Afro-Cuban art exhibition exposes life Without Masks

Slavery, racism, identity politics, religious beliefs, and civil war are recurring themes in this display of contemporary Afro-Cuban art
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Without Masks: Contemporary Afro-Cuban Art
At the Museum of Anthropology until November 2

Once upon a time, at a little restaurant in the Mexican city of Oaxaca, a Cuban jazz trio was entertaining diners. One of the musicians appeared to be of African descent, one of European descent, and one of mixed descent. They played together with such inventive synergy that the audience smiled throughout their performance. The musicians sat with me and my friends during their break, and I was convinced—without ever having visited the place—that in Cuba, people of all colours and ethnicities must live and work together in absolute equality and with mutual attraction and respect.

Orlando Hernández, the Havana-based curator of Without Masks, tells a different story. Last week, as he toured media through the exhibition of contemporary Afro-Cuban art at UBC’s Museum of Anthropology, he told us that what should indeed be a post-revolutionary state of social, cultural, and ethnic equality is not a reality in Cuba—that it is a “mask”. Especially since the island nation’s economic collapse in the 1990s, he said, Cubans of African descent have experienced prejudice, discrimination, and poverty. Without Masks, organized from the von Christierson collection of Afro-Cuban art, seeks to redress our mistaken perceptions, to strip away the pretence and convey the actuality of Afro-Cuban existence.

With its 80-plus artworks by 33 artists across a range of media, the exhibition is big, various, and overcrowded. A few recurring themes and subjects emerge, however, including slavery, racism, and the politics of identity (especially as represented by the human body); the expression of Afro-Cuban religious beliefs (as practised by the Santería, Ifá, Palo Monte, and Abakuá “churches”); and Cuban involvement in the Angolan civil war (sometimes called the “Cuban Vietnam”).

The forced transport of enslaved Africans to Cuba, from the 16th to the 19th century, is addressed in ways both obvious and oblique. Remember, a bronze sculpture by the Merger, an artists’ collective, realistically depicts the head of a young West African woman—except for her hair. This has been replaced by a spiky corona of flash drives plugged into her skull, effectively symbolizing memory, the only way dispossessed African peoples could bring their history, cultural traditions, and religious beliefs with them to Cuba.

In Juan Carlos Alom’s Without Words (the powerful black-and-white photograph chosen for the show’s catalogue cover and advertising campaign), a man’s face, pierced with dozens upon dozens of rings, is isolated against a dark ground, as if he’s been decapitated. The photo’s negative has been aggressively cut in two, so that a dark line curves across the image, further evoking exoticism, suffering, death, and rupture. Habana Solo, Alom’s entrancing black-and-white video with its jazzy soundtrack, was one of the highlights of The Spaces Between, the exhibition of contemporary art from Havana recently seen at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery. In the context of Without Masks, the video creates a surprising contrast to Alom’s more sombre photos: it’s a jumpy, scratchy, and energetic homage to Cuba’s African-influenced musical traditions and the syncretic rhythms of daily life­ in Havana.

One of the most engrossing pieces in the show is Manuel Mendive Hoyo’s large oil painting God’s Eye Is Looking at You. Surmounted by a frieze of painted iron fretwork, it presents us with a crowd of surreal figures, both human and supernatural, derived from Yoruba tradition. Images of offering and sacrifice, violence and appeasement are so beautifully conceived and executed that the painting seems to vibrate with conviction.

Another compelling work is Elio Rodriguez’s soft, white sculpture The Jungle, a reinterpretation of the famous painting of the same title by one of modernism’s most acclaimed Afro-Cuban artists, Wifredo Lam. As does Lam’s painting, Rodriguez’s stitched and stuffed canvas sculpture displays a densely populated scene of hybrid creatures composed of human, animal, and plant parts and symbolizing aspects of African life. However, Rodriguez has stripped all of the colour out of the original composition, suggesting that Lam, much influenced by western modernists such as Pablo Picasso, had erased what curator Hernández calls “negritude” from his art-making.

I confess I find this reading a little dismaying, since Lam, who was born in 1902 and died in 1982, very concertedly strove to express his Afro-Cuban heritage in his paintings, sculptures, and ceramics. What Rodriguez’s version of The Jungle reminds us of, however, is the evolving character of Afro-Cuban art as it draws upon long-standing traditions, examines contemporary conditions, and invents new forms of creative expression.

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