Drapetomania: Grupo Antillano and the Art of Afro-Cuba
The art exhibit Drapetomania: Exposición Homenaje a Grupo Antillano, will open at the CDAV in Havana on August 1, 2013. The exhibit is complemented by the volume Grupo Antillano: The Art of Afro-Cuba, edited by Alejandro de la Fuente, with essays by several Cuban (Guillermina Ramos Cruz, José Veigas) and American (Judith Bettelheim) art critics and historians. The project is sponsored by the Ford Foundation, by the Santiago de Cuba-based Caguayo Foundation for the Monumental and Applied Arts and by the Institute of Afro-Latin American Studies, Harvard University.
A forgotten visual arts and cultural movement that thrived briefly between 1978 and 1983, Grupo Antillano articulated a vision of Cuban culture that privileged the importance of Africa and Afro-Caribbean influences in the formation of the Cuban nation. In contrast to official characterizations of Santeria and other African religious practices as primitive and counter-revolutionary during the so-called Quinquenio Gris (a "grey" period of neo-Stalinist censorship during the 1970s), Grupo Antillano valiantly proclaimed the centrality of African practices in national culture. They viewed Africa and the surrounding Caribbean not as a dead cultural heritage, but as a vibrant, ongoing and vital influence that continued to define what it means to be Cuban. Some Afro-Cuban intellectuals, such as the noted ethnomusicologist Rogelio Martínez Furé, proclaimed triumphantly that a "new," authentic Cuban art had been born.
Yet neither this "new art" nor the very existence of Grupo Antillano are remembered today. Grupo Antillano has been removed from all accounts of the so-called "new Cuban art," a movement that took shape precisely during those years and that is frequently associated with the legendary exhibit Volumen Uno (1981). In contrast to Grupo Antillano, most of the artists of Volmen Uno did not look towards Africa or the Caribbean for inspiration, but to new trends in Western art. The "new art of Cuba," to use the title of art scholar Luis Camnitzer's famous book, came to be identified with the westernized approach of Volumen Uno, not with the Afro-Caribbean art of Grupo Antillano.
This exhibit seeks to recover the history of this group and their important contributions to the art of Cuba, the Caribbean and the African Diaspora. Several members of Grupo Antillano had attended the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in Nigeria in 1977 and saw their work as part of a diasporic conversation on art, race and colonialism--what sculptor Rafael Queneditt, founder of the group, called "the black movement." As the Group stated in its foundational manifesto (1978), "The Antilles are our real environment... We are not interested in other worlds." They saw their work as part of a long tradition of struggle, cultural affirmation and cimarronaje. This is what a Louisiana medical doctor described in the nineteenth-century as the slave disease drapetomania. The main symptom of this disease was an irresistible urge to run away and escape slavery.
The exhibit showcases works by the artists who belonged to Grupo Antillano and works by a group of contemporary artists. As an intellectual and curatorial project, the exhibit suggests that some of the concerns and anxieties articulated by Grupo Antillano thirty years ago continue to inform the work of contemporary Cuban artists. The exhibit offers a revisionist understanding of the "new art of Cuba" through the work of artists who have been concerned with issues of race, history, and the centrality of Africa and the Caribbean to Cuban culture and national identity. It also brings together, for the first time, the artists of Grupo Antillano and some of the artists of Volumen Uno.