Monday, December 13, 2010

Artists address the chronic racism in Cuba

Artists address the chronic racism in Cuba
Sunday, December 12, 2010

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

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

"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."

The exhibit begins outside of the museum, in the parking lot. That's
where an antique Plymouth sedan is rather inconspicuously parked. But
look closely, and you will see roughly a dozen pairs of ceramic legs of
Afro-Cubans holding it up.

The piece is by Armando Marino and is titled "The Raft." It immediately
sets the tone for the exhibit, calling to mind the many Cubans who fled
their country, only to come to ours and be confronted with racism of its
own kind.

Racism always has been a taboo issue in Cuba. So, these artists' works
have been confrontational and critical. Some of the artists mock racist
stereotypes, such as Manuel Arenas, whose room-size installation
"Artificial Breathing" contains the phrase "Am I not a man and a
brother?" in frozen letters hung on one wall. Covered in ice crystals,
thanks to a freezer unit housed behind the wall, it's a cold commentary
on the cold shoulder many young Afro-Cubans receive on a daily basis.

In similar fashion, Alexis Esquivel addresses the persistent exclusion
of blacks from the structures of power through a series of portraits
that looks closely at the fragilities and vulnerabilities of historical
figures, such as Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara (1928-67) and Cuban
revolutionary Camilo Cienfuegos (1932-59), both of whom were executed.

Other works proclaim blacks' humanity, as in Rene Pena's rather personal
photographs of Afro-Cuban men in repose, either after or during the
simple act of taking a bath. And then there are those that question a
Western culture that transforms blacks into "others," such as the
subjects of scientific study and folklore presented in the sarcastically
humorous oil paintings of Armando Marino. And in the museum's basement a
shrine-like installation, "Ave Maria," by Jose Toirac and Meira Marrero
contains several dozen small religious figurines that delve into the
African religious influences that sustain Cuban culture.

De la Fuente says not all of these artists identify themselves as
blacks. "Most of them do, but several of these artists are considered --
and consider themselves -- white in Cuba."

In other words, Queloides is not a "black project" or a project "for
blacks," but a cultural project by a multiracial group of artists who
share similar beliefs and concerns about racial justice and equality.

"Bear in mind that when they began to discuss issues of race and racism
in their art work in the 1990s, they did something that was unthinkable
in a place like Cuba: they denounced racism in Cuban society, something
that the government had always claimed did not exist in Cuba," De la
Fuentes says.

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