It may seem strange, even inappropriate, to include Ruperto Jay Matamoros in a show devoted to contemporary Afro-Cuban art. Perhaps the reason for such a decision is that Matamoros belongs to the Afro-Cuban world, since he was a black artist. However, is it possible to consider Matamoros a contemporary artist? Is this not a chronological or generational, as well as a stylistic transgression? Matamoros began to paint in 1937; he was active as an artist for 70 years and died in 2008 when he was 96 years old.
El Labrador, 1988, despite its idyllic, picturesque aspect, seems to be an image taken from the years immediately after the abolition of slavery in Cuba (1886). This was a time when many former slaves, both African and Creole – some of them brought to Cuba from other Caribbean colonies such as Jamaica or Haiti – fell into total poverty and neglect, lacking sufficient ability or training to work as free men after spending so many years labouring in the sugar plantations and receiving sustenance from their masters. Many of these former slaves – some of whom had participated as soldiers and officers in the independence wars against Spain in 1868 and 1895 – could only find shelter in thatched roof huts in the fields and devoted themselves to growing root crops and to animal husbandry to survive. The figure represented in the painting, with red and blue ribbons around his hat and waist (the colours of the Haitian flag), is perhaps a Haitian or of Haitian descent. There were many Haitians in the eastern part of the country where Jay Matamoros was born and spent his childhood and adolescence, so that this painting may be a direct testimonial of their situation or something he heard of from his parents. Either way, this may be one of the many expressions of historical disadvantage still spoken about by part of the black population of Cuba who, despite equal opportunities offered since the revolution of 1959, still find it difficult to overcome their unequal starting point, as some social scientists have mentioned. The presence in the painting of a majá (a local non-poisonous snake) seems to confirm the Haitian-Cuban identity of the character, since this animal is part of Voodoo rituals, a religion from old Dahomey (today Benin) which is still practiced in the eastern region of Cuba and Haiti.