Despite the social transformations implemented by the Cuban revolutionary government since the early 1960s, racism continues to be a deep wound in Cuban society, one that generates countless social and cultural scars. Racist attitudes, ideas and behaviors have gained strength in Cuban society during the last two decades, during the deep economic crisis known as "the Special Period," which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. As the Cuban economy became dollarized, and competition for scarce jobs and resources intensified, racial discrimination and racial inequality increased. White Cubans began to use racist arguments to deny blacks access to the most attractive sectors of the economy (such as tourism), those in which it was possible to earn dollars or other hard currencies.
Out of that atmosphere came "Queloides," an art exhibit examining the persistence of racism and racial discrimination in contemporary Cuba. Curated by Elio Rodríguez Valdés and me, the show is a collaborative project between the Mattress Factory museum and the Center for Latin American Studies, University of Pittsburgh. In the video below, I walk you through the show in its current incarnation at the 8th Floor gallery in New York City.
"Queloides" is the emphatic protest of a group of visual artists against the resurgence of racism on the island. It is the statement of a generation of artists who grew up and were educated in an environment that was, to no small degree, racially egalitarian until it deteriorated dramatically in the 1990s. This is the first time in postrevolutionary Cuba that the word "racism" has appeared in the title of an exhibition.
The current exhibit builds on two previous ones with the same name that were mounted in Havana in 1997 ("Queloides I Parte," curated by Alexis Esquivel and Omar Pascual Castillo) and 1999 ("Queloides," curated by Ariel Ribeaux). In other words, "Queloides" is a long-term cultural project in which numerous intellectuals and artists from Cuba have participated. It has never been conceived as a "black project" or a project "for blacks." On the contrary, it represents the assertion by a multiracial group of artists and intellectuals that racial equality and inclusion are key to what it means to be Cuban.
From the first iteration of "Queloides," there have been supporters and participants in this project who do not self-identify as blacks, mestizos or mulattoes. For the first time, the project is being shown outside of Cuba: After all, racism and racial discrimination are global problems.
The artists of "Queloides" deal with issues of race and racism in different ways. All of their works, however, offer a revisionist and critical reading of the history of Cuba, a reading that highlights the contributions of Africans and their descendants to the formation of the Americas in general, and the Cuban nation in particular. Their Cuba is not the harmonious and fraternal Cuba portrayed in official national narratives, but a nation built on violence, slavery, rape and the unbearable stench of the slave ships. It is a Cuba where colonial legacies remain alive, feeding discrimination and exclusion.
Some of the artists in the exhibit mock racist stereotypes (Manuel Arenas) and the persistent exclusion of blacks from national history and the structures of power (Alexis Esquivel). Others proclaim blacks' humanity (René Peña); cry out against a Western culture that transforms blacks into "others," subjects of scientific study and folklore (Armando Mariño, Douglas Pérez, Pedro Alvarez); and delve into the religious influences that sustain Cuban culture (Belkis Ayón, Marta Maria Pérez Bravo, José Toirac and Meira Marrero). Some celebrate a Cuba that is black (Elio Rodríguez Valdés), a Cuba that is bitterly sweet (María Magdalena Campos-Pons) or a Cuba marked by the marginality of its people of African descent (Roberto Diago).
Keloids are wound-induced scars. Although any injury may result in keloids, many people in Cuba believe that black skin is particularly susceptible to them. Thus the title evokes the persistence of racial stereotypes and the traumatic process of dealing with racism, discrimination and racist violence.
"Queloides" is being exhibited at the 8th Floor, New York City, through July 21, 2011. It has been at the Centro de Cultura Contemporánea Wifredo Lam in Havana, Cuba, April 16-May 31, 2010, and at the Mattress Factory museum in Pittsburgh, Oct. 15, 2010-Feb. 27, 2011. In 2012 it will be at the Rudenstine Gallery of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research in Cambridge, Mass. The director of the Du Bois Institute is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root's editor-in-chief.
See select images from the exhibit in our slide show, "Queloides: Artists Explore Racism in Cuba."
Alejandro de la Fuente is the co-curator of "Queloides" and the UCIS Research Professor of History and Latin American Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. Among the supporters of "Queloides" are the Christopher Reynolds Foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies, the Ford Foundation, the Lambent Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, Pennsylvania Humanities Council, the Pittsburgh Foundation and the following entities of the University of Pittsburgh: CRDF, CLAS, UCIS, Humanities Center, World History Center and the Dean of Arts and Sciences.