The Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art in Harvard Square is currently showing the works of Juan Roberto Diago, an Afro-Cuban artist who aims to write a revisionist history for his nation. The exhibition, on view until May 5, features twenty-five mixed-media and installation works that meditate on the history of slavery, racism, and reconciliation in Cuba. The Harvard Crimson spoke with curator Alejandro de la Fuente, who is a professor and historian of Latin America and Caribbean history at Harvard.
The Harvard Crimson: How were the works chosen for the exhibit? Is it reflective of different periods in Diago’s output?
Alejandro de la Fuente: This is a retrospective exhibition, so I was interested in selecting works that would showcase how Diago’s artistic creation has evolved over the last 20 years or so, both in terms of visual elements and in terms of the use of materials, which are very important to his work. I was particularly interested in selecting works that speak to what I see as a central thread in his work, which is his preoccupation with history and the need to articulate new histories of the Cuban nation from the point of view of the experiences of a person of African descent.
THC: Could you tell me more about this narrative that he’s responding to?
AF: The official narrative links the creation of the Cuban nation with the efforts and the contributions to a limited number of white patriots. People of African descent play a minor and subordinate role … and experiences such as dynamic growth and creation of the nation are looked through very Western eyes. But what people like Diago try to do is try to recenter that history by noting that the history of the Cuban nation is also a history of rape, a history of violence, a history of slave trade of hundreds of thousands of Africans, a history of racism, a history of exclusion. … So it’s a very different narrative from what Cuba is about, and a very different narrative of how Cuba came to be as a nation.
THC: And do you know how Diago came to be interested in revising his country’s history? Any personal experiences growing up, intellectual encounters in school?
AF: So he grew up in a very modest neighborhood in Havana. He grew up in a family that was deeply connected to Cuban popular culture and that had a deep respect for Afro-Cuban popular culture. One of his grandfathers was a very well-known Afro-Cuban painter, and one of his great-uncles was a very noted ethnomusicologist who basically devoted all his life to the study of Afro-Cuban popular music. … I think the fact that he came of age as an artist in the 1990s is very important, because this was when Cuba was in the midst of a major economic social crisis, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. So in a situation like that, social and racial tensions increased significantly, and it is precisely in that context that Diago comes to age and he begins to work. And that context was a context in which he became acutely aware of issues of racial justice and issues concerning discrimination and the persistence of racism in Cuban society.
THC: I noticed that he used a lot of industrial materials in his works. Could you tell me a bit about that?
AF: To him those materials are a way to connect with some of the social realities the people of African descent confront. Poor people make their houses with pieces of wood and metal scraps that they find, industrial residue, things like that.
THC: Did he just get them off the streets?
AF: Yeah, those materials—like the wood on the walls when you’re going up the ramp in the front— are woods that he collected over about two years in poor neighborhoods in Havana.
THC: I also wanted to ask about the one piece made of rope that goes up the second ramp. Does rope have any significance?
AF: Yeah, that piece represents a scar, which is something that you also find in many of his works. But if you look closely at the piece itself, the technique is of dreadlocks that people of African descent use for their hair.
THC: And the thing that stood out to me most in the exhibit was the recurring motif of the ghostly face.AF: You noticed that that face is a generic face, right? It’s not detailed, and it lacks a mouth. It refers to how slavery and the slave trade basically render humans into merchandise, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the inability of those people to tell their own stories. You probably noticed also how many of his works are built with different fragments—pieces that are stitched together. Those pieces also speak to how fragmented the history of African descent is. We have to reconstruct those stories using very, very imperfect fragments. And in that sense each work is also an exercise in historical reconstruction by itself.
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