Clea Simon (Harvard Gazette) writes that the new exhibition of works by mixed-media artist Juan Roberto Diago melds history with imagery. She is referring to “Diago: The Pasts of This Afro-Cuban Present,” curated by Alejandro de la Fuente. The exhibit is now on view at the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art (Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, 102 Mt. Auburn Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts). Here are excerpts from Simon’s review:
Slavery is in Cuba’s past, but, as in the United States, its legacy continues. That is the ongoing career theme of mixed-media artist Juan Roberto Diago, who will exhibit 25 pieces in “Diago: The Pasts of This Afro-Cuban Present,” a career retrospective at the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art.
“There was a cultural legacy imposed on this country and a lot of bad thinking has been carried over,” said the artist, speaking by phone from Havana, through translator Gabriela Herrara. Using his pieces — which are of paint and found objects, often including construction material — he “tries to talk about the legacy of slavery and how it continues, going into our days.”
[. . .] Looking back, Diago describes how the history of Cuba itself contributed to his art. When the artist, who was born in 1971, finished his studies at the San Alejandro Academy of Fine Arts, in Havana, Cuba was entering the so-called “special period,” when the Soviet Union was collapsing, and Cuba was thrown into an economic crisis. Artists, at that point, “didn’t have any longer the material provided by the school. I didn’t have any other options than to go out into the street and look for what I could use.” “Whatever he could find, he would use,” the translator added.
The result is a powerful, sometimes rough-hewn body of work that mixes chunks of wood and plastic with swathes of paint and photos in pieces that may be reminiscent of Robert Rauschenberg or Frank Stella, whom Diago has met and who inspired him. Like Jean-Michel Basquiat, whom Diago also names as an influence, Diago’s art is largely focused on race and equality, issues that have tended to be downplayed in his island nation’s official history. [. . .]
The personal as well as the political plays into the timing of this retrospective. “Enough time has passed for artists of his time — the Afro-Cuban movement of the 1990s — for artists like Diago to have matured and to have created a body of work that we can assess across time,” said Fuente.
“I hope that in an exhibit like this people get to see Cuba beyond the caricatures,” added the curator, “beyond the headlines, that the Cuba story is part of a larger story.”