The Collection / About
The von Christierson Collection
By Orlando Hernández Pascual
We have given a double title to this collection: a metaphoric one (Without Masks) and a more descriptive one (Contemporary Afro-Cuban Art). Both titles express the thematic content of our project and the purpose we pursue. We wish to show on the one hand, new and original representations and appropriations that recent Cuban art has made based on our African heritage (preserved and developed by the religious communities known as Regla de Ocha or Santería, Ifá, Palo Monte and the Abakuá Secret Society), and on the other hand, to identify and include creations that reflect conflicting polemic areas of our national reality that have remained silenced for so long, and are little known outside of Cuba. We refer to the existence of racial prejudice, stereotypes and discrimination which continue to injure the black and mulatto population of Cuba directly and our entire society and culture indirectly, in spite of the hypothetically non-aggressive and non-extreme nature of its manifestations, and the advances made in social equality since the Cuban Revolution of 1959.
In addition to offering an opportunity to verify the continuous presence and vitality of those ancient cultural and religious traditions of African origin in contemporary Cuban art, this collection seeks to fulfil the intellectual, moral and political obligation to provoke reflection on the racial problems in Cuba, with the intention of contributing to its understanding and future resolution. Beyond the purpose of “unmasking” the local manifestation of these problems, these artworks and texts should be perceived as part of a wider exercise of enquiry that, although based on Cuban reality and art, attempts to generate comparisons with racial relations in other national contexts and the presence or absence of artistic representations which reflect them.
The existence of so many practitioners of religions of African origin in our society and in the Cuban intellectual and artistic circles may be surprising for many in a country where Marxist doctrine has inculcated scientific atheism for half a century. The existence of racial prejudice and discrimination may also come as a surprise in a society with policies based on the equal rights of all Cubans. Many believe that the State should assume all the blame for the alleged re-emergence of prejudices and discriminatory behaviour against the black and mulatto populations since it is the State that ensures that the law is upheld, controls the mass media, the press, editorials, radio and T.V., establishes curricula at all levels of education and organises and implements Cuba’s cultural policy. It is precisely through these instruments that the population must have been educated regarding that ancient colonial disease introduced into Cuba in the 16th century as a consequence of the slave regime. Neglecting or omitting such an important issue as racism is truly the State’s responsibility. However, I believe we should also examine the attitude adopted by each of us as citizens, our relations with our relatives, friends, schoolmates and colleagues, to counteract racial prejudice. Racism may be disseminated through apparently innocent jokes, the habitual use of offensive epithets, paternalistic treatment or negative stereotypes of black people. In fact, according to the Brazilian anthropologist Rita Laura Segato, “the most typical expression of racist prejudice and discrimination is the positive prejudice deposited on white people”[i]. So we are all responsible, to a greater or lesser extent, for the unconscious and automatic reproduction of racial prejudice. If we criticise the Cuban state for abolishing racism “by decree” at the beginning of the Revolution or for thinking prematurely that the issue was settled once it established equal rights for all without analysing the multiple social, economic, cultural and psychological causes that could keep it alive, should we wait for a decree authorising us to confront this same racism? Or should we wait for the fulfilment of international agreements on the subject when we know that many of those instruments have proved to be slow and inoperative? The individual nature of the artistic discourses gathered here and the independent and non-institutional character of both the ownership and its curator emphasise the importance of individual commitment in facing these problems. However, this does not imply that we should free the State from past responsibilities and future obligations in this regard.
We believe that Cuba’s African heritage cannot continue to be reduced to the religious, symbolic, aesthetic or festive elements of Yoruba, Bantú and Carabalí rituals. Although these are unquestionably important, Ethnography and Folklore have made these elements central to the understanding of our heritage, detaching our legacies from the conditions of subordination, inequality and discrimination under which the Black-Afro descendants of Cuba have had to develop their lives and traditions. Such disadvantageous conditions have affected the development and prevented the full dissemination and correct understanding of values by the whole of our population. For a long time this limited or simplistic view attached to religion has been assumed by many of our artistic creators, our history of art and by museum collecting, thereby facilitating the public construction of an idealised, picturesque and passive image of the Afro-Cuban issue. Our African heritage – assumed and developed by blacks, mulattos and whites – does not permit being treated in a neutral, sanitised or non-problematic manner, nor being turned indolently into exotic commodities for foreign and local tourism. This African legacy should not be emptied of its anti-hegemonic, critical, accusing contents, whose long history began several centuries ago with the uprisings of African and Creole slaves, with their participation in the struggles for independence, and has continued to the present in various practices of opposition, resistance and cultural marooning. Nor can the issues of racial identity, negritude or black consciousness, which have always accompanied the understanding of these African legacies, be avoided as untimely or imprudent; nor is it possible to dodge the importance of reconstructing, disseminating and recovering the historical, institutional, familiar and personal memory that is exclusive to this historically disadvantaged sector of our population.
