ROBERTO DIAGO AND THE PAST

AND THE PAST IN PRESENT TIMES

Art On Cuba - - INDEX - We can speak / With­out say­ing words / Path­way of the look — RAFAEL ACOSTA DE ARRIBA MAR­I­LYN G. MILLER

In some fa­mous words of Re­quiem for a nun (1951), Wil­liam Faulkner said that the past never dies, and that it is not even past. This idea of the past as part of the present is an es­sen­tial key to com­pre­hend the art of Juan Roberto Diago (Ha­vana,

1971). It is also an or­ga­niz­ing con­cept of Diago: The Pasts of this Afro-Cuban Present, a ret­ro­spec­tive of his work ex­hib­ited at the Cooper Gallery of African & African Amer­i­can Art in Cam­bridge, Mas­sachusetts from Fe­bru­ary 2nd to May 5th, 2017. This show, like the two pre­vi­ous ones which in­cluded Diago’s work, Keloids: Race and Racism in Cuban Con­tem­po­rary Art and Drapeto­ma­nia: Grupo An­til­lano and The Art of Afro-Cuba, found an en­thu­si­as­tic au­di­ence in Bos­ton en­vi­ron­ments thanks to the ef­forts of Ale­jan­dro de la Fuente, pro­fes­sor of his­tory and di­rec­tor-founder of the In­sti­tute of Afro-Latin Amer­i­can Re­search at the Univer­sity of Har­vard, univer­sity en­tity with which the Cooper Gallery is as­so­ci­ated through the Hutchins Cen­ter for African & African Amer­i­can Re­search.

In re­la­tion to the same ex­hibit, de la Fuente has pub­lished: Diago: The Pasts of this Afro-Cuban Present (Har­vard Univer­sity Press, 2017) a sort of en­larged cat­a­logue that of­fers a bilin­gual guide not only of the work gath­ered in the gallery but also about Diago’s life and work in gen­eral. The book has a pro­logue writ­ten by the em­i­nent pro­fes­sor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Di­rec­tor of the Hutchins Cen­ter. In this pro­logue the ac­knowl­edged scholar on Afro­di­as­poric themes states that the ex­hibit “re­sists a mono­lithic or sin­gle in­ter­pre­ta­tion”. For Gates there is a par­al­lel be­tween the di­verse ma­te­ri­als that Diago chooses and the dif­fer­ent forms in which his works nar­rate the his­tory of the Cuban peo­ple and ne­go­ti­ate “the AfroCuban present, a present that ex­ists within its own plu­ral­ity.”2

The pres­ence of Diago and his work in the Bos­ton area is part of a no­table in­crease of the Cuban artists’ vis­i­bil­ity within the Amer­i­can con­text. In the same pe­riod at the be­gin­ning of 2017, Yoan Capotes’s work was ex­hib­ited at the Jack Shain­man Gallery in New York( Fe­bru­ary 2nd- March 11th); Maria Elena Gon­za­lez’s one was at the Hirschi and Adler Mod­ern Mu­seum in the same city (Fe­bru­ary 9th-March 19th); Abel Barroso’s in­stal­la­tion Emi­grant Pin­ball was in­cluded in a group ex­hi­bi­tion at the Ar­mory Show in New York (March 2nd-5th); over 100 works in Cuban Art in the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury at the Coral Gables Mu­seum in Florida (Jan­uary 22nd-April 23rd); Emilio Sanchez in South

Florida Col­lec­tions at the Lowe Art Mu­seum, also in Coral Gables (Fe­bru­ary 9th- May 21st); Julio Lar­raz: Paint­ing and Sculp­ture (Jan­uary 20th- April 2nd) at the Mu­seum of Art DeLand, also in Florida; a ret­ro­spec­tive of the cen­te­nar­ian Car­men Her­rera at the Wexner Cen­ter for the Arts in Colum­bus, Ohio (Fe­bru­ary 4th- April 16th); and in the same Bos­ton zone, Rafael So­ri­ano: The Artist as Mys­tic at the McMullen Mu­seum of Art of Bos­ton Col­lege(Jan­uary 30th-June 4th). This last ex­hibit will travel to other venues, to the Long Beach Mu­seum of Art in Cal­i­for­nia and from there to the Frost Art Mu­seum in Mi­ami.3

