ROBERTO DIAGO AND THE PAST
AND THE PAST IN PRESENT TIMES
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.
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.