In some famous words of Requiem for a nun (1951), William Faulkner said that the past never dies, and that it is not even past. This idea of the past as part of the present is an essential key to comprehend the art of Juan Roberto Diago (Havana, 1971). It is also an organizing concept of Diago: The Pasts of this Afro-Cuban Present, a retrospective of his work exhibited at the Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art in Cambridge, Massachusetts from February 2nd to May 5th, 2017. This show, like the two previous ones which included Diago’s work, Keloids: Race and Racism in Cuban Contemporary Art and Drapetomania: Grupo Antillano and The Art of Afro-Cuba, found an enthusiastic audience in Boston environments thanks to the efforts of Alejandro de la Fuente, professor of history and director-founder of the Institute of Afro-Latin American Research at the University of Harvard, university entity with which the Cooper Gallery is associated through the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research.
(…) On Friday, February 3rd, Diago and de la Fuente cordinated a seminar at the Cooper Gallery, presided by the gallery director Vera Ingrid Grant. The author of these lines also attended this reflection between the curator historian and the historian artist on the theme of the AfroCuban experience, both past and current, collective as well as personal, assumed a prominent role. Before conceding the floor, Grant elucidated briefly the genesis of this first retrospective of Diago’s that is composed of 26 works on diverse supports made between 1993 and 2016. According to Grant, the idea came up during Drapetomanía (…) At that time, Grant and de la Fuente were already making plans to show a Diago’s restrospective despite the artist’s relative youth. In her presentation at the seminar Grant observed that for her, Diago’s work represent “a kind of fulfillment, a certain sculptural quality, a marvelous experience of a work that could be understood as bas-relief sculptures.”
With this opinion Grant made an implicit reference to the subject- matter esthetic axis of keloids within Diago’s work. The term keloid refers to pronounced scars on the skin due to wounds, condition that historically has been associated with the black skin. In the piece Untitled (2011) chosen for the catalogue and other advertising materials for the exhibit, a strand of a tied rope joins two parts of a portrait, bifurcating the face just at the mouth level. That reiterated use of the structural keloid seen in the exhibit associates orality and expression itself with the wound, forced silence and fragmentation. No Puedo Hablar (I cannot speak, 2000), another work in the exhibition, could be considered a sister image of this first emblematic figure. In this work, the same words of the title are placed instead of the mouth, and Diago has used the keloid technique to outline the face and the body figure, suggesting in another way a wound in the identity, that even though it has healed, it leaves a palpable and determinant trace. (…)