Cuban resilience shines at Harvard—A review of “Drapetomanía: Grupo Antillano and the Art of Afro-Cuba”


Cate McQuaid reviews “Drapetomanía: Grupo Antillano and the Art of Afro-Cuba,” which is on view in the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art at the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University through May 29, 2015:

Grupo Antillano has largely slipped through the cracks of Cuban art history. The movement, active from 1978 to 1983, celebrated African and Afro-Caribbean influences in Cuban culture. [. . .] It’s a strong show, woven with turmoil and hope.

Communist rule in many ways honored Cuba’s ethnic diversity, but it espoused atheism, and Grupo Antillano artists often used religious symbols. Maybe that’s why it was written out. Then, the movement was run over by another, known as New Cuban Art, which brought to the fore younger artists concerned with installation, performance, and conceptual art. The artists of Grupo Antillano were mostly painters and sculptors.

“Drapetomanía,” organized by Alejandro de la Fuente, director of Harvard’s Afro-Latin American Research Institute, takes its name from a diagnosis applied to enslaved workers in the American South. It describes a pathological urge to escape. Slavery was abolished in Cuba in 1886.

Issues of oppression, liberation, and redemption play throughout the exhibition. Santiago Rodríguez Olazábal’s powerful mixed-media painting “La suerte del mayoral / The Foreman’s Luck,” which depicts a ragged black figure tied to a tree, a geyser of blood spurting from his chest, hangs strikingly beside Oscar Rodríguez Lasseria’s “Inframundo /Underworld,” a painting of a supine black man, apparently interred. A white echo of the man rises above him; a snowy scrim joins the two.

[. . .] Elio Rodríguez Valdés’s “Selva en las Paredes / Jungle on the Walls” visits the same contradictions. Soft sculptures, abstracted figures made of white leather, dance across the wall. Look closer, and you’ll see chains and padlocks. Are they dancing now?

Most of the art — by the original Grupo Antillano artists and younger ones working in the same vein — was made in this century. Only a handful of pieces date to the organization’s heyday. Manuel Couceiro’s untitled painting from 1977 sports a design of abstracted, interlocking figures — a recurring motif here, depicting a tight-knit community.

Leonel Morales, another original member, paints brilliant, patterned, symmetrical renderings of Yoruban deities. “El mar de las Antillas / The Antillean Sea” likely portrays the sea goddess Yemaya, floating amid polka-dotted waves and smaller figures who carry offerings. [. . . ]

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