PREHISTORIC CUBAN ART
THE UNCONSCIOUS AND INDUCED SPIRITUALITY
To speak or write about prehistoric Cuban art, from art spaces (events, publications, galleries, etc.), appears a rarity, an eccentricity or, at the least, to approach something that is not of interest. The elusive and much used post-history has more swing.
However, more than seventy years ago, with the clear vision of an art historian, Anita Arroyo wrote about Cuba’s indigenous arts: “These would fill the profane who has never dealt with these things with astonishment, causing many to rectify the enormous error of the backwards level of culture that, without any grounds and with complete ignorance of our primitive civilizations, they mistakenly attributed them (…) What has been found to date, which is already very much (…) would suffice to fill several rooms (…) of a Great National Museum” (1943).
Still today, however, there is no such National space. More than 200 provincial and municipal museums, which coexist across the Cuban nation, sometimes with inadequate museographic criteria, dedicate space to indigenous arts, ensuring that these works are known throughout the country. The great cultural project of classifying and selecting the representative pieces of each of these collections, to bring together, in a single national exhibition, all the diversity of themes and styles that this indigenous past has bequeathed the island’s cultural heritage, continues unfinished. It is a proposal, from the field of Art History, that does not appear to be comprehended or supported by professionals and scientific institutions (anthropological and archaeological) that have historically safeguarded this heritage.
Despite the fact that Cuban artists—modern and contemporary, figurative or abstract, in series or isolated works, based on a quote, recreated appropriation, or anthropological criteria—have shown interest in certain aspects of this past indigenous aesthetic, very little of this has been reflected in Cuban art research. There are no known curatorial proposals from art galleries interested in exhibiting Cuban archaeological pieces. Nor are there systematic studies that approach the symbolic questions or the elaboration of aesthetic ideas surrounding these indigenous productions from the Art History perspective. And the events and symposiums on Cuban art studies do not usually include the theme of indigenous arts, nor show an interest in encouraging their inclusion, despite the “survival of a memory, albeit somewhat diluted, but a memory nonetheless,” still prevailing in certain areas of this cultural geography. In general, these studies still fail to overcome the traditional frameworks of archaeological events.
The contrary is the case with Cuban researchers in the archaeological field—though curiously Cuba does not have an Archaeology School—who have continued to intensely develop their activities, organizing events and elaborating studies of a profound conceptual basis, which go beyond the mere description of the archaeological piece and its surroundings. Interdisciplinary studies which even approach habitual areas of the art historian and the aesthete. The latter, who do not tend to participate in said archaeological events, are not aware of such, nor do they update themselves in this regard.
Despite the fact that Cuban artists —modern and contemporary, figurative or abstract, in series or isolated works, based on a quote, recreated appropriation, or anthropological criteria —have shown interest in certain aspects of this past indigenous aesthetic, very little of this has been reflected in Cuban art research.
In the last event held in Havana (the 13th International Conference ANTROPOLOGIA 2016), a book was presented that announces this development from a particular branch of the archaeological field (Arte Rupestre de Cuba: Desafíos Conceptuales / Cuban Cave Art: Conceptual Challenges), by authors who do not come from the professional field of Art History. In the words of the presenter from the Cuban Institute of Anthropology, the previously stated is confirmed: the book constitutes a proposal of a “critical evaluation of the accumulated knowledge” in Cuban studies regarding “the origins of art in history.” Yet Cuban art historians, critics and aesthetes appear to have nothing to say in this regard.
Continuing his review of the contributions of the book, the presenter notes how the authors question shamanism—and its relation to altered states of consciousness—as a “universal regularity,” sparking doubts regarding those limited Cuban studies that have found “similarities between the phosphene designs of other indigenous peoples and those of our cave art.” And he concludes: “Justifying religiosity and art on the basis of drugs and trances, on a psychological effect, minimizes the intellectual faculties of man as a generator of culture in the historic stage termed primitive community.”
While the critique appears to have an ethical component, as an art historian, trained through the gradual and systematic study of art and culture, I am obliged to disagree with this approach of our friend and colleague. Drugs and trances have been a catalyzing duo. To paint, dance, declaim, make music or write, and even to delve into the “mysteries” of other sciences, the history of humanity shows us that—from the earliest period, to modern and contemporary times, including traditional societies, classic periods, and the youthful countercultural waves that cyclically irrupt in the midst of the conservative cultural environment in any territory—prominent generators of culture have made their creations precisely in the moments of maximum induced excitation, or in a trance state following prior consumption of substances of very varied nature (entheogenic or psychoactive), not to mention the most accessible alcohols.
Forms or paths to trances also include: asceticism, abstinence, and the excessive passions of small and major religions that generate, transform and become, in a perpetual rhythm, a form of endogenous drug, that is, produced by the human body, and can cause the same states of altered consciousness that exogenous drugs produce. This would appear to be the only way to communicate with “the gods,” that is, with that knowledge and those events that escape our comprehension. Drugs and trances have been a constant in the soul of the creator, in his attempt to transcend limits. Such that it is not unreasonable to suppose such a hypothesis for the cultural context of Cuban prehistory, insofar as these indigenous peoples, it goes without saying, were as human as any other.
Perhaps, under these altered states, Cuban art historians, spiritually induced, would turn their attention to the upcoming 14th International Conference ANTROPOLOGÍA 2018, which will take place in Havana, Cuba, from November 20-23, 2018, and will have new things to say, demand or correct. There is still time.
LEANDRO SOTO Ancestros, 1979 JESÚS DE ARMAS Carbonadas, 1985 / 1987
ANA MENDIETA Itiba Cahubaba, 1981 JOSÉ BEDIA Crónicas Americanas, 1980 The artist’s collection