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Artists address the chronic racism in Cuba

| Sunday, Dec. 12, 2010

Racism always has been a hotbed issue in this country. It's also an important issue all over the world, especially in Cuba, where people of African descent have experienced significant barriers in regard to employment.

An exhibit on display at the Mattress Factory titled "Queloides" addresses these barriers, and other barriers that have resulted from the racism that has persisted there, particularly since the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union had a severe and negative impact on the Cuban economy.

Organized by Cuban artist Elio Rodriguez Valdes and Alejandro de la Fuente, professor of history and Latin American studies at the University of Pittsburgh, the exhibit contains the work of 13 Cuban artists who came to Pittsburgh to produce the works.

De la Fuente says the title of the exhibit not only refers to its English equivalent, "keloids," but also to two earlier exhibits in Cuba of the same title and subject. He says, even here, the title is just as relevant.

"Keloids is a medical term for pathological scars that develop in the site of a skin injury produced by surgical incisions or traumatic wounds. Although any injury might result in keloids, many people believe that the black skin is particularly susceptible to develop these scars," De la Fuente says. "Thus the title evokes the persistence of racial stereotypes -- i.e. the black skin is 'different' or 'worse' -- and the traumatic process of dealing with racism, discrimination and centuries of cultural conflict."

De la Fuente says that, with the economic crisis that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, competition for jobs, particularly in tourism and other activities where it was possible to earn hard currency increased significantly.

"Racist stereotypes and images were used to eliminate black candidates for these jobs and to justify their exclusion as well," De la Fuente says. "It is frequently argued in the island, for instance, that because blacks lack a 'good appearance' or because they are 'unreliable' or 'lazy,' they should not be given the best jobs."

All of the artists included in the exhibit came of age professionally in the early 1990s, precisely at the time when the Cuban socialist state began to crumble and racism (and other social ills, such as prostitution) were growing drastically in the island.

"These artists had grown up in post-revolutionary Cuba, in a social environment that was fairly egalitarian and racially integrated," De la Fuente says. "They have used their work to denounce the growing racism and racial inequality that has come to characterize Cuban society since the early 1990s."

The exhibit begins outside of the museum, in the parking lot. That's where an antique Plymouth sedan is rather inconspicuously parked. But look closely, and you will see roughly a dozen pairs of ceramic legs of Afro-Cubans holding it up.

The piece is by Armando Marino and is titled "The Raft." It immediately sets the tone for the exhibit, calling to mind the many Cubans who fled their country, only to come to ours and be confronted with racism of its own kind.

Racism always has been a taboo issue in Cuba. So, these artists' works have been confrontational and critical. Some of the artists mock racist stereotypes, such as Manuel Arenas, whose room-size installation "Artificial Breathing" contains the phrase "Am I not a man and a brother?" in frozen letters hung on one wall. Covered in ice crystals, thanks to a freezer unit housed behind the wall, it's a cold commentary on the cold shoulder many young Afro-Cubans receive on a daily basis.

In similar fashion, Alexis Esquivel addresses the persistent exclusion of blacks from the structures of power through a series of portraits that looks closely at the fragilities and vulnerabilities of historical figures, such as Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara (1928-67) and Cuban revolutionary Camilo Cienfuegos (1932-59), both of whom were executed.

Other works proclaim blacks' humanity, as in Rene Pena's rather personal photographs of Afro-Cuban men in repose, either after or during the simple act of taking a bath. And then there are those that question a Western culture that transforms blacks into "others," such as the subjects of scientific study and folklore presented in the sarcastically humorous oil paintings of Armando Marino. And in the museum's basement a shrine-like installation, "Ave Maria," by Jose Toirac and Meira Marrero contains several dozen small religious figurines that delve into the African religious influences that sustain Cuban culture.

De la Fuente says not all of these artists identify themselves as blacks. "Most of them do, but several of these artists are considered -- and consider themselves -- white in Cuba."

In other words, Queloides is not a "black project" or a project "for blacks," but a cultural project by a multiracial group of artists who share similar beliefs and concerns about racial justice and equality.

"Bear in mind that when they began to discuss issues of race and racism in their art work in the 1990s, they did something that was unthinkable in a place like Cuba: they denounced racism in Cuban society, something that the government had always claimed did not exist in Cuba," De la Fuentes says.

Additional Information:

'Queloides'

What: An art exhibit addressing the persistence of racism and racial discrimination in contemporary Cuba and elsewhere in the world

When: Through Feb. 27. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 1-5 p.m. Sundays

Admission: $10; $8 for senior citizens; $7 for students; free for age 5 and younger. Half-off admission Thursdays (except group tours)

Where: Mattress Factory, 500 Sampsonia Way, North Side

Details: 412-231-3169 or www.mattress.org

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