Likewise, we firmly believe that Cuban society and culture – and art as one of its expressions – should be understood beyond the limits set by the falsely unifying and non-differentiating “crossbreeding” concept that has generally served to characterise us, which reached its clearest definition in the culinary metaphor of the ajiaco (melting pot) popularised many years ago by the father of Cuban anthropology, Fernando Ortiz [ii]. In practice, the overvaluation of the crossbreeding concept has had a cushioning and demobilising effect in the face of the racism that still exists against blacks. Can we say that the processes of biological and cultural cross-breeding have allowed the attainment in Cuba of a racial democracy, as some have surmised, where reference to skin colour would make no difference? If we are truly a mixed, mulatto society why would anyone be interested in making the black component visible as something different? In a few words: if we are all simply Cubans why continue to insist on the importance of our Afro-Cubanness?
Our current emphasis on the cultural and religious components of African origin and the racial problems of the blacks and mulattos of Cuba has the main objective of granting visibility to those historically-disadvantaged social sectors in the daily exercise of white privilege, which in one way or another is still present in contemporary Cuban society. This does not mean that we are assuming a sectarian or prejudicial position toward the white or Euro-descendant population, nor does it mean that we underestimate the importance of our Chinese, Arab, Latin American, Caribbean and even American[iii] cultural heritage, all of which have contributed to shape the social and cultural identity of our still evolving Cuban nation. We do not wish to participate in any type of segregation or racism.
The wide, inclusive, integrationist Afro-Cuban concept we have attempted to create in this project, in which black, white and mulatto artists participate equally, is not a recent historical product. Nor is it something we may attribute exclusively to the democratic ideals derived from political practice, or the words of progressive constitutions, or the consensus reached by whites and blacks during the wars against slavery and Spanish colonialism, and not even to the progress made in social and racial equality since the revolution of 1959. These inter-racial integrative or fraternity processes were practiced long before by many sectors of our population, especially the popular classes and, to a smaller extent, our religious groupings of African origin, as early as the third decade of the 19th century, when they accepted into their ranks all racial sectors of our population.
This collection also seeks to make new and deeper studies of those cultural, aesthetic, symbolic and religious legacies that we share and take for granted, without forgetting that we have received them from black sub-Saharan Africa, which will afford the population of African descent the recovery and consolidation of its own history, racial identity, social pride and intellectual self-esteem, all damaged by centuries of exclusion and contempt. At the same time we would like to highlight and encourage the insurgent and rebellious nature – in the guise of social and political claims – that has always been present (openly or covertly) in the Cuban black and mulatto population as one of the alternatives to the Euro-centred, patriarchal, classist, elitist and racist mentality that still predominates in most world societies, including those like Cuba, where we thought it had been finally been overcome.
Although our emphasis on all things African in Cuba allows us to talk with ease about “Afro-Cubanness”, this does not mean that black and mulatto peoples are the only object of our quest: we would also like to verify how our alleged white or Euro-descendant culture took shape in the midst of cross-breeding and transculturation with social sectors of African descent. Our concern is not about white artists assuming blackness or “Afro-Cubanness” superficially as the theme of their works, but that these Cuban artists are white in the only way they can be in our country, which is full of social, cultural, religious, symbolic and aesthetic ingredients of African origin and this is a process that began five centuries ago! This “Afro-Cubanness” also refers to Cuban men and women with less melanin in their skin. We are inclined to favour displacing the concepts of Afro-Cubanness, crossbreeding and negritude from their merely biological and somatic positions (black or mulatto skin), and to emphasise instead the social and cultural condition expressed in work, attitudes and a sense of ownership, since we believe that in the long run the colour of culture is more important than the colour of skin. A person may be white from a somatic viewpoint and black from a cultural viewpoint, and being black or mulatto is not enough to automatically become the heir to African traditions or to act consistently against a racism that weighs down on the black and mulatto population of Cuba.
[i]Rita Laura Segato, “Racismo, discriminación y acciones afirmativas: herramientas conceptuales”, Serie Antropología, no. 404, Universidad de Brasilia, Brasil, 2006, p.5
[ii]Fernando Ortiz, “Los factores humanos de la Cubanidad” (1939) Estudios Etno-sociológicos, Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, Havana, 1991, p 10-30
[iii]Against our wish we follow here the conventional use of the term America to refer to the United States of America.