Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 16, 2015
Alejandro de la Fuente, ed. Grupo Antillano: The Art of Afro-Cuba Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013. 348 pp.; 450 color ills.; 210 b/w ills. Paper $49.95 (9780822962557)

Published on the occasion of the exhibition Drapetomanía: Grupo Antillano and the Art of Afro-Cuba, this volume is on a mission. Grupo Antillano, a diverse group of artists and intellectuals, was active in Cuba between 1978–83—spanning the moment (1981) when the so-called “New Cuban Art” first rose to prominence. But while the latter movement has become the global face of contemporary Cuban art, the work of Antillano is all but unknown, whether on the island or beyond. With this ambitious exhibition and book project, curator, historian, and essayist Alejandro de la Fuente means to correct that omission.

Grupo Antillano’s propelling vision was of the reclamation of the African roots of Cuban culture and the reinstallation of those cultural traditions at the center of cubanía. Essentially a black power project,1 the group encountered resistance and opposition from several directions: from a cultural bureaucracy wary of their racialism; from a younger generation of artists weary of the enforced identity politics that had, in various iterations, guided much of the island’s visual production for decades; and, from abroad, by critics who found their work stale and over-familiar, and who preferred the conceptualist experiments beginning to be produced by somewhat younger artists at the time. The political battle being waged by Antillano on behalf of Cuban culture’s deep indebtedness to Africa did not register for those outsiders; and for those who were indeed able to read between the local cultural lines their project was complicated, caught in the shifting political winds that were continually repositioning the official line on race, religion, and African relations, among many other subjects. For that matter, the group itself had a hand in its own isolation: as they declared in their founding manifesto, as quoted in the volume, “The Antilles are our real environment. . . . We are not interested in other worlds” (71). And so those other worlds, which were just beginning to be interested in Cuba’s visual arts, were likewise not interested in Grupo Antillano.

De la Fuente’s work on Antillano follows an earlier cycle of exhibitions presented under the title Queloides; he was the co-curator of the third of those projects. Those shows also focused on the theme of race and, more pointedly, on racism, as it has played out in Cuba; and the controversy to which it gave rise (de la Fuente was barred from attending the opening of one of the shows in its Cuban venue) is a pretty clear indication of the extreme sensitivity to discussions of race among some authorities on the island: although the Cuban Revolution claimed to have eradicated racism early on, that was never the case in reality, and in more recent times the problem has, arguably, become even more intense and intransigent.

The volume is a useful archival resource, with an extensive section of documents pertaining to Antillano’s exhibition history, along with reproductions of publications and reviews. Nearly two-thirds of the volume’s pages are devoted to the artists who worked under Antillano’s umbrella, with images of their work and excerpts from texts by various critics, some of them contemporaneous and some dating as far back as the 1960s. The latter of these, in particular, provide a fascinating time capsule of intellectual and stylistic trends in Cuban art criticism over the past few decades.

The text by Guillermina Ramos Cruz (“Tribute to the Grupo Antillano [I]”) is largely structured around a retrospective contest between the artists affiliated with Grupo Antillano and another group that coalesced—if loosely—as a result of the 1981 exhibition Volumen Uno. Ironically, both Antillano and the Volumen Uno artists were pushing back against the prescriptions (and proscriptions) of a state-mandated approach to culture, but they pushed in different directions: for Antillano it was an insistence on a cubanía that derived from the African cultural roots that had been written out of history at various moments. As Rafael Queneditt Morales writes, “For years we suffered cruel exclusion against anything that had to do with African roots, which were only seen as a religious phenomena [sic], not cultural. There were efforts to distort the true source of the reason for our existence—our identity. They thought that by eliminating all vestige or trace of black people they would be able to change the way a culture, in this case Cuban culture, was formed. That is where the story we need to tell begins” (3–4). Nearly opposite to that centripetal historicism, on the other hand, the artists of Volumen Uno, along with those few who supported them in the critical and administrative apparatus, were looking outward, against the insularity of the revolutionary call to national identity and toward global belonging in the contemporary (“The important thing is that one senses new air, full of the smell of fresh paint and of a vital, restless and optimistic enthusiasm. Welcome!” [Gerardo Mosquera, untitled text in pamphlet, Volumen Uno, 1981, unpaginated]). The artists of Grupo Antillano were caught in a bind, producing work that opposed the stylistic and thematic preferences of the official line, to be sure, but also out of synch with the aesthetic and conceptual tendencies that were ascendant beyond the island. As such, their work found no comfortable alliances, and it is not difficult to imagine why—even aside from the political pressures detailed by de la Fuente—they were so readily left aside. This is a shame, as some are truly extraordinary: Rogelio Rodríguez Cobas’s eccentric, burnished Satélite series, for example, was a revelation for this viewer, as were the sculptures by Herminio Escalona González.

