Without Masks

by Jamie Chen


With an aim of broadening the acknowledgement of contemporary Cuban art and culture Without Masks curated by Cuban poet, art critic and curator Orlando Hernandez, successfully presented contemporary Afro-Cuban art within cultural and historical context, addressing racism, stereotyping and religious discrimination. With the works of 31 contemporary Cuban artists, range from painting and fabric sculpture, to photography and media installation, a great diversity in both medium and style was shown. The aesthetics and values of Latin American culture and art were very well presented along with their passion and creativity. In history colonialism and slavery had made traumatic damages to Cuban culture, and caused a majority of Cubans to experience a dark time of discrimination. Today Cuban culture is still facing the threat of marginalization in a world with prejudice among cultures and racial discrimination, which most believe that American culture may be behind.


At the door, the audience is led by Belkis Ayón’s large size collography drawing into the exhibition. These large size drawings filled the entire wall near the entrance of the exhibition. The drawings are based on spiritual and cultural heritage, which are from an African religious group. The spiritual culture forms the main part of Cuban culture, which is a good way to start the viewing journey of Without Masks. The rest of the space in the gallery is divided into different sections to provide different types of works a certain space, according to their medium or subject. The middle part of the gallery is occupied by a strong video piece, White Corner. It is based on the historical context of Cuban slavery, which gathers together the entire show as a whole. Another reason that this piece is in the center may be that, the curator wants to bring people some enlightenment of stopping intra-racial fights which draw origins from the pressure of being oppressed, or classified as a minority .


Inspired by African culture, Afro-Cuban art maintains a sense of primitive beauty, a flow of intuition and strong sense of materiality. In history, there are some major painters who took influence from Afro-Cuban culture, including Spanish painter Pablo Picasso, who’s recognized as a leader of the avant-garde movement Cubism. New possibilities in aesthetics are easily found in Afro-Cuban paintings. In the exhibition, Oro Baba, 79 x 71 inches, a large size painting which Santiago Rodríguez painted in 2002.On brownish raw canvas, it is characterized with powerful strokes of line drawings, a strong intensity has been created along with the color combinations of black and red. The color combination of red, black and brown is commonly seen in African pottery. The content of this painting aims to show the relationship between two societies of African origin, with one called Oro represented by male figure, and the other named Lyami Oshoronga, represented by birds suggesting female. On the upper part of the canvas, large size drawings of a fish and a body bag are placed parallel, suggesting the idea of death, which is coherent to the murder scene going on in the bottom part of the canvas. The murder scene is about a male figure with a dagger in hand and with a same size bird in suffering gesture. Next to them is another pair of a suffering man and a dead bird. The artist is borrowing the real material from life to enhance the severeness, by attaching a real horsetail to the end of the body bag and a fish skull over the fish drawing. The horsetail is hanging over almost half the canvas. The mixture of a real object brings out reality, seriousness and the theme of death. It is a discussion about humanity and choice. The word “baba” means gold, which relates to money. According to the curator’s description on the historical background, Oro society chose to devote their wisdom to commercialization instead of saving their own culture. Despite the differences of culture and language, the theme of the painting seems universal and relevant. This may also be the point that Without Masks wants to inform to its audiences.


Another good example in the show is a painting called God’s eye is looking at you, painted in 2007 by Havana born artist Manuel Mendive Hoyo, who also has a root in West Coast African culture. This painting has created a colorful surreal world within a canvas around 80” by 70”. This proportion forms almost a square, which gives the painting a very harmonious and stable structure. In this painting, everything is personified; even the sun and the tree, suggesting nature and humans are communicable. Human-like figures with three legs and a transformable body signify the soul and spiritual aspects, which can grow out of one person or more. There’s also some narrative going on, one section of the painting portrays the behavior of giving and killing, and is described  by the figure’s two sides. This painting presents religious and culture values. The flatness, the way the paint is applied to the canvas and the yellowish-brown colors all contribute to the primitive quality. The canvas is tied to a black metal frame, which has small metal figure on top. This figure makes the painting a strong sculptural work.


With less academic painting influence from western art, Afro-Cuban paintings from Without Masks focus more on expressing the idea behind the painting rather than painting techniques like linear perspective. Afro-Cuban artists developed their own technique and visual language, which is sufficient in its visual communication.  Inventiveness and Intuition is a remarkable feature of Afro-Cuban’s contemporary paintings, and it is worth studying by the western painters. In this show, there were many more outstanding works that have not been mentioned. The paintings that are described here only provide an idea of the originality and important artistic value of Afro-Cuban art. The title Without Masks reminds people of the aboriginal culture, but what has been truly shown in this exhibition is diverse contemporary art which is highly inspiring to the western contemporary art world. It is also an exhibition that provides viewers with lessons of how racial discrimination  and cultural prejudice can damage human civilization, and block the development of cultural diversity.  It is through these means that curator Orlando Hernandez has made this exhibition successful and opened the door leading the western world to contemporary Cuban art.


Without Masks Ran from May 2nd to November 2nd 2014 at the UBC Museum of Anthropology. More information about the shows documentation and catalogues can be viewed on site at UBC or on their website.