On Fri­day, Fe­bru­ary 3rd, Diago and de la Fuente cor­di­nated a sem­i­nar at the Cooper Gallery, presided by the gallery di­rec­tor Vera In­grid Grant. The au­thor of these lines also at­tended this re­flec­tion be­tween the cu­ra­tor his­to­rian and the his­to­rian artist on the theme of the AfroCuban experience, both past and cur­rent, col­lec­tive as well as per­sonal, as­sumed a prom­i­nent role. Be­fore con­ced­ing the floor, Grant elu­ci­dated briefly the ge­n­e­sis of this first ret­ro­spec­tive of Diago’s that is com­posed of 26 works on di­verse sup­ports made be­tween 1993 and 2016. Ac­cord­ing to

Grant, the idea came up dur­ing Drapetomanía, a group ex­hi­bi­tion by AfroCuban artists that first was set up in Cuba and later in dif­fer­ent venues in the USA, even at Cooper Gallery it­self, where it was ex­hib­ited from Jan­uary 30th- May 29th, 2015.4 At that time, Grant and de la Fuente were al­ready mak­ing plans to show a Diago’s re­stro­spec­tive de­spite the artist’s rel­a­tive youth. In her pre­sen­ta­tion at the sem­i­nar Grant ob­served that for her, Diago’s work rep­re­sent “a kind of ful­fill­ment, a cer­tain sculp­tural qual­ity, a mar­velous experience of a work that could be un­der­stood as bas-re­lief sculp­tures.”

With this opin­ion Grant made an im­plicit ref­er­ence to the sub­ject- mat­ter es­thetic axis of keloids within Diago’s work.

The term keloid refers to pro­nounced scars on the skin due to wounds, con­di­tion that his­tor­i­cally has been as­so­ci­ated with the black skin. In the piece Un­ti­tled (2011) cho­sen for the cat­a­logue and other ad­ver­tis­ing ma­te­ri­als for the ex­hibit, a strand of a tied rope joins two parts of a por­trait, bi­fur­cat­ing the face just at the mouth level. That re­it­er­ated use of the struc­tural keloid seen in the ex­hibit as­so­ci­ates oral­ity and ex­pres­sion it­self with the wound, forced si­lence and frag­men­ta­tion. No Puedo Hablar (I can­not speak, 2000), an­other work in the ex­hi­bi­tion, could be con­sid­ered a sis­ter im­age of this first em­blem­atic fig­ure. In this work, the same words of the ti­tle are placed in­stead of the mouth, and Diago has used the keloid tech­nique to out­line the face and the body fig­ure, sug­gest­ing in an­other way a wound in the iden­tity, that even though it has healed, it leaves a pal­pa­ble and de­ter­mi­nant trace.

For the sem­i­nar, Diago and de la Fuente sat in front of Au­tor­re­trato (Self-por­trait, 2000), a work of large di­men­sions and un­prece­dented up to that time. Made also of pieces of can­vas, sewn or joined by rope, it is an un­com­mon or even con­tra­dic­tory self-por­trait, since it does not in­clude any shape or hu­man fig­ure and its only “con­tent” seems to be some words, and in the sec­ond place some spots. Us­ing ink or black paint that has bled on the can­vas—mainly on the word YO (I)—, Diago has writ­ten YO SOY / MI RAZA / MI HISTORIA / AMOR (I am/ my race/ my story/ love). The tridi­men­sional “sheet” on which this de­cep­tively sim­ple text ap­pears has been stained with dif­fer­ent tones and den­si­ties of red, sug­gest­ing other blood pres­ences. Al­though the mes­sage seems di­rect, it is in­ter­rupted, re­paired with vis­i­ble stitches. Both “I” as well as two men­tions of “my” are seen as non-repara­bly frag­mented; they are wounds in which the word is graph­i­cally crossed by a vis­ual and tac­tile keloid.

