Cuban Artists Grapple with Local Racism on a World Stage

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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 twelve

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.  

Ultimately, the artists in “Queloides” used the subjects of racism and the societal and ideological changes of the Special Period to make oblique stabs at the government. Officially designated a socialistic republic, Cuba in practice has been ruled by a closed and repressive governmental regime. Citizen’s access to the rest of the globe is severely limited in Cuba. The Human Rights Watch alleges that the Cuban government “represses nearly all forms of political dissent” and that “Cubans are systematically denied basic rights to free expression, association, assembly, privacy, movement, and due process of law.” Today, just connecting to the Internet illegally in Cuba can lead to a five-year prison sentence. For Cuban artists, addressing the ills of their society in their art has exacted a higher toll: Real ostracism and repression, even for addressing as simple an idea as racial justice and equality. According to co-curator Alejandro de la Fuente, “This is the first time in post-revolutionary Cuba the word ‘racism’ has appeared in the title of an exhibition. Because of this, I have now been banned from Cuba. It is a high price to pay, but we must do what we can to help break the official silence on racism.”

All these facts, taken in sum, might dictate that Cuban artists in 1991, in a pre-globalist age, would be ignorant of international art trends. But in actuality, as “Queloides” reveals, quite the opposite is true. Early 90s global art trends such as identity art, appropriation, accumulation, media-fixation, mixed media art, installation and performance art all make their appearance in this exhibition. For example, the artist Alexis Esquivel produced works that were not far removed, at least in surface appearance, from the David Salle and Robert Longo-influenced, media-mediated pastiche style popular across the globe in the early 1990s. Roberto Diago’s installation work, meanwhile, reflected the trend of accumulating appropriated objects–trash, discards, consumer goods–that appeared in the work of Tom Friedman, Tara Donovan, Rivane Neuenschwander, and many others through the 1990s and 2000s. And Rene Pena’s work reflected a concern about personal identity and self-image that is not much different in the work of Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, and many other artists who emerged in the 1990s.

Of course, understanding all the nuances and subtle contexts of the work in “Queloides” relies on a full understanding of local issues–in particular, what life was like during the “Special Period” in Cuba. But it is clear “Queloides” reveals a hidden secret of globalism. That is, many years before curators noticed, ideas, fashions, and visual trends were already being widely shared, even in nations and among artists that resided outside the world stage. “Queloides” is both an intriguing look at how art ideas pass over closed borders, and how closed communities internalize and reinterpret global intellectual trends while keeping a solid eye on local conditions.

René Peña, “Marat negro”

All photos courtesy of the Mattress Factory

Michael Fallon is a writer and arts administrator based out of St. Paul, Minnesota. His work has appeared in Art in America, American Craft, Public Art Review, Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine, the OC Weekly, City Pages, and many other publications.Read his previous post, Artist Faces Darkness at Heart of Amazon Rainforest.

Michael Fallon is a guest blogger at The views expressed by this guest blogger belong to him and do not necessarily reflect the mission or editorial voice of or the Utne Reader.

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