Without masks: Contemporary Afro-Cuban art

A review of the Cuban art exhibit at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, Joubert Park, in South Africa. Curated by Orlando Hernández, the exhibit runs until August 29. For more information, see our earlier post, Art exhibit explores Cuba’s African heritage, or go to the link below.

Chris von Christierson, who wrote the catalogue’s foreword, comments on the “imperfect liberation culture” in both the Cuban and South African identity. Armed with this phrase we go and taste what it is about Cuban art that we as South Africans can hold on to.

The exhibition, by prominent Cuban artists, is a mix of mediums, approaches and viewpoints, flowing across six rooms in the gallery. Everything from pre-colonial work to contemporary photographs and videos, political posters and spoofs on European political cartoons is here; one could almost say that there’s something for everyone.

Only … you may leave this complicated whirlwind of an exhibition feeling morose. The reflections on the struggle for identity are tinctured with horror and misery and an understanding of a sociopolitical promise that ended in disappointment.

However, all is not doom and gloom.

A couple of highlights add not only humour to the mix, but also intelligent reflection on one-liners. One of these is White Corner by 40-year-old Trinidad-born Alexandre Arrechea. It’s easy to look at and understand, but it grabs you by the heart and doesn’t let go.

Two brick walls meet, forming an outside corner. Each has a video of a black man with big hair (actually, the artist) projected on it. One man is armed with a club, the other with a machete. They stealthily approach one another, but are foiled by the corner. They never meet, they cannot, but they continue a kind of dance, always ready to smash each other’s brains out. The simple brilliance of the piece offers an astute reflection on internecine warfare and distrust.

Yoan Capote’s interactive El Beso (The Kiss) deserves engagement. Comprising a row of slightly larger-than-life noses cast in different media, it comes with an expectation: you must “kiss” them. Or, rather, you are induced to smell them: each has an inner pad with a distinctive odour. But in order to smell it, you have to come very close to it, tantamount to the Inuit nose-kiss.

The much-pierced face by Juan Carlos Alom Jiménez, commenting on colonialism, is the show’s public image, being on both the catalogue cover and the poster. Jiménez himself is one of the show’s headline names: he’s described in the catalogue as “a strange mix between Gypsy and maroon, cultivated artist and street-smart fidgety spirit”, and presents the mysterious divides in Cuban art. His Papucho, a bewilderingly beautiful photographic image of a man in water carrying a rock on his head, offers insight into this schism. It touches African religion at its core, but draws from Cuba, while using contemporary technology.

Push and pull between expected gestures about liberation and inequality, craft and art, haves and have-nots, punctuate this show. The less obvious and more subtle moments give this exhibition both humanity and kick.

For more go to

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