Au­tor­re­trato shares with many other pieces of the ex­hibit an ex­plicit ap­proach to the sub­ject of his­tory. Again it is present in works such as Mi historia es tu historia (My his­tory is your his­tory, 2000) and Un pedazo de mi historia (A piece of my his­tory, 2003), which in­cor­po­rate the word in the ti­tles them­selves. In the first work, this mes­sage has been writ­ten on a sur­face of sewn cof­fee sacks, which Diago has cho­sen be­cause they come from Ghana. We can see on this sur­face other rup­tures al­lu­sive to keloids, and the art­work space also con­tains other mes­sages: “ESPERO

POR TI”, “MUNDO MALO”, “NO IMPORTA” (I am wait­ing for you, Bad World, Does not mat­ter). Un­like Au­tor­re­trato, here there are fig­ures, al­though none of them is cen­tral: a face be­hind bars; houses up­side down, num­bers, an ar­row, the stamp on the cof­fee bean al­ready set on the ma­te­rial cho­sen by the au­thor. In an in­ter­view pub­lished in the mag­a­zine Revolu­ción y Cul­tura in 2000, Amado del Pino spoke about an affin­ity of Diago’s work with the an­thol­ogy of po­ems by Án­gel Es­co­bar. At that time the artist ex­pressed: In Cuba the train­ing of plas­tic vi­sion has lagged a lit­tle be­hind in re­la­tion to the ca­pac­ity for as­sim­i­lat­ing lit­er­ary codes.”5 Whether this is the case or not nowa­days, it can­not be de­nied that in Diago’s work the par­tic­i­pa­tion of the text is a fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ple. It il­lus­trates what WJT Mitchell has called “the re­la­tion­ship be­tween what is vis­i­ble and what is said, be­tween ex­po­si­tion and dis­course, be­tween show­ing and say­ing”.6

Un pedazo de mi historia, an­other un­prece­dented work up to now, is part of a se­ries that has an evoca­tive name: Aquí lo que no hay es que morirse (Here, what you mustn’t do is die). About the pieces of this se­ries Diago com­mented to Pe­dro Pérez Sar­duy in 2003: “This is a work of a cru­cial mo­ment. We all know the mo­ment that Cuba is cur­rently go­ing through. And I join that re­al­ity with a work on re­cy­cled ma­te­rial. These are oil cans that I opened and then I com­posed a structure to which I put an emo­tive load of white col­ors and graf­fit­tis ... and thus, Aquí lo que no hay es que morirse, start­ing with noth­ing, do some­thing. We can­not wait till things fall down from heaven”. Diago turns the slav­ery past into present with the words “Un BARCO / ME TRAJO” (A ship / brought me). As he is in­ter­ested in the texts that con­form the Afro- Cuban lit­er­ary his­tory, it is pos­si­ble to “read” Un pedazo de mi historia like an in­ter­text with Vine en un barco ne­grero (I came on a slave ship) by Ni­colás Guil­lén: “Vine en un barco ne­grero. / Me tra­jeron. / Caña y látigo el in­ge­nio. / Sol de hi­erro. / Su­dor como caramelo. / Pie en el cepo.”7 The words CIELO (Heaven) and DIOS CUIDA (God cares) in the up­per part, and YEMAYA on the white stripe that rep­re­sents the sea in the lower part. The use of white paint to write these words on the hard and dark sur­face of the metal sug­gests life and death be­yond that death.

In the same way he uses di­verse ma­te­ri­als, the cre­ator con­veys in these two works a di­ver­sity of in­ter­posed mes­sages there­fore ex­pand­ing the con­ver­sa­tion be­tween the work and the spec­ta­tor from dif­fer­ent an­gles.

De la Fuente shares with the au­di­ence the story of how he ap­proached Diago’s work two decades ago while he was car­ry­ing out re­search into the sub­jects of race and slav­ery in Cuba. In the mid­dle of this sort of Afro-Cuban cul­tural move­ment in which writ­ers, artists, mu­si­cians and film­mak­ers were speak­ing about the same themes, driven by the same needs to solve the dif­fi­cul­ties of artis­tic man­age­ment and life it­self. Diago had grad­u­ated from the Academia de Bel­las Artes San Ale­jan­dro in 1990, just on the thresh­old of great changes and trau­mas re­lated to the Spe­cial Pe­riod.

