Academic journal article Cuban Studies

Crisscrossing Gender, Ethnicity, and Race: African Religious Legacy in Cuban Contemporary Women's Art

Academic journal article Cuban Studies

Crisscrossing Gender, Ethnicity, and Race: African Religious Legacy in Cuban Contemporary Women's Art

Article excerpt

In the spring of 2010, the Wifredo Lam Centre for Contemporary Art in Havana presented the exhibition Queloides: Raza y racismo en el arte cubano contemporáneo.1 For those familiar with the Cuban art scene, this title came as no surprise, as it revealed the existing connection between the exhibit and those exhibits with the same title celebrated in 1997 (organized by Alexis Esquivel and Omar Pascual Castillo) and 1999 (organized by Ariel Ribeaux). The 1997 Queloides was the first art exhibit in Cuba conceived to address the issue of racial discrimination on the island. Like other cultural manifestations, such as Cuban rap music, the exhibit discussed the growing social fracture set offby the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of its economic support.2 Despite the many redistributive social policies that the Cuban Revolution implemented, the crisis of the Special Period had severe consequences for Afro-Cubans, who are overrepresented in the poorer sectors of Cuban society. At the same time, the loss of many social benefits and increased social competition fueled previously underlying racial prejudices. By the mid-1990s, it was obvious that Afro-Cubans faced many more obstacles than only the alleged glass ceiling that kept them out of high-profile positions.3

For the first time during the revolution, Queloides gave participating artists a public space in which to discuss issues of racialization that had been restricted to the private domain during the previous three decades. What for some had been an occasional interest became the main focus of their artwork; and artists like Manuel Arenas, Alexis Esquivel, René Peña, Douglas Pérez, and Elio Rodríguez have built, over the past decade, a conceptual and aesthetic discourse around racial prejudices and discrimination.

The 2010 Queloides exhibit was curated by a leading voice in the field of racial studies in Cuba, Alejandro de la Fuente, together with the artist Elio Rodríguez. A much more ambitious project than the two previous editions, it traveled to the Mattress Factory Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, after the Havana show, and to the 8th Floor gallery in New York in the spring of 2011. Although the work of the curators involved months of negotiations and preparations, de la Fuente found at the last minute that he was not welcome at the Havana opening, learning later on that he had been officially banned from the island. Since 1985 the Cuban government has acknowledged the persistence of racial inequality in Cuba. However, as with other alternative discourses, criticism has been met with official unease.

The impact of the Queloides sequence in the cultural field has made the term synonymous with the racial debate in Cuba. Designed with a comprehensive and inclusive view, one of the exhibit's major achievements has been to include representative artwork that covers the diverse array of techniques and strategies used in contemporary Cuban art to address the complexity of the cultural and social processes of racialization. Furthermore, the 2010 Queloides exhibit included the work of three women artists who had not participated in the previous shows: Belkis Ayón, María Magdalena Campos-Pons, and Marta María Pérez Bravo. The work of these three artists offers a compelling approach to issues of race and gender.

As do the rest of the artists in the Queloides series, Ayón, Campos-Pons, and Pérez Bravo belong to the generation born immediately after 1959 and raised in the revolution's political, cultural, and social project. The generation was educated in Cuba's renovated educational system, which was especially strong at the secondary and postsecondary levels, with high-quality schools such as Escuela Vocacional Lenin. In particular, the top art students attended three selective schools in Havana: Escuela de Artes Plásticas San Alejandro, Escuela Nacional de Arte (ENA), and Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA). When the devastating crisis of the Special Period led many of the artists of this generation into exile, their high-quality education helped them better integrate in their host countries. …

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