The commitment to an even-handed neutrality toward ethnicity often promised by Communist states has been difficult for many to believe, including the twenty Afro-Cuban artists who exhibited as the Grupo Antillano from 1978 to the mid-eighties. Though diverse in media and styles, they all affirm the island’s Afro-Cuban roots. Rejected by younger artists and cultural authorities, their cause never dominated Cuban art. Over several years, Alejandro de la Fuente, a Harvard historian of comparative slavery and race relations, has located work by original participants, as well as younger artists with similar concerns.
Afro-Caribbean spirituality is one theme: though some artists are devoted to Santeria and one is an Orunmila priest, there is no indication that any work was intended to serve a religious function. Rafael Queneditt Morales, the founder of the group, created a new sculptural installation, “Resurrection,” for this show. A life-sized Baroque angel, with wings colored like the Cuban flag, it stands in front of a ponderous wooden cross. Its iconographic details propose a multi-ethnic, multi-religious nationality. Rather than offering a spiritual experience, it appears like a political cartoon. Likewise, most other pieces reference, rather than express, spirituality. The sexy, bizarre and beautifully carved “Satélite” by Rogelio Rodríguez Cobas comes closest to being a venerable artifact.
The show is more seriously concerned with the grim legacy of slavery, which has lent the exhibition its name, “Drapetomania,” the frenzy to escape, as diagnosed by a racist Louisiana physician in 1851. As presented by the artists, slavery destroyed community, culture, personal identity and even life itself. Joining the American tradition of abstract expression, Alberto Lescay effectively responds with despair and anger. Mastering the European tradition of figure drawing, José Bedia dramatically depicts the degradation of sexual abuse. In an installation of life-size stuffed leather dolls, Elio Rodríguez Valdés presents a tableaux of torture as beautiful as it is horrifying.
Only a few pieces move beyond the didactic and only six of twenty-seven artists are women, but the diversity of this collection of post-Revolution Afro-Cuban art is fascinating. (Chris Miller)
Through October 16 at the DuSable Museum of African American History, 740 East 56th