De la Fuente asks Diago to speak about his his­tory, in­flu­ences and con­cerns, re­mark­ing that he has al­ready sated his opin­ions and anal­y­sis in the book that ac­com­pa­nies the ex­hi­bi­tion. But first he ac­knowl­edges the fun­da­men­tal an­tecedent that rep­re­sents the life and work of the grand­fa­ther, Juan Roberto Diago Querol (19201955) who played an im­por­tant role in the sec­ond Cuban avant­garde. Diago, the grand­son, on the other hand, states that his link with art de­pends not only on this an­ces­tor he was named af­ter, but also on his grand­mother Jose­fina Urfé, the painter’s widow as well as the in­flu­ence of other rel­a­tives like a great-grand­fa­ther, who ini­ti­ated the danzón, and his grand-un­cle Odilio Urfé, a pi­anist formed at the Con­ser­va­to­rio Mu­nic­i­pal de la Ha­bana and mu­si­col­o­gist ded­i­cated to the preser­va­tion of Afro-Cuban gen­res.

Diago men­tions that when he was a child they “made him paint” and of­ten he was forced to visit the Na­tional Mu­seum of Fine Arts. Al­though I would have pre­ferred to at­tend a base­ball school, he was sent to art cour­ses. Diago states: “I con­sider my­self priv­i­leged for hav­ing been my grand­mother’s grand­son…for hav­ing been brought up in this en­vi­ron­ment with my grand­fa­ther’s paint­ings. That cre­ated in me a cer­tain sen­si­tiv­ity. Liv­ing to­gether with the mag­a­zines Orí­genes, I still have the col­lec­tion, many let­ters from Eliseo Diego, Ro­dríguez Feo, con­trib­uted to my for­ma­tion. And to see my grand­fa­ther’s work ev­ery day, the ab­stract paint­ings he made, even to­day it still af­fects me. It has en­abled me to have a dif­fer­ent vi­sion.” Diago has been in­creas­ing the fam­ily col­lec­tion, which al­lows him at times to speak “with a lit­tle author­ity” about his grand­fa­ther’s his­tory and work.

The tridi­men­sional “sheet” on which this de­cep­tively sim­ple text ap­pears has been stained with dif­fer­ent tones and den­si­ties of red, sug­gest­ing other blood pres­ences. Al­though the mes­sage seems di­rect, it is in­ter­rupted, re­paired with vis­i­ble stitches.

When he grad­u­ated in 1990, just at the start of the Spe­cial

Pe­riod, Diago was drafted and he had to paint a lot—many bill­boards mainly. When he was dis­charged, he started his work as an artist at an ex­tremely hard mo­ment, marked by the lack of ma­te­ri­als and tools. He got ac­quainted with the art povera through the Spa­niard An­toni Tapies, and he re­al­ized that this move­ment which had sprung up in de­vel­oped coun­tries as a re­ac­tion to in­dus­tri­al­ism, was for him like a strat­egy to solve what was lack­ing at the mo­ment. In 1995 he won the Third Prize of the Sa­lon of Con­tem­po­rary Paint­ing of the Na­tional Mu­seum of Fine Arts and his work started drawing col­lec­tors’ at­ten­tion in Cuba and abroad. In the nineties he trav­elled to Paris, Venice and other cities in Europe where he started to have con­tact with all the art he had stud­ied in the academy.

Af­ter the Euro­pean experience, Diago came back to Cuba with a new form of ap­pre­ci­at­ing ev­ery­day el­e­ments and he be­gan to or­ga­nize his work­shop. He was lucky (that is how he de­scribes it) to win the Maratier Prize in 1999 and since then started work­ing with a gallery in Paris. An­other stroke of luck, ac­cord­ing to Diago, is to have worked with de la Fuente. “In the case of the work I make, it has been dif­fi­cult. The art world is a world em­i­nently white. The great ma­jor­ity of col­lec­tors are white and I have to ex­plain to them what I do, some­thing that other col­leagues need not do.” The fact that a renowned his­to­rian from Har­vard deals with his work and pro­vide space to ex­hibit and com­ment it has been a fun­da­men­tal sup­port.

“It is easy to com­pre­hend western cul­ture”, says Diago, “but it takes great ef­fort to un­der­stand Asia, Africa and the Caribbean.”

