Juan Roberto Diago Durruthy stems from a long-established family of black Cuban artists and intellectuals whose credentials are well documented. I would like to draw attention to the way of placing racial identity before national identity in sentences such as this since its use is still a taboo in many of our discourses and writings, probably because of the fear of incurring discriminatory or racist expressions.
Juan Roberto Diago Durruthy stems from a long-established family of black Cuban artists and intellectuals whose credentials are well documented. I would like to draw attention to the way of placing racial identity before national identity in sentences such as this since its use is still a taboo in many of our discourses and writings, probably because of the fear of incurring discriminatory or racist expressions. Amongst Cubans, racial identity is habitually included in the more comprehensive and generic definition of "Cuban man" or "Cuban woman". When one does not mention black or mulatto identity, and subsumes it in the larger identity of being Cuban, one denies the importance of the whole social, cultural and historical burden of these groups of people.
This old Cuban black family has as its most prominent figure – at least in the context of visual arts – Roberto Diago’s grandfather, painter and sketcher Juan Roberto Diago Querol (Havana 1920 - Madrid, 1955) who was one of the most renowned modern Cuban artists in the 1940-50s[ii], son of Virgilio Diago (Tampa, Key West, 1897 - Havana, 1941), first violin of the symphony orchestra of Havana and one of the most remarkable violinists in Cuba[iii]. In 1949 Diago Querol married Josefina Urfé, daughter of the celebrated musician José Urfé (Madruga, Havana 1897 - Havana, 1957), clarinettist, professor, orchestra and band conductor and composer of Danzón El Bombín de Barreto[iv], among others.Other musicians and music researchers are also part of this family, such as Odilio Urfé (Madruga 1921 - Havana, 1988)[v], Josefina's brother who visited their house frequently, Ignacio Villa (Bola de Nieve) and José Lezama Lima. Since childhood Roberto Diago Durruthy was surrounded by anecdotes of artistic, literary and musical creators, as well as numerous books and artworks that would end up marking his future.
Nevertheless, as he admitted in a brilliant interview by journalist and art critic David Mateo[vi], he preferred swimming and baseball, but thanks to his grandmother Josefina Urfé who signed him up for courses for children offered by the National Museum of Fine Arts, little by little he became interested in art: “…imagine how it was to live in a marginal neighbourhood as that of Pogolotti, linked to a population of low cultural level, playing in the streets with boys some of whom are still close friends, and to have someone grab your hand and take you to a diametrically opposed context as that of the Museum."[vii]
I believe that this mix of cultivated and popular, elitism and marginality has been extremely important in Diago’s artistic career and in the formation of its own personality. This has endowed his topics, his language and the critical content of his discourses with a high degree of credibility, originality and aesthetic quality. His works display a double commitment to those two socio-cultural contexts from which he stems and which contributed different but equally enriching ingredients.
He began his career as a painter, but became more inclined to textures, assembling different materials, volumes, drawing on his training in sculpture, with the result that in addition to drawing, painting and photography, he has used many sculptural techniques and materials such as cement, wood, iron and jute fabric. Like other artists of his generation interested in approaching race relations in a critical way, these concerns did not appear initially, but grew out of the process of maturing, assimilating the problems, gaining incentives from the context and reading current texts of that time. His works were shown in the well-known exhibition Queloides, at the Casa de África in 1997, which was an important acknowledgement of his artistic commitment to the problems facing blacks in Cuba. Since then, his work has been one of the most energetic in commenting on this topic using all the resources within his reach. And his criticisms have been direct and daring.
[i] See his website www.robertodiago.com
[ii] Catalogue of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Colección de Arte Cubano, Havana, Scriba NetStudio, Zigram Art Project, Edizioni Industrialzone, 2008, pp.148-149. See also Memoria. Artes Visuales Cubanas del Siglo XX, José Veigas, Cristina Vives, Adolfo V.Nodal, among other authors, California International Art Foundation, Los Angeles, California, USA, 2001, p.134. See also Orlando Hernández, “Oscuridad de Roberto Diago”, Catalogo Tercera Bienal de La Habana, Centro Wifredo Lam, Havana, 1989, pp. 222-226.
[iii] Radamés Giro. Diccionario Enciclopédico de la música en Cuba, Editorial Letras Cubanas, Havana, 2007, volume 2, p.19.
[iv] Radamés Giro. Idem volume 4, p.225.
[v] Radamés Giro. Idem volume 4, p.225-227.
[vi] David Mateo. “No todos los negros tomamos café” Conversación con Roberto Diago, La Gaceta de Cuba, UNEAC, Havana, May-June 2003. Also published in: David Mateo, Palabras en Acecho, Ediciones Almargen, Editorial Cauce, UNEAC, Pinar del Río, 2005, pp.166-178.
[vii] Idem footnote vi.