Ramos Cruz’s extensive essay provides a long historical view of how blackness has figured (or not) in the history of Cuban image-making—a history troubled by racism that has persisted through colonial, republican, and revolutionary eras. (It is worth noting, as she does, that the San Alejandro Academy of Fine Arts—the country’s premier art school until the founding of the Instituto Superior de Arte in the 1970s—was actually founded (1818) to “take the fine arts professions out of the hands of free blacks and pardos [mixed race]” (20).) Ramos Cruz, who was a member of Grupo Antillano, provides compelling insight into the group’s ideas and attitudes in relation to the environment in which they worked, but her essay suffers from the resentments that have percolated in the years since they were active: it is so focused on Antillano’s agenda that it becomes oddly blinkered at times—for instance, Manuel Mendive’s work is discussed only in terms of its relation to African cultural traditions, to the exclusion of the other (very prominent) ways in which folkloric elements are foundational in it.

Grupo Antillano’s focus challenged not only the official stance on racism, it also went against the grain of the revolutionary government’s position on religion which, though varied over the years, was generally opposed to religious observance of any denomination. Spiritual and cultural affiliations are probably always difficult to disarticulate from each other, but this is especially the case in the Afro-Cuban context; and while the group was not explicitly religious, they seem to have been drawing a finer line on the matter than was in general circulation. (Queneditt parsed it as follows: “Our first impetus was artistic, not religious. There may have been religious people in the group [I am one], but we didn’t speak about this” [quoted in Bettelheim, 39].)

While Grupo Antillano’s focus on the African roots of Cuban culture may have bought them trouble, they were far from the only artists who were looking in that direction. This makes Bettelheim’s claims that racism among critics at the time explains the exclusion of the Antillano artists somewhat specious: among the critics she implicates, in fact, Mosquera was an ardent supporter of artists like José Bedia, Ricardo Brey, and Juan Francisco Elso, whose work was no less fundamentally informed by their interests in and research into Afro-Cuban culture.2 (In fact, Mosquera was at the time immersed in research into the cultural traditions that had been brought to Cuba by slaves; he was also the curator of the Havana Biennial responsible for African participation.)

While racism and religion were factors in Antillano’s invisibility, there was another and much more pedestrian contributing factor: they were seen, both on the island and off, as old news. Their emphasis on craft and on identity politics either masked or failed to coincide with the progressive political platform that they were articulating. As Tonel (Antonio Eligio Fernández), an artist associated with the 1980s generation, was to remark later on, Grupo Antillano “didn’t represent the ‘new,’ and for some younger artists or writers like me, they even represented some kind of conservatism. . . . Now that I think about it, it might be possible to say that there was a distance between the progressive ideology that Antillano was trying to put forward (a certain version of identity politics, always problematic in the post-1959 Cuban context) and the aesthetics (can we say ‘modernist’?) they were embracing” (quoted in Bettelheim, 44–45).

De la Fuente’s own essay, “Drapetomania: Grupo Antillano and Cultural Cimarronaje,” is a fascinating account of cultural politics over the long course of Cuba’s struggle to define itself as a nation. His reading of the fluid relations between political events and ideas circulating in culture is fascinating, building an especially solid and careful account of the politics of culture and of race in various moments of the revolutionary period and of how artists and intellectuals have navigated and engaged that complexity. By situating Grupo Antillano within an extended history of cultural resistance that, in the Cuban case, has taken an extraordinary number of forms, he makes the strongest case for the relevance of looking at them anew today.

Rachel Weiss
Professor, Department of Arts Administration and Policy, School of the Art Institute of Chicago

1 There are several terms of this sort used in the volume to characterize the group: in her essay “Grupo Antillano, Revisited,” Judith Bettelheim refers to them as “a black consciousness art collective” (35).

2 “Was the complete lack of recognition by art historians and art critics a result of the fact that their production could not be discussed under the more global discourse on conceptual or installation art, as exemplified by the younger artists associated with Volumen Uno? Or do these factors, combined with unstated, but certainly existent, racial prejudice account for the erasure of Grupo Antillano from art history texts?” (39–40)

Full disclosure: I am one of the critics who wrote about Volumen Uno and not about Grupo Antillano.