It was in the late 1990s when Diago be­gan to insert the sub­ject of his­tory in his work—many times graph­i­cally. “He is a his­to­rian who paints”, thinks de la Fuente.

It was in the late 1990s when Diago be­gan to insert the sub­ject of his­tory in his work—many times graph­i­cally. “He is a his­to­rian who paints”, thinks de la Fuente. It is clear that one of the cen­tral com­mit­ments of the trade of vis­ual his­to­rian is vin­di­ca­tion.

In a doc­u­men­tary by Jua­na­maria Cor­dones-Cook about his life and work he ex­plained: “You need to re­build a bro­ken past.

It is like dig­ging as an ar­chae­ol­o­gist seek­ing those pieces of the non-of­fi­cial his­tory.”8 Be­ing a wit­ness and a par­tic­i­pant of the Afro-Cuban move­ment in the is­land, Diago con­firmed the per­sis­tence of racial fac­tors de­spite the egal­i­tar­ian goals of the Cuban Rev­o­lu­tion. Study­ing in in­for­mal work­shops with Tomás Fernán­dez Robaina and other fig­ures ded­i­cated to make in­quiries into the his­tory of afrode­scen­dants in Cuba, Diago de­vel­oped his own work “al­ways see­ing the past to un­der­stand the present.”

Like this it was fo­cused in a vo­cab­u­lary and spe­cific ex­pres­sions and in the “in the res­cue of that in­di­vid­ual, the slave”. “It is eas­ier for non-afrode­scen­dant peo­ple to go back to his­tory”, he thinks,” be­cause our his­tory is bro­ken by the slave trade. It is a form of re­sist­ing but also of car­ry­ing on. For­get the pain and cre­ate hap­pi­ness. That is why I al­ways speak of his­tory.”

De­spite the hard­ships of the past and the phys­i­cal and meta­phys­i­cal keloids it has left, Diago is care­ful not to fall into es­sen­tials. “At the end you re­al­ize that his­tory is no longer black or Caribbean, it is hu­man his­tory. You start ne­glect­ing the great hu­man his­tory… It is very hard af­ter­wards to di­vide the pain, which part is be­ing black and which part is gen­der?”

Per­haps be­cause he was formed dur­ing the pri­va­tions of the Spe­cial Pe­riod, Diago has turned so many times to the writ­ten text in his work. In the year 2000 he ex­pressed: “Graf­fiti helps me mainly to com­mu­ni­cate. I use some street phrases… They are ex­pres­sions in which the po­lit­i­cal, so­cial and re­li­gious are mixed. It is not about look­ing for words be­cause the im­age is not strong enough. I like shar­ing the pop­u­lar experience in my work. I come from a mod­est neigh­bor­hood… My ori­gins, my cul­ture, my sense of be­long­ing as a black man are from there… I have tried to per­vade that gust of wind where lies the essence of my life with a western and aca­demic plas­tic tra­di­tion…”9

He re­it­er­ates that urge of leav­ing a tex­tual mark in his work. “There are mo­ments that make you scream” he ex­plains. “My friends had to go out on the streets and sell cigars, there was much pros­ti­tu­tion and it was some­thing we had never seen be­fore… We had ev­ery­thing guar­an­teed, and af­ter, noth­ing…

This marked my ca­reer as well as that of many others in the spheres of the­ater, music, we were the his­to­ri­ans at that time.”

“The theme of racism is a virus. While ev­ery­thing is okay, ev­ery­thing is okay. But when the gaps start to come up, all the evils start to come up,” points out Diago. He talks about the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion of the “white” re­mit­tance, of the ex­ter­nal funds that are dis­pro­por­tion­ately sent to white fam­i­lies in Cuba and the ever more lu­cra­tive ac­tiv­ity of rent­ing houses and cars, ac­tiv­ity mostly dom­i­nated by whites. “When we were okay, you did not see it, but there it is, la­tent.” He ad­vo­cates for the sub­sidy to vul­ner­a­ble groups like the el­derly, dys­func­tional fam­i­lies, col­ored pop­u­la­tions. Cuba is a coun­try that was be­lieved to be par­adise, but it has not been so, and cul­tural ex­pres­sions must re­spond to that myth. Groups like Queloides (Keloids) emerged as a re­sponse to ev­ery­thing that was hap­pen­ing. “It was a scream we ut­tered.”

