A little-known artistic revolution in Cuba almost 40 years ago is now featured at the African American Museum in Philadelphia. A group of Cuban artists banded together in 1978 together as Grupo Antillano, to make work highlighting African ties to Cuba.
Grupo Antillano — in reference to their native Antilles islands — drew a line in the sand with a manifesto defending African art and religion that took root in Cuba via the slave trade. The manifesto, authored by sculptor Rafael Queneditt Morales, ran afoul of official government-sanctioned art practice and vowed: “We are not interested in other worlds.”
“Cuban culture was coming out of a period in the early 1970s characterized by a significant degrees of official resistance against religions in general, and African religions in particular,” said Harvard professor Alejandro de la Fuente, who has spent years researching this all-but-forgotten art movement.
“These religions were seen as an obstacle in the construction of a new socialist society,” he said.
De la Fuente has put together a book and a traveling exhibition of work by the original group of artists, many of whom use African symbolism, earth tone palettes, and references to the Yoruba religion.
“Wood is best used for Latin-African expressions,” said the artist Rogelio Cobas, as noted in the wall text accompanying his wood sculpture “Satellite” (1998). Many of the pieces on display were made more recently that then Grupo Antillano heyday of 1978 — 1983.
Cobas died two months ago at age 89. The founder of Grupo Antillano, Rafael Queneditt, died on Jan. 2 at age 73. He is represented in the show by his sculptural crucifixion, “Resurrection” (2013).
The exhibition is called “Drapetomania,” a racist medical term from the 19th century describing a mental condition compelling sufferers to escape captivity. The disease, supposedly, was confined to African slaves.
Grupo Antillano embraced the idea of Drapetomania, as a means to escape artistic expectations.
“What Rafael and his collaborators were saying was, ‘We don’t care about that. We don’t want to follow the latest trend. We don’t want our art to be part of those western conversations,'” said de le Fuente. “The world that interests them is this Afro-Caribbean world.”
A second gallery at the museum features work by subsequent generations of artists, after Grupo Antillano. Like their forbears, the young artists employ African imagery, Yoruban religious ideas, and references to the slave trade by which these concepts migrated to Cuba.
De la Fuente, himself, made the intellectual link between the older generation and the newer. The influence was not direct.
“When I talked to the contemporary artist, none of them — none of them — knew about Grupo Antillano,” said de la Fuente.