Afro-Cuban artist Roberto Diago says Havana and Charleston have more in common than you think

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A report by Adam Manno for the Charleston City Paper.

Inside the lobby of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, artist Roberto Diago pointed me toward a cardboard box on the floor.

“Yeah, let’s talk here,” he said.

Diago’s friend, Carmen Santamarina, asked where I was from. When I answered ‘Dominican’, she said, “Oh well, we’re similar. Sit down.”

The cardboard boxes are part of a new composition titled “Las iniciales de la tierra,” or “The Initials of the Earth,” meant to outlast Diago’s current exhibition at the Halsey when it exhausts its run on March 3.

Diago instructs his wife, Mairene, and a friend to keep working on the piece while we talk, advising them to mark their place with a Sharpie as they run fabric through holes lining the edges of the boxes.

The artist, 46, is tall, dark and decisive as he explains the art surrounding us — all part of “La Historia Recordada,” which weaves together abstract pieces created with found objects. This technique, he says, began with the período especial, or the special period, a time of scarcity and famine in Cuba following the dissolution of the island’s most important economic partner, the Soviet Union, in the early 1990s.

Cuba is an ethnically-mixed country plagued with colorism; negative perceptions of Afro-Cubans trickle down into everything from the over-sexualization of black women, as seen in the myth of “la mulata,” to stark social and economic marginalization.

Diago’s focus is on stories of the African diaspora, particularly those of Afro-Cubans.

“This compares with the tradition in Charleston,” he says. “Different things because, well, every place has its own dynamic, but there are things in common: the cultural resistance, how you adapt to adversity through music and religion, how they took instruments away from slaves and how they started using their bodies, their feet, to find rhythm.”

A series of canvases dedicated to Ogún, the Yoruba god of metal (and rum), depicts barrels of oil torn open and welded together to form a monochromatic pattern. A raised texture is formed where the different barrels meet.

“In the case of African Americans, our skin is marked by a type of scar,” he explains. “So with that scar, I made a whole series.”

A striking whole-room installation, inspired by the burning and looting practices of Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram, consists of burnt pieces of black wood piled on top of each other. Another series consists of strings of fabric — much like the ones Diago and company are threading through boxes in the lobby — that are painted black and arranged vertically side-by-side, broken by a momentary succession of red strings.

ADAM MANNO

“Art isn’t a closed medium of political discourse,” he cautions. “”Everyone has the possibility to see what they want. I offer 50 percent of the communication, and the other 50 is always put forth by the public.”

A few minutes later, three visitors spot us speaking Spanish, and perhaps recognizing Diago, ask about the piece. He explains that he was inspired by injuries caused by whips tearing through skin in Steven McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, and invited them to feel the texture.

Diago had a hard time getting to the U.S. this year. He came to Charleston to check out the space last year. Since then, rising tensions between the Cuban and American governments, evidenced by President Trump’s new restrictions on travel to Cuba and by the allegations of hearing loss by American embassy staff in Havana, have made it harder to get a visa out of the country, and even limited American tourism in to the island, Diago says.

“I can hear fine, but whatever, there’s a lot of fear and panic,” he says. “I don’t even know what to tell you, because I dare you to find a country safer than Cuba.”

In the American market, there exists, well, a market. Though the Cuban government fully funds education and does its best to promote the arts, galleries mostly exist for the pleasure of the general public, many of them students. In recent years, President Obama’s policies led to a strong economic incentive for local artists to court American collectors, dealers, and museums.

“It was even funny because a lot of clients would explain my art,” he says of people who made multiple trips after seeing his work, often bringing friends the second time around. “I didn’t even have to talk anymore, they would explain it all.”

A student walked into the building and asked Diago for the bathroom. Santamaria, his friend, pointed the student towards a nearby hallway.

When it comes to the fabric running through the cardboard boxes in the lobby, he concedes that that’s one thing he can’t explain:

“One of the things I’ve always liked about art is that, until it’s finished, I don’t know how it’ll end up.”

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