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. ƒ

LE­AN­DRO SOTO Ance­s­tros, 1979 JESÚS DE AR­MAS Car­bonadas, 1985 / 1987

ANA MENDI­ETA Itiba Cahubaba, 1981 JOSÉ BE­DIA Cróni­cas Amer­i­canas, 1980 The artist’s col­lec­tion

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