Cuban Artists Grapple with Local Racism on a World Stage


Alexis Esquivel Smile You Won 

Alexis Esquivel, "Smile, you won!" 

The idea of globalism, so emphatically embraced by the , seemed to assume that the breakdown of cultural barriers and national borders—the “flattening” of the world caused by the increasing rapidity of exchange and interchange in the contemporary digitized age—was something wholly new. Of course, curators overstated the novelty of globalism. Humans have simply long been compelled to share and reconsider and mimic and recreate the work of others, and so intellectual and creative conceits and trends have always had a way of flowing across borders and around barriers.

Or such is a message, imparted through overt and covert channels, of an exhibition currently being mounted at Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory: "Queloides: Race and Racism in Cuban Contemporary Art" (October 16, 2010, to February 27, 2011). As per the subtitle, “Queloides” presents the work of twelve artists who deal with issues of race, discrimination, and identity in Cuba. All twelveArmando Mariño, 'La anguista de las influencias' (detail) artists represented in this show—Pedro Álvarez, Manuel Arenas, Belkis Ayón, María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Roberto Diago, Alexis Equivel, Armando Mariño (Right: "La anguista de las influencias" (detail)), René Peña, Marta María Pérez Bravo, Douglas Pérez, Elio Rodíguez, and José Toirac/Meira Marrero—were born in Cuba, and many produced their most compelling work during the so-called “Special Period in Time of Peace,” which started around 1991 and lasted through most of the decade (i.e., prior to the age of globalism).

The “Special Period” in Cuba was a time of acute economic struggle that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, on which the Cuban economy depended. During this period, the country’s trade market crashed, and its GDP dropped by 34 percent. Food and medicine imports were severely slowed. Cuban industry and agriculture ground to a halt, and food shortages followed. The average Cuban consumed about one-fifth the amount of food calories as prior to the Soviet collapse and lost twenty pounds in weight. Persistent hunger became a way of life, and many young children exhibited signs of malnutrition.

Starting in 1991, numerous Cuban musicians, writers, painters, performers, and academics began to use art to process the troubling changes taking place in their country. For instance, the emergence of Cuban hip hop dates to the Special Period, with rap artists driven to write about their everyday struggles. Around the same time, Cuban visual artists began to fixate on a particular social issue. In paintings, photographs, installations, sculptures, videos—examples of which are included in “Queloides”—artists focused on finding ways to ridicule and to dismantle the so-called racial differences in Cuba. The largest island country in the Caribbean, Cuba is home to over 11 million people, and the nation's culture is drawn from diverse sources -- aboriginal Taino and Ciboney peoples, the period of Spanish colonialism, the introduction of African slaves, and so on. “Queloides” refers to a “keloid,” or rubbery scar. In Cuba, many people believe the erroneous racial stereotype that black skin is prone to such scaring. The title also refers to the wounds, both physical and internal, that result from racism, discrimination, and centuries of cultural conflict and social struggle.  

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