ALEXIS ESQUIVEL BERMÚDEZ 

(La Palma, Pinar del Rio, 1968)

 

 

 

Alexis Esquivel is a mulatto artist and intellectual[i] who has never wished to "whiten” himself but, on the contrary, to become darker, blacker. This attitude is seen not only in his physical appearance, the characteristics of his skin, hair and hairdo, but resides in the deepest strata of his consciousness. Esquivel presents this in the sharp perceptions of the black population's social reality in his paintings; in his nonconformist readings of history, especially Cuban history, where the role played by the black and mulatto population has always been insufficiently reflected; in his refusal to accept the persistence of racial prejudice and discrimination and in his open rejection of the official rhetoric and demagogy that consents to or attempts to mask the extent of the problem. All this has allowed him to define and express with total clarity his social, racial and cultural identity. In contrast to many others, Alexis Esquivel has never wanted to be defined as a light-coloured mulatto, and much less "pass for white” and thus receive some of the benefits offered by white privilege, but he has assumed that the colour of his skin is as black as that of any black person, which – if we go only by his physical appearance – is not totally so. At one time he classified himself as belonging to the black-mestizo group, which was also a statement highlighting his blackness. All of this is an exception to the rule. Not only in Cuba, but anywhere. Crossing the colour line in an opposite direction from the usual (which is from black to white, or from darker to lighter, either by means of the process known as whitening, assimilation or any other kind of mimicry) is not a trivial gesture, especially when the person in question is an intellectual, or a reflexive visual artist like Alexis Esquivel who not only knows the palette's colours very well, but the social meanings of the colours and hues defining the races.

 

I have begun by referring directly to this delicate matter because a large portion of his work points to the racial problems that are generated by the colour of the skin. Although his artistic reflections have also been geared at a wide range of social and political situations, Alexis Esquivel is one of the few Cuban artists who has remained devoted to this specific form of social inequality and has recorded in his work the many ways – at times concealed, imperceptible, subliminal – in which racial prejudices, stereotypes, and  discrimination appear in our society. This priority in his thought and his artistic career has persisted. As he declared in the following extract from an interview:

 

“I am convinced that the only antidote against racial prejudices, the injustices and inequalities in which they are based, is a permanent reflection that a society should have on this or any other topic afflicting it, by keeping an incessant polemic on the most serious problems of its reality, and art can and should help in this."[ii] 

 

It is also important to reveal his opinion on the character that this type of commitment should take (especially for black or mulatto artists) to separate it from many other similar stands. This excerpt is taken from one of his letters:

 

"I do not believe that black artists are obliged to approach the topic, or that the topic is their private domain. The experiences are dissimilar, for that reason in my opinion this should arise as a natural, spontaneous concern. Although in many artists this concern may arrive later on, it is better if this is not done as an opportunist pose, but rather linked emotionally to their experience.”[iii]

 

Alexis Esquivel curated two of the first three exhibitions held in Cuba on racial topics: Ni Músicos ni Deportistas (Neither Musicians nor Sportsmen) in 1997 and Queloides II (Keloids II) in 1999, both organized jointly with the late art critic Ariel Ribeaux Diago, and preceded by a first version of Keloids in 1997, organized by Cuban art critic Omar Pascual Castillo, in which Alexis participated as an artist.[iv] Within the local artistic circuit, the defined stand in relation to racial problems taken by that small group that Esquivel integrated turned them (for some) into respected representatives of the radical wing of Afro-Cuban art and intellectuals, while they were considered (by others) as a group of resentful blacks seeing racial ghosts in Cuba where (seemingly) they no longer existed. As professor Esteban Morales expressed, this kind of reaction when facing a statement of racial identity by blacks and mulattos has always been "a paralyzing instrument, applied by those who do not want or do not find it convenient to discuss the topic" (...) that is to say, a sign of “white hegemony.”[v] The artists linked to these brave exhibitions were even mockingly called maroon artists or apalencados (escaped slaves living in a palisaded shelter in the bush). Beyond the pejorative intent of such qualifications, were they not true after all? Those artists were in fact maroons who had been able to free themselves from those old obstacles and to break the silence that the society and institutions still maintained on the existence of racial conflicts within Cuban socialism.



 

[i] I have used, in this and other texts, the term “mulatto" because it is the popular way of characterizing the racial identity of the mix between a black man or woman and a white man or woman. On the impropriety of considering the term "mulatto" pejorative, see the etymological explanation (derived from the Mandinga language) that appears in Fernando Ortiz, Glosario de Afronegrismos, Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, Havana, 1991, pp.335-336.

 

[ii] Jorge Félix Rodríguez, Interview. Alexis Esquivel o el niño que aún dibuja en el suelo,  Otrolunes.com, Revista Hispanoamericana de Cultura, año 1, no.3, December 2007.

 

[iii] Letter from Alexis Esquivel to the author, 1 July 2009.

 

[iv] On these three pioneering exhibits on the racial problem in Cuba, their context and the participating artists, see the essay by Alexis Esquivel Queloide, la cicatriz dormida (Keloid, the dormant scar), in the catalogue to the exhibition Afrocuba: Works on paper 1968-2003, with curatorship and texts by the American Art Historian Judith Bettelheim, Fine Arts Gallery /International Center for the Arts, College of  Creative Arts, San Francisco State University, San Francisco, CA, U.S. 2005, pp.17-21. 

 

[v] Esteban Morales. Cuba: Algunos desafíos del color, La Jiribilla, edición digital, Havana, year V, September 9-15, 2006. Professor Morales has published essays on racial conflicts in present-day Cuba in various academic journals.

 

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