Walk­ing by the dif­fer­ent spa­ces of the gallery we saw a work very var­ied in its shapes and ma­te­ri­als, though hav­ing great co­her­ence re­gard­ing its say. In a long cor­ri­dor, on a wall painted dense matte black, Diago mounted an­other great Queloide (2013), this one is made of the neigh­bors’ white sheets, braided and tied to form a joined mass, defiant on the opaque sur­face.

This sculp­tural work takes the spec­ta­tor phys­i­cally and vis­ually to the wall where stands the un­ti­tled work that de la Fuente selected for the ad­ver­tis­ing ma­te­ri­als as­sert­ing its cen­tral­ity in the ex­hi­bi­tion. In other sa­lons, walk­ing to­wards the end of the gallery, we found ex­am­ples of Diago’s col­lab­o­ra­tions with peo­ple from his neigh­bor­hood and his work­shops, and sev­eral works of the se­ries La piel que habla (The skin that speaks, 2014). On the wall be­side you can read a text from an in­ter­view with David Ma­teo in 2003, in which Diago ex­pressed: “My at­ti­tude might seem ag­gres­sive, be­cause my dis­course acts like a man­i­festo against racism. Be­yond the so­cial con­di­tion of the color of a man’s skin, I am in­ter­ested in the in­te­gra­tion of the hu­man be­ing.”10 Reach­ing the end of the tour, we found pieces that be­long to the se­ries Varia­ciones de Og­gun (Vari­a­tions of Og­gun, 2013) and Huella en la Me­mo­ria (Mark on the Mem­ory, 2015). In short, many of the ret­ro­spec­tive works, per­haps in most of them, con­tain an el­e­ment that can be iden­ti­fied as a keloid, whether it is made in metal, fab­ric, can­vas or rope.

When the sem­i­nar came to an end, the last ques­tion the artist was asked has only one word: Base­ball? Even in an event with a high-rank­ing mas­ter like Roberto Diago, and a high-rank­ing his­to­rian like Ale­jan­dro de la Fuente, in a gallery a few blocks away from Har­vard Square, you turn to the com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor that Amer­i­cans and many coun­tries have: their in­ter­est in base­ball. His­to­rian and artist dwell on how lucky it was that Diago was taken off the street where he was hap­pily play­ing base­ball, and sent to art cour­ses and mu­se­ums. It is thanks to that base­ball cen­sure that to­day we are able to en­joy this ret­ro­spec­tive. ƒ

1. Acosta De Arriba, Rafael y Juan Roberto Diago. Mo­men­tos.

Ed­i­to­rial Le­tras Cubanas, Ha­vana, 2003.

2. De La Fuente, Ale­jan­dro. Diago: The Pasts of this Afro-Cuban

Present. Har­vard Univer­sity Press, Cam­bridge, Mass., 2017. 3. Con­sulted in Cuban Art News.

4. See the valu­able sum­mary of tes­ti­monies and doc­u­ments in: De La Fuente, Ale­jan­dro. Grupo An­til­lano: The Art of AfroCuba. Fun­dación Caguayo and Univer­sity of Pitts­burgh Press, Pitts­burgh, 2013.

5. Del Pino, Amado. “I can­not for­get”. In: Revolu­cion y cul­tura,

Ha­vana, n. 4, July – Aug., 2000, pp.30-32.

6. Mitchell, WJT. “Word and Im­age” In: Crit­i­cal Terms for Art

His­tory. Univer­sity of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2003, pp. 51-61. 7. “I came on a slave ship. / I was brought. / Cane and whip the sugar mill. / Iron sun / Sweat like candy. / Foot in trap.” 8. Cor­dones-Cook, Jua­na­maria. Diago, artista apa­len­cado /

A Ma­roon Artist. Doc­u­men­tary. 28 min­utes. Trailer: www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Xp__OR3vxo

9. Del Pino, Amado. op. cit.

10. Ma­teo, David. “No to­dos los ne­gros tomamos café. Con­ver­sación con Roberto Diago”. In: La Gac­eta de Cuba, Ha­vana, May-June, 2003, pp. 22-26.

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