Afro-Cuba unmasked

2010-07-24 13:57

There’s more to art than simply calling it, “that which artists do”. At least that’s the implicit message in Without Masks – Contemporary Afro-Cuban Art, currently on at the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG).

The exhibition brings together the work of 26 artists from ­Cuba.

Their work explores “the two themes that inextricably link the history and culture of Cuba and Africa – that of the ongoing issue of race within contemporary Cuban society; and the ­African religious beliefs and practices that thrive in Cuba ­today having been brought to the island from West and Central Africa by slaves”, the show’s curator, Orlando Hernandez, ­explains in the brochure.

The show, while highlighting and exploring the texture of ­Africa’s diaspora in Cuba, battles with codifying a visual language for talking about things that can’t be pronounced or named in public spaces.

These may be unsavoury political ideas or insights to religious secret societies.

The result, as seen in the art of the late Belkis Ayón Manso, is a body of work that can be read as multitextual.

Manso’s work combines the mythology of the Sikan and the traditions of the Abakuá, a male-only religious secret society.

She also explores personal feminine themes.

Her pieces are code for those versed in the sacred rites of these societies.

Perfidia (perfidy), a black-and-white collagraph rendered on heavy paper, portrays ghostly faceless figures undertaking a ­sacred ceremony.

One is clasping a sacrificial rooster – alluding to voodoo. The piece can be a ­comment about having private conversations in public.

Other artists on show include Roberto Diago Durruthy, Alexis Esquivel, Reuben Rodriguez ­Martinez and Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons to name a few.

Explaining the male gender- ­bias in the selection of artists, Hernandez (the curator) is ­quoted as saying that the issues dealt with here are not taken up much by women artists in Cuba.

Perhaps this fact makes the show even more exceptional, both in theme and scale.

Alexandre Arrechea’s White Corner, a looped eight-minute, two-video channel installation, looks at more secular ideas – the potential violent clash between Cuba’s history and its contemporary experience, or perhaps the island’s communist revolutionary spirit and its anxious relationship with the US, its huge supercapitalist neighbour.

The piece focuses on the possibility of tragedy, though finding space for ­humour, as if to say “we laugh because we actually want to cry”.

» Without Masks – Contemporary Afro-Cuban Art runs at JAG until August 29 

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