Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Cuban artists expose revival of racism on the island

The Raft (2010), ARMANDO MARIÑO.
Rebellion is in the air. Whether in the cities of Africa and the Middle East, or within disparate communities of artists, people are examining the current status of human rights and finding it lacking.

While street crowds are forcing political change, the liter­ati are prodding more benign conversation about perceived inequities.

A case in point is the taboo-bashing exhibition "Queloides: Race & Racism in Cuban Contemporary Art" at the Mattress Factory. "Queloides" translates as "keloids," protruding scars caused by trauma, which exhibition curators apply to the wounds racism has inflicted upon the body politic.

This show, which opened last year at the prestigious Centro de Arte Contemporaneo Wifredo Lam in Havana, hit a nerve within the island's bureaucracy, which projects an image of social harmony. When Pittsburgh-based co-curator Alejandro de la Fuente tried to visit family in June, he, his wife and child were turned back at the airport by Cuban authorities.

The exhibition can be seen on multiple levels dependent upon one's familiarity with Cuban culture, history and contemporary politics. But none of that is necessary to be seduced by the effervescent artworks that herald it. In the museum parking lot is Armando Marino's classic 1950s Plymouth, its chassis replaced by multiple pairs of bare-footed, dark-skinned legs. Elio Rodriguez's inflated black protuberances -- a cross between alien invasion and suggestive body parts -- wind across the roof and upper story of the satellite gallery at 1414 Monterey. Both are startling, a bit surreal, and certain to stimulate the imagination -- vintage Mattress Factory.

The socialist state declared an end to racism as a part of the reforms instituted during the 1960s revolution. But whatever progress had been made disappeared in the 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed, reducing funding to Cuba and resulting in the economic crisis of "The Special Period." As opportunities dried up, the already disadvantaged tended to suffer the most, an observation that makes the exhibition broadly applicable as economies shrink globally.

Artists who were educated in the egalitarian era before the turmoil began to reflect the issue of racism in their work. The first two "Queloides" exhibitions were held in Havana in 1997 and 1999. The time felt right for a third edition to Dr. de la Fuente, an authority on race in Cuba and a University Center for International Studies professor of history and Latin American studies at the University of Pittsburgh. A 2007 conversation with co-curator Elio Rodriguez sparked the process.

Enter the Mattress Factory, which has a history of giving voice to artists who would otherwise be unheard, from Eastern Europe to East Asia. In 2004-05, the museum presented "New Installations, Artists in Residence: Cuba," which included work by two artists in the current show, Meira Marrero and Jose Toirac, who collaborated with Loring McAlpin.

"In every country, artists are addressing issues of fairness and social justice ... . They give a visibility to hidden problems in a way that affects one on a visceral level," write museum co-directors Barbara Luderowski and Michael Olijnyk in the exhibition catalog.

Ironically, the Bush administration denied visas to the artists of the 2004 show, so their "residency" was virtual and physical works were completed per instruction by Mattress Factory staff. The 2010 artists were permitted to travel to Pittsburgh to create additional works for this venue.

The 2010-11 "Queloides" comprises video, installation, painting, photography and works on paper by 13 artists, five of whom have been represented in all three shows. All were Cuban-born, but several now live and/or work outside Cuba. Two are deceased, Pedro Alvarez and Belkis Ayon.

The Cuban cultural authorities at first approved the Havana show, but later tried to rescind their decision. To save it, Dr. de la Fuente agreed not to attend the exhibition even as he encouraged the artists to carry on. It was the month after the show closed that he tried to re-enter Cuba.

There were three guidelines thought important for the current show: That it open in Cuba, that it travel outside the country, and that it be accompanied by a catalog. The latter has significance in that it documents all of the "Queloides." The previous shows had been ignored by the Cuban art world and press and thus lost to memory.

As fascinating as is the context, the work carries the exhibition, suspending the viewer between visual language that is familiarly contemporary and more exotic references.

Mr. Marino's "The Raft" gains dimensionality if read as commentary on, perhaps, the exploitation of blacks in the Cuban labor market, Cuba's economic plight which keeps consumer goods out of the reach of many, or the various means islanders have employed in often failed attempts to reach the U.S. mainland (

Mr. Rodriguez's "Black Ceiba" conflates the Ceiba tree -- sacred to religious practices of indigenous peoples and Afro-Cuban syncretic cults -- with stereotypes of black sexuality and violent behavior.

Other senses come into play via the acrid smell of charred wood in Roberto Diago's solemn "Ascending City," and the kitchen sweetness of the walls of brown sugar bricks in Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons' transporting "Guardarraya." In this multimedia piece, viewers are guided to a projection that distorts like fun-house mirror reflections over a rectangle of refined white sugar on the floor. The video, and one on the wall, shows images of two women, one black and one white, embracing and exchanging a bouquet of flowers. Its sensuality is heightened by images of fruits, including several split pomegranates, a traditional symbol of feminine fertility in Western art.

As "Guardarraya" obliquely references the grassy passageways between thickly planted fields of sugar cane, Douglas Perez's imposing five-panel "Ecosystem" takes form from the large centipedes that populate those fields. But a closer look reveals rows of brown figures, some sporting clothing with brand logos, that morph into sickly and then skeletal shapes.

Fruit is one of the subjects that appears throughout the exhibition -- symbolic of Cuba's tropic lushness, of Latin stereotypes, of the offerings made by followers of Afro-Cuban religions. Alexis Esquivel designed tongue-in-cheek "Urban Sarayeye VAPROR -- 2059, Automatic Vehicle to Collect Religious Offerings," a robot to whisk away spoiling fruit left by devotees in public places more clinically than sanitation personnel who risk being accused of religious bias.

Religion is another thread that manifests through the exhibition. Marta Maria Perez Bravo uses her body as prop for powerful photographs that channel the mystical aura of Santeria, an Afro-Caribbean religion that combines Yoruba, Roman Catholic and Native Indian traditions.

In the stone-lined lower gallery is Mr. Toirac and Ms. Marrero's "Ave Maria," a table holding several versions of Cuba's patron Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, seemingly afloat on a blue sea of carpet. The statues, which range from kitsch to antique, each depict the Virgin Mary and the three Juans -- a Creole, an Indian and a slave -- that she saved during a storm, a display of folk belief that doubles as a plea for unity.

Manuel Arenas and Rene Pena more pointedly address race and the outsider status of the black male. On the far wall of Mr. Arenas' minimalist white cubical space are the words "Am I Not a Man and a Brother?," a phrase employed by the American abolitionist movement. Mr. Pena's photograph "Samurai" graces the catalog cover. The artist, nude save for a hat, holding a sword, and in a pose that references Donatello's "David," plays between Renaissance ideals of self-awareness and beauty, and cultural notions of blacks as threatening and unattractive.

There is more to explore, not the least being the many references to U.S. politics and culture that suggest Cubans are a lot more cognizant of what's happening here than we are of a country so near.

This "Queloides" continues a pluralistic and inclusive conversation on "racism, nation, history, and Cubanness" that began a dozen years ago, Dr. de la Fuente writes in the catalog. "From the island, some intellectuals cum bureaucrats are now trying to monopolize this conversation, to encapsulate it in sterile official commissions, and to hide it behind the mediocrity of patriotism and insularity. They are wasting their time.

" 'Queloides' proves it."

By Mary Thomas

From: Post-Gazette

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