Without Masks… regarding a collection of (Afro) Cuban art

/ 8 December, 2013

How did the idea emerge of creating a collection with a profile centered on “Afro-Cuban art” by a South African collector who lives in England? Was the curating an interest of yours as a critic and curator? Was it the collector’s suggestion?

It was a proposal of mine that the collector immediately accepted, as if he had always wanted to have a collection like this one. (…) I had never curated a private collection or worked as an art advisor for a collector. (…) I told him that I thought it would be appropriate to make a contemporary art collection precisely along the lines of our “African heritage” and the culture and problems of Cuba’s black population. It was an issue (or set of issues) that had always interested me, and in which I had worked only in spurts, and this would give me the opportunity to develop it more extensively. Secondly, whether the collection was privately or publicly owned, it should have a public character, that is, it should circulate, especially in countries where Africans or people of African descent live, which basically means internationally, given that the African and African-American diaspora are all over the world. And lastly, that this collection should generate publications, videos, conferences, and debates to accompany its exhibitions, to address and discuss questions like discrimination and racism, which continue to affect black people in Cuba today and all over the world, and to denounce racial stereotypes. In another sense, all of this should demonstrate the existence of racial consciousness among Cuba’s black and mulatto population, which has a history that has been hidden or unknown due to the hegemonically white character of our society, and the consequent importance that has been given to the processes of “whitening” and the theory of miscegenation. The collection should also reflect the extensive presence in our society of different religions of African origin (Osha, Ifá, Palo Monte, Abakuá), in which millions of Cubans of all colors participate. (…) Finally, as a subject that had never been included in the “Afro-Cuban” category, we wanted to introduce Cuba’s presence in Africa (…).

We should demonstrate our ties to black or sub-Saharan Africa, and not just at the racial, cultural and religious levels, but also at the political and military ones. Many Cubans, black and white, fought and died in Angola, Ethiopia, the Congo and other African countries; or they left family there that they’ve never seen again; or they returned wounded or psychologically affected, as happens in all wars. That has been a more or less taboo subject, or it has always been reflected with a triumphalist attitude. Until now, the topic has been represented in our collection through the work of Carlos Garaicoa and José Bedia, but I am sure that there are many other artistic representations by creators who participated or whose relatives participated or died in those wars.

When was the collection shown for the first time and why did you choose the title Without Masks?

The title has to do with the frankness or sincerity that should be used in addressing this subject (…) We selected some 80 works by 26 artists of the approximately 100 works that we had at that time, because even though we occupied six of the JAG’s exhibition halls, not everything fit. We were not interested in following an alphabetical order, or a thematic or technical one, in setting up the works; instead, we did it by birth date: from the oldest to the youngest, and beginning with those who had passed away. This is the same respectful attitude followed by our afrocuban religions. The exhibition therefore opened with Jay Matamoros, who, while he might seem relatively distant from “contemporary,” participated in different moments of Cuban art from the late 1930s until his death in 2008, so he could be considered as a revered ancestor of our collection. Then, we presented the work by Belkis Ayón and Pedro Álvarez, who, together with Matamoros, made up a trio of late artists included in the collection. In order of age, they were followed by Manuel Mendive, the self-taught artists Julián González and Bernardo Sarría, Santiago Rodríguez Olazábal, Ricardo Brey, René Peña, Moises Finalé, José Bedia, Marta María Pérez, Rubén Rodríguez, Magdalena Campos, Juan Carlos Alom, Elio Rodríguez, Carlos Garaicoa, Oswaldo Castillo, Alexis Esquivel, Armando Mariño, Ibrahim Miranda, Alexandre Arrechea, Juan Roberto Diago, Douglas Pérez, José Angel Vincench until we reached the youngest until now, which is Yoan Capote. The order could have been different, of course; we could have assembled all of the works that refer to race on one side, and religious-themed ones on another, but there are always works that combine different problems—racial identity, social, religious.

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