Grupo Antillano, The Art Of Afro-Cuba

Contemporary Art

Being in Cuba for Chanel Cruise‘s presentation is the occasion for us to focus on Grupo Antillano, an Afro-Cuban visual arts and cultural movement that thrived between 1978 and 1983 and has been virtually erased from Cuban cultural and artistic history. 

Grupo Antillano members
Grupo Antillano: Rafael Queneditt Morales (founder), Esteban Guillermo Ayala Ferrer, Osvaldo Castilla Romero, Manuel Couceiro Prado, Herminio Escalona González, Ever Fonseca Cerviño, Ramón Haiti Eduardo, Angel Laborde Wilson, Manuel Mendive Hoyo, Lionel Morales Pérez Painting and textile design, Claudina Clara Morera Cabrera, Miguel de Jesús Ocejo López, Marcos Rogelio Rodríguez Cobas, Arnaldo Tomás Rodríguez Larrinaga, Oscar Rodríguez Lasseria, Pablo Daniel Toscano Mora.

Grupo Antillano articulated a vision of Cuban culture that underscored the importance of Africa and of Afro-Caribbean influences in the formation of the Cuban nation. In contrast to the official characterization of Santeria and other African religious and cultural practices as primitive and outdated during the 1970s, Grupo Antillano valiantly proclaimed the centrality of African practices in national culture. They viewed Africa and the surrounding Caribbean as a vibrant, ongoing, and vital influence that continued to define what it meant to be Cuban. Some Afro-Cuban intellectuals proclaimed that a “new,” authentic Cuban art (radical, popular, black) had been born.

Leonel Morales Pérez, Ochún, 1978
Leonel Morales Pérez, Ochún, 1978 Courtesy Alejandro de la Fuente

During its five years of existence, Grupo Antillano articulated a new vision of Cuban culture through the visual arts. This vision was popular, radical, Caribbean, Maroon, African, revolutionary. As the founding manifesto of the Group claims, they did not want to promote a new artistic concept, but rather sought to highlight the centrality of Africa in Cuban culture and to debunk dominant narratives that equated Cuban progress and modernity with European influences. They valiantly opposed the persistent belief, supported by vast sectors of the Cuban bureaucracy in the 1970s, that Afro-Cuban religious practices were backward, primitive and grotesque–a “remnant of the past,” as they were frequently described at the time. Cuba, Grupo Antillano proclaimed, was quintessentially an Afro-Caribbean nation. Cuban modernity was anchored in the knowledge, the aesthetics, the cultures and the sweat and blood of the African peoples. “We are not interested in other worlds,” their foundational manifesto asserted.

Elio Rodríguez Valdés, Selva en las Paredes (Jungle on the Walls), 2012
Elio Rodríguez Valdés, Selva en las Paredes (Jungle on the Walls), 2012 Courtesy Alejandro de la Fuente

The art of Grupo Antillano belongs to a long tradition of Caribbean resistance and cultural assertion. It is part of what Haitian writer René Depestre described as the African slaves’ “prodigious effort at legitimate defense” and “ideological cimarronaje” (from “cimarrón” or runaway slave) by which they managed to recreate their pasts and cultures in the new world.

Manuel Mendive, Barco Negrero (Slave Ship), 1976
Manuel Mendive, Barco Negrero (Slave Ship), 1976 Courtesy Alejandro de la Fuente

In an article published in the mid-19th century, a medical doctor in a Louisiana plantation described a new disease among slaves. The most visible symptom of this disease, called drapetomania, was an irrepressible and pathological urge to flee and to be free. A form of resistance practiced by African slaves since the beginnings of European colonization in the Americas was transformed into a psychiatric disease, a deviation of the natural order.

It is thanks to the work of a large number of Caribbean intellectuals–like those involved in this exhibit–that what was described by the racist pseudo-science of the 19th century as an expression of disorder became a symbol of rebellion and resistance against European colonial oppression–the foundations of a new order. In the twentieth century, Caribbean thinkers such as Aimé Césaire, René Dépestre, Edward Kamau Brathwaite and Édouard Glissant conceptualized cimarronaje as an expression of cultural resistance and as a central feature of Caribbean identity. It is in this tradition of identity-building and Caribbean assertiveness that the work of Grupo Antillano needs to be analyzed.

Founded by sculptor and engraver Rafael Queneditt Morales, Grupo Antillano’s foundational manifesto stated clearly that they wanted to recreate the Caribbean and African foundations of an authentic Cuban culture. They also made clear that, to them, Africa was a lively and vital cultural reference, not a dead historical heritage. Fortunately, as Édouard Glissant once stated, the runaway slaves’ indomitable resistance is still with us. Fortunately, we have that history, our history, the history that Grupo Antillano tried to reconstruct and to tell.

In 2013 Drepatomania a tribute-exhibition was organized to celebrate the visual arts and cultural movement that privileged the importance of Africa and Afro-Caribbean influences in the formation of the Cuban nation. The exhibition was curated by historian Alejandro de la Fuente.

A book of the exhibition was released. The book seeks to recover and to honor that art. The book Grupo Antillano is divided into five sections. The first offers testimonials by artists and intellectuals linked to Grupo Antillano, including its creator, Rafael Queneditt. The second section contains essays by Cuban and American art critics and historians. The third uses documents, catalogs, photographs, and press notes to reconstruct the exhibits of Grupo Antillano between 1978 and 1983. A fourth section examines the work of each of the artists in the group, including Cuba’s most famous painter Wifredo Lam, who worked with Grupo Antillano between 1979 and 1982, the year of his death. The final section follows contemporary artists who participate in an exhibit that pays tribute to the work of Grupo Antillano.

Grupo Antillano members were Rafael Queneditt Morales (Sculpture and engraving), Esteban Guillermo Ayala Ferrer (Graphic and environmental design), Osvaldo Castilla Romero (Sculpture and gold and silver work), Manuel Couceiro Prado (Painting), Herminio Escalona González (Sculpture), Ever Fonseca Cerviño (Painting and Engraving), Ramón Haiti Eduardo (Painting and Sculpture), Angel Laborde Wilson (Painting, drawing, ceramics, humor), Manuel Mendive Hoyo (Painting, drawing and performance), Lionel Morales Pérez Painting and textile design, Claudina Clara Morera Cabrera (Painting), Miguel de Jesús Ocejo López (Painting and Drawing), Marcos Rogelio Rodríguez Cobas (Sculpture, drawing, ceramics and painting), Arnaldo Tomás Rodríguez Larrinaga (Painting and Drawing), Oscar Rodríguez Lasseria (Ceramics, sculpture, drawing), Pablo Daniel Toscano Mora (Painting, Drawing, Cartoons, Graphic design).

Buy the book: Grupo Antillano: The Art of Afro-Cuba (English and Spanish Edition)

Cet article est disponible en: Français

May. 2, 2016

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