Reconsidering Identity in Art (Review)


“Reconsidering Identity in Art” is a review of “Lydia Cabrera and Édouard Glissant: Trembling Thinking” by John Yau (Hyperallergic). Yau writes:

This is the kind of group exhibition that rarely happens in New York — a gathering of artists from different countries, cultures, generations, and aesthetic approaches focused on the construction of identity.

On March 25, 1941, Wifredo Lam (1902–1982) sailed from Marseille, France, to Cuba, where he was born. He was the child of a mixed marriage: his mother was Ana Serafina Castilla, whose legacy was Spanish and African, and his father was Enrique Yam-Lam, who was Cantonese. He was returning to a country that he had left nearly 20 years earlier, in 1923, when he sailed to Spain. During his journey home, he and his fellow passengers and friends, such as Andre Breton, were detained in Martinique because the Vichy government regarded them as traitors.

It was during this period of detention that he and Breton met the Martinican poet Aime Cesaire, who had written Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land) in 1938. In this book Cesaire used the term “Négritude,” a poetic and theoretical affirmation of African culture as it had manifested itself in the Caribbean. In 1943, Lam provided the illustrations for the Cuban edition, which was translated by Lydia Cabrera. The publication of this signal poem — which was the first and only time that Lam, Cesaire, and Cabrera collaborated — introduced the concept of Négritude to Cuba and its Spanish-speaking population.

Cesaire was not without his critics. The most important one was Édouard Glissant, a Martinican who was 15 years Cesaire’s junior. In the late 1940s, Glissant began formulating an alternative to Cesaire’s “Négritude.” The term he came up with was “Créolisation.” Cesaire had argued for a Pan-African identity for all people of African descent living in the diaspora, while Glissant believed in a non-hierarchical and local situation in which the children of mixed marriages could construct their own identity. Whereas Cesaire believe in a static sense of identity, Glissant believed in a fluid one.

Having written about Lam for the first time in 1988, I was naturally interested in the new exhibition, Lydia Cabrera and Édouard Glissant: Trembling Thinking, at the Americas Society (October 9, 2018–January 12, 2019), curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, Gabriela Rangel, and Asad Raza. Along with early editions of books by Cabrera and Glissant, magazines containing their articles, drawings by Cabrera, and a wonderful film interview with Glissant, the exhibition contains works done in different mediums by Etel Adnan, Kader Attia, Tania Bruguera, Manthia Diawara, Mestre Didi, Melvin Edwards, Simone Fattal, Sylvie Glissant, Koo Jeong A, Wifredo Lam, Marc Latamie, Roberto Matta, Julie Mehretu, Philippe Parreno, Amelia Peláez, Asad Raza, Anri Sala, Antonio Seguí, Diamond Stingily, Elena Tejada-Herrera, Jack Whitten, and Pedro Zylbersztajn. Many of the works — but not all — directly address or deal with Glissant and Cabrera and their considerations of identity.

In the catalog essay, “Trembling Thinking, or Ethnography of the Unknowable,” written jointly, the exhibition’s curators state: For Cabrera and Glissant, thinking beyond narrow understandings of identity was a practice of necessity — one from which we can learn. But in order to do so, we must listen to both carefully, as we live in a time of defenses erected against “others.”

At a time when the President of the United States can proudly announce that he is a “Nationalist” and the recently elected President of Brazil said that he would rather his son die than be gay, the self-determination of one’s identity has become a matter of life and death, whether it is as blunt and final as a death sentence or the lifelong agony of living a closeted life.

Later, in the same essay, the authors point out that Cabrera asserted that “there is no way to understand Cuba without studying its Black culture,” while Glissant believed “there was always something unknowable, something opaque, inside each person, which, rather than being what divides us, is what links us.” As more and more societies demand conformity and enforce an oppressive view of transparency, Glissant’s “opacity” presents an alternative.

Cabrera and Glissant did not have time to be cynical or ironic. For them, resistance was vital and could be enacted on many different levels and in many different ways, including their own writing, which challenges distinctions. Glissant was a poet, a philosopher, and novelist. Cabrera was a poet, artist, feminist, and prolific scholar of Afro-Cuban religions. If you are at all interested in any of these issues and the intellectual history of the Caribbean, especially in Cuba and Martinique, you should go see Lydia Cabrera and Édouard Glissant: Trembling Thinking. [. . .]

[Undated photograph of Lydia Cabrera with an unidentified man, left, and Fernando Ortiz, center.]

For full review, see

Also see previous post

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