Juan Roberto Diago Durruthy(Havana, Cuba, 1971)

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.

España, devuélveme a mis dioses (Spain, give my gods back)

When shown for the first time, this work seemed controversial within the local milieu for its visual formulation as well as its messages. The work combines two categorical statements, one religious and the other racial. Both are written on the cloth with the brutality of street graffiti, as quickly as possible, like political denunciations written on walls, mindless of aesthetics and unrelated to the elaborate graffiti of the hip-hop culture. The first writing seems a strange, disproportionate and rather absurd demand, since Spain is in fact no longer our colonial metropolis, nor was it ever capable of taking the African gods from Cuba, but instead brought its own gods and censored and repressed all others. Perhaps we should interpret it as a retrospective grievance, in which the artist takes the side of his ancestors, those Africans who were abruptly robbed of their native religions when brought to Cuba as slaves. Or maybe it is a scornful comment on religious "syncretism", since identifications and homologies between African orishas and Catholic saints have made us lose sight of the fact that the main content of the rituals was always and continues to be essentially African. The requested restoration could be the restitution of that African native status which preceded the participation of the Catholic saints who had not yet stolen the limelight from the orishas. The second writing hardly requires a comment. It is as plain as daylight: "It is not difficult to be a man, being black is difficult."

The materials used as support, especially the seemingly abstract central detail, are the most suggestive, perhaps because the information is less readable although written in large characters. The jute sack is a casing that has always been associated with sugar in Cuba. In colonial times, sugar was produced by the labour of African slaves and their offspring, so that its use instead of a white canvas (from the European artistic tradition), is clearly a cultural and racial objection. This message encourages disobedience and cultural insubordination. Yet these are not Cuban sacks, but rather African ones from Ghana, which have been used to ship coffee. The African sacks have, according to the artist, an additional “symbolic load” due to their origin. This substitution of country and product generates new links – especially for the Cuban public – that may relate coffee with blacks, not only because of the colour but because of a stereotype established by the song Mamá Inés by the famous black musician Bola de Nieve, in which one verse states: "Oh Mamá Inés, all the blacks drink coffee." This stereotype was challenged by Roberto Diago in his work titled Todos los Negros no Tomamos Café” (Not all Blacks Drink Coffee), 2002.

Regarding the expressive and rough textile ties at the central part of the painting, perhaps these indicate the linking or interweaving between whites and blacks, or between the cultures of European and African origin, represented by the white canvas and jute sack strips. This work unwittingly expresses the inevitability of such a link, and the necessity that any solution would have to involve the union of blacks, mulattos and whites. The interwoven textiles also remind us of an Afro-Cuban religious practice known by the paleros as nkanga or "ties", used symbolically to tie down either a couple with disagreements or to mystically secure and protect the space where a ceremony is to be held. Religious references can never be ruled out of the work of a Cuban, much less so in the case of Diago, although religion has never had an important or obvious presence in his works. Could such "ties" be a form of securing the unity of all the sectors of our society, of attempting the long-awaited racial harmony never achieved that would provide us with a nation "with all and for the wellbeing of all" that José Martí spoke about ? The artist comments that we cannot cast aside the fact that such ties represent the bones of all the Africans who died at sea during the long Middle Passage across the Atlantic in slave ships. Whatever the associations called forth by this detail of Diago's work, it is only tangentially connected with the aesthetic contents, such as rough impasto surfaces with multiple materials, used by the assemblage artists of the already faraway 1950s; Tápies, Burri and Antoni Clavé. Unlike these artists, Roberto Diago's work uses material loaded with meanings and suggestions of historical character, social, racial and political denunciation and, of course, hope.

Year: 2000
Technique: Oil on jute fabric and knotted strips of canvas and jute fabric
Size: 200 x 300 cm

Theme: identity religion