Alexis Esquivel is a mulatto artist and intellectual 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
The blacks and mulattos of Cuba, and of all the Americas, cannot reconstruct a family tree including all their ancestors. Beyond a few previous generations, there is a void that prevents them from finding the trunk and the roots. Those who attempt to put together their genealogy need to be content with a few recent branches. The old trunk and roots were left on the other side of the so-called Black Atlantic, in Ibadan, in Oyo, in Abeokuta, or further still, in any city or village of the ancient Kingdom of Congo, where the older saw the younger and strongest leave forever aboard slave ships. On this side of the Atlantic, the few black families whose elderly could remember the existence of an African great-grandfather or great-great-grandfather were perhaps able to mention the name with which they were re-baptized by the slave owner: Francisco, let us say, to which a last name was added, that of their nation of origin, Francisco Congo, or that of his owner, López or Martínez. The habit of building family trees is more common among high-class families that need to demonstrate their aristocratic origins, and is not usual among poorer families, and much less so in families descending from slaves. But the truth is that the origins of black Cuban families are as important as the family trees full of powdered European counts and marquises. Both family trees have their own nobility, their illustrious ancestors, who could be in the former case an expert blacksmith, a fortune-teller or a wood carver. The true history of black families in Cuba has a deficit that may never be recouped, not even by searching wildly in our parochial files or in the intricate National Archives, or in the Archivo General de Indias in Seville although many researchers continue to work on this laboriously.
In the face of the impossibility of establishing some of those traditional genealogical trees, Alexis Esquivel conceived a totally atypical kind of tree: a genealogical tree of racial conflicts, a heterogeneous family in which he included celebrated figures from the Cuban black community, world leaders in the fight against racism, as well as musicians, politicians, athletes, cosmonauts and even notorious characters who committed the most atrocious racist crimes, like Adolph Hitler. The list is long and perplexing. More than a tree it is a dense and entangled forest: Antonio Maceo, Evaristo Estenoz, Malcolm X, Bob Marley, Nelson Mandela, Angela Davis, Muhammad Ali, Huey Newton, Martin Luther King Jr., Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Karl Marx, Toussaint Louverture, Elvis Presley and Barack Obama …
This is an excellent way to express the universality and complexity of racial problems. It is a shocking and provocative way, for some perhaps offensive, but unfortunately quite realistic. Whether we like it or not, we will never be able to do without all our "relatives", whether loved or unwelcome, if we want to understand with objectivity who we are, where we come from and where we are going to in this issue of racism.
I transcribe the artist's comment on this interesting work:
(…) I imagined a historical map of racial conflicts, where each personality or figure symbolizes more or less a "family" of discourses, strategies and political stands that later on may be denied or affirmed by their descendants, in a chaotic and disordered evolutionary diagram that sprouts here and retreats over there and retreats once and again over there, which grows unsuspected branches. It is the product of an irresponsible and capricious genetic engineering.