The Blacks in Latin America

By Carpentier, Alejo | UNESCO Courier, May-June 1986 | Go to article overview
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The Blacks in Latin America

Carpentier, Alejo, UNESCO Courier

The blacks in Latin America

THE apparent loss of feeling for their original plastic arts among displaced Africans transported to the Americas can be explained by the fact that sculpture, carving and decorative painting required free time, which the slave-holder was not prepared to grant.

He was not going to place workshops and tools at the disposal of men who were there to increase his wealth, simply so that they could have the pleasure of carving figures that he considered barbaric idols and repositories of ancestral beliefs.

On the contrary, any such recollections had to be wiped from the black man's memory with the help of the overseer's lash. "Civilized man' in the West did not yet have the slightest interest in what he would later come to value as "folk art'.

While the black man's paintings or carvings were considered works of the Devil, music, on the other hand, did not cause much inconvenience. The plantation owners in Cuba, for example, allowed their slaves to beat their drums and dance every evening because this showed that they were in good health and that their "ebony flesh' was fit for hard labour.

Meanwhile, the slaves listened to what they heard around them. During the sixteenth century, when they were first taken to America, they assimilated Spanish ballads, songs from Portugal and even French square dancing. They discovered musical instruments unknown in their own lands and learned to play them.

If one of them succeeded in being freed by a master who was more benevolent than others, he might well turn to music as a way of earning his living, mingling with white people in an occupational freemasonry.

Far removed from his African roots, the black man in Latin America became a basic constituent, together with the Indian, of the creole class that was to affect the destiny of a whole continent with its aspirations, its struggles and its protest. As the centuries went by, the blacks were slowly incorporated into the society of their new homelands and, little by little, they recovered their poetic sense and the feeling for the plastic arts which they seemed to have lost.

Observing ancestral traditions that no longer bore any relation to their surroundings was now out of the question. The black peoples had forgotten their African dialects by this time and spoke only the major languages of the New World. They felt no need to revive old Yoruba tales, to recall ancient legends or return to the sources of an oral culture they were alienated from, but rather to "make poetry' in the full sense of the term.

The same thing happened in painting Black artists in the New World were completely out of touch with art forms that in Africa were related to religious cults now left far behind (even though some vestiges can still be found on altars ostensibly consecrated to Christian saints).

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