Artists Address the Chronic Racism in Cuba

Article excerpt

Racism always has been a hotbed issue in this country. It's also an important issue all over the world, especially in Cuba, where people of African descent have experienced significant barriers in regard to employment.

An exhibit on display at the Mattress Factory titled "Queloides" addresses these barriers, and other barriers that have resulted from the racism that has persisted there, particularly since the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union had a severe and negative impact on the Cuban economy.

Organized by Cuban artist Elio Rodriguez Valdes and Alejandro de la Fuente, professor of history and Latin American studies at the University of Pittsburgh, the exhibit contains the work of 13 Cuban artists who came to Pittsburgh to produce the works.

De la Fuente says the title of the exhibit not only refers to its English equivalent, "keloids," but also to two earlier exhibits in Cuba of the same title and subject. He says, even here, the title is just as relevant.

"Keloids is a medical term for pathological scars that develop in the site of a skin injury produced by surgical incisions or traumatic wounds. Although any injury might result in keloids, many people believe that the black skin is particularly susceptible to develop these scars," De la Fuente says. "Thus the title evokes the persistence of racial stereotypes -- i.e. the black skin is 'different' or 'worse' -- and the traumatic process of dealing with racism, discrimination and centuries of cultural conflict."

De la Fuente says that, with the economic crisis that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, competition for jobs, particularly in tourism and other activities where it was possible to earn hard currency increased significantly.

"Racist stereotypes and images were used to eliminate black candidates for these jobs and to justify their exclusion as well," De la Fuente says. "It is frequently argued in the island, for instance, that because blacks lack a 'good appearance' or because they are 'unreliable' or 'lazy,' they should not be given the best jobs."

All of the artists included in the exhibit came of age professionally in the early 1990s, precisely at the time when the Cuban socialist state began to crumble and racism (and other social ills, such as prostitution) were growing drastically in the island.

"These artists had grown up in post-revolutionary Cuba, in a social environment that was fairly egalitarian and racially integrated," De la Fuente says. "They have used their work to denounce the growing racism and racial inequality that has come to characterize Cuban society since the early 1990s. …