Without Masks: Contemporary Afro-Cuban Art was initiated in November 2007 with the full backing and financial support of South African collector Chris von Christierson and his family. Since its inception, they have enthusiastically embraced the idea of a collection of Cuban art that would show the multiple imprints of Africa in Cuba’s artistic culture; a collection dedicated to fostering greater knowledge through a series of public exhibitions and publications. It is now owned by The Watch Hill Foundation, a non-for-profit charitable organization. Since the beginning, the intention has been for this to be a travelling exhibition, with special emphasis on regions inhabited by African populations, the African Diaspora, or by communities of African origin from different nationalities who coexist with other ethnic or race groups, and where, consequently, our project could arouse greater interest and identification with the values and problems it portrays. However, these prerequisites are by no means exclusive and should not limit the project’s exhibition elsewhere. In fact, the ample dissemination of the cultural values emanating from Africa and Afro-America, as well as the multi-ethnic and pluri-cultural nature of the majority of the world’s societies today, together with the regrettable proliferation of ethnic, racial and religious conflicts, suggest wide reception of this project. Its social and cultural usefulness has been our main motivation.
The collection consists of more than 150 works by contemporary Cuban artists, covering a relatively short period, from 1980 to the present day, although most artworks were made in the last decade of the 1990s and the 21st century. We have chosen this brief period in Cuban art because it is in this interval that the treatment of the Afro-Cuban theme acquired deeper and better informed approaches to religious subjects, and a more reflexive and critical tone arose in relation to the theme of race. This contrasts with the relatively stereotyped, idealized or pictures approach of earlier periods (particularly the 19th century and a large part of the 20th century).
The collection may be considered a work in progress, since it could in the future include works by other Cuban artists from different generations and explore other kinds of creative expressions not included in the present exhibition. The media represented in this collection include painting on canvas and wood, watercolour, drawing, printing (xylography, silk-screen, collography), collage, patchwork, installation, soft-sculpture, photography, video-installation and video art.
At this point, we cannot overlook an important issue: the collection does not currently include examples of Afro-Cuban ritual art, developed within the religious communities of Santería and Ifá, Palo Monte and Abakuá. These peculiar forms of art provide an essential understanding of those African legacies that are only represented or “translated” in the modern western-style artistic works shown in this collection. This is a complex matter requiring the utmost care, since Afro-Cuban ritual art is not only made up of objects and images, but more complex practices involving the practitioners themselves in their various ritual activities and we would risk dramatizing or aesthetizing some of the creations by removing them from their original spaces and functions, always related to the sacred, and turning into a spectacle that which is a transcendental eventfor the members of those religious communities. However, we believe that in the future we should run those risks so that some elements of this impressive aesthetic-symbolic creativity may be known within a wider and less exclusive framework than what we have called here contemporary Afro-Cuban art.
This collection of contemporary Afro-Cuban art is exceptional in that it has assembled for the first time a large and varied group of Cuban artists devoted to exploring profoundly and with originality two great themes that have previously been regarded individually, namely the cultural and religious traditions of Africa in Cuba and the multiple problems related with the racial issue. While other exhibitions have been shown in Cuba and abroad regarding the cultural and religious traditions of African origin in Cuba, those devoted to racial subjects have been fewer. Three relatively small but important and truly inspiring exhibitions became the pioneers in dealing with the racial issue in our country: Queloides I, (Casa de África, Havana, 1997), Ni Músicos ni Deportistas, (Centro Provincial de Artes Plásticas y Diseño, 1997) and Queloides II (Centro de Desarrollo de las Artes Visuales, Havana, 1999). These two themes have been supplemented with other unusual artistic representation, such as the political-military presence of Cuba in the wars in Africa (Carlos Garaicoa’s works on Angola) or the allusion to African ritual traditions and deities in Cuban art (Santiago R. Olazabal), largely due to the re-Africanizing process that has taken place in recent years in certain religious circles in Cuba. We have included some artists who have broached the subject only occasionally but from new perspectives (such as Yoan Capote), others who have always worked with these Afro-Cuban traditions but in a discreet or barely perceptible manner, thus being left out of previous selections (such as Rubén Rodríguez). As far as we know, in spite of previous exhibitions related to the Afro-Cuban theme, there is no other private or institutional collection of this magnitude, in Cuba or elsewhere, dedicated to these topics in such an ample and diversified manner, nor with such a large-scale representation of relevant artists.
From the start we have followed rigorous criteria in the selection of the artists: most have achieved national and international acknowledgement, and the selected works have aesthetic quality. However, our interest has also taken the focus beyond the aesthetic, favouring originality and the profoundness of the sociological, historical, anthropological, religious, ethical and political messages contained in the works. This has been encouraged by the presence in recent Cuban art of reflexive rather than contemplative or hedonistic approaches, and by recent debates in the academic circles in Cuba on the racial issue. Although we have inclined ourselves more to content than procedure, or to what the artists say more than the way in which they say it, we have taken care to make both requirements coincide.
In the brief essays devoted to each artist and the works shown in this collection, I have given priority to interpreting, deciphering, explaining and giving clues related to our contexts so as to allow the viewer a better understanding of the oeuvres. I have given less space to sharing the joy, the pleasure that the works elicit or to celebrating their formal excellence or originality. I confess to being more interested in cognitive than aesthetic issues. Aesthetics, style and fashion are probably the sine qua non conditions of works of art, but I cannot conceive of artistic works unbound from knowledge and usefulness. As an art critic I have always attended more to the viewers’ need to understand and less to please the requirements of a minority group of experts. From this perspective, I consider the complexity of aesthetic, formal and stylistic artifices (those related with appearance) as some of the many “masks” that art should discard in preference for more important messages that the nude or less occult “face” would be able to transmit. Doing this would increase the receptive framework of art, which has a tendency towards elitist cultural production.
This collection has placed on an equal footing artists who are world-famous and artists who are practically unknown, those who are professional graduates of important academies and those who are self-taught, those who have received important awards and those who have received only acknowledgement. We have also not taken into account the place of residence of the Cuban artists represented.
Lastly, I would like to clarify the order in which the artists appear in this website. The artists have been listed in an unusual way, not following alphabetical order, but instead following the hierarchical order established by age, and then starting with those who have passed away. This is the respectful attitude followed by our Afro-Cuban religious groups. However, as the number of artists in the Collection has expanded, I have been compelled to compromise and resort to alphabetical ordering.