice of aesthetics that an artist can be seen and heard by an outside world. Most of the artists here do so effectively, while still leaving room for what is, inevitably, a social and political message.
Kathleen C. Stone is a writer pursuing her MFA degree, a lawyer who earned her JD many years ago, and, even before that, was a student of art history. Her blog can be found here.