Cuban Art Makes Waves

The new exhibit Queloides III sparks discussion about racial issues in America’s Caribbean neighbor and aims to help expose “scars.”

Alexis Esquivel Bermudez’ Héroe postcolonial from “Queloides III” at the Mattress Factory.

Courtesy of the Mattress Factory

Alejandro de la Fuente believes that art can improve not only the lives of individuals, but it also can benefit the future of nations. That’s one of the reasons he’s co-curating “Queloides III,” an exhibit opening at the Mattress Factory this month that examines a controversial issue in contemporary Cuba.

The Spanish word queloides translates into English as “keloids,” a type of raised scar to which many Cubans believe black skin is particularly susceptible. “Queloides III” follows the lead of its predecessors, “Queloides I” (1997) and “Queloides II” (1999), which were created and exhibited in Cuba, by addressing the scars of racism that exist today in Cuba—where discussion of this topic is all but forbidden.

That’s why it’s not surprising that de la Fuente, a research professor at the University of Pittsburgh, is bringing this problem to light—his specialty is racial inequality in contemporary Cuba. To create “Queloides III,” de la Fuente enlisted the help of the Mattress Factory, a local museum of contemporary installation art, and the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Latin American Studies.

Though he was not involved in “Queloides I” or “Queloides II,” de la Fuente came to believe that a third version of the show was possible. Moreover, he envisioned that with the Center for Latin American Studies—recently honored as a National Resource Center by the U.S. Department of Education—and the innovation of the Mattress Factory, “Queloides” could find a home not only in Havana but also in Pittsburgh.

Profiles of selected artists and their work, such as Armando Mariño and “The Raft.”

As de la Fuente explains, Fidel Castro initiated several social programs to equalize racial opportunities in the 1960s. The social programs were considered to be so successful by the government that, shortly after, the problem of racism was declared to be solved, and an official silence prevailed. Although this policy has persisted for decades, intellectuals and artists have been pushing against official silence; “Queloides” is another example of this effort.

The artists de la Fuente brought together for the show were those whose creative approach dovetailed with his intellectual work. De la Fuente and his co-curator, artist Elio Rodriguez, say they knew that the exhibit needed to begin in Cuba because that’s where the problem originates. So, “Queloides III” was exhibited in Havana from April 16 to May 31.

The co-curators arranged for the exhibit to show in the Cuban capital’s Wifredo Lam Center of Contemporary Art, a premier—and government-owned—exhibit space. Despite the fact that the government controls this gallery, officials allowed the exhibit to go on. “Censoring an exhibit like this would be very problematic because it would be an open acknowledgment that you cannot talk about this,” says de la Fuente.

However, cultural authorities still attempted to silence any publicity. They didn’t call on the press for promotion, and they advised some journalists not to write about the exhibit in order to avoid any problems. Instead, news traveled via e-mail and by word of mouth.

The outcome: The exhibit’s opening night alone attracted a record 300 people, and in the first two weeks, an additional 1,000 people attended the exhibit. It was, in de la Fuente’s words, a success.But de la Fuente believes that conversations about race need no border: They are global discussions, and an exhibit about race in Cuba can inform a larger dialogue, one that belongs as much in Pittsburgh as anywhere else.

On Oct. 15, “Queloides III” opens in Pittsburgh. The Mattress Factory is providing fully funded residencies to the seven artists who are creating installation pieces. The work that they will complete here will be based on work from the Havana exhibit, except that they now will have access to more supplies and space to develop the installations further. De la Fuente knew he wanted the Mattress Factory to be part of this exhibit because “it is so intellectually adventurous, so open to interesting ideas and so welcoming.”

Among the many tasks Mattress Factory employees completed to make “Queloides III” happen, they scoured the area to find a 1950s sports car for one of artist Armando Mariño’s works. Mariño will create a life-sized version of “The Raft” in which a 1950 Plymouth Special Deluxe will be supported not on wheels, but rather on a sculpture of dozens of black legs and bare feet.

While “Queloides III” may include installation pieces that are larger and more elaborate than those in Cuba, it also will feature the unchanged artwork from the five artists not creating works of installation art.

The continuity of the art is just one of the aspects of what de la Fuente envisions can be “an encounter between Cuba and the U.S.—an encounter that goes beyond government officials.” He is also helping to plan a table discussion with the support of the Center for Latin American Studies, which will give the public the opportunity to engage with the artists.
De la Fuente sees the cultural communication that is already taking place through this project as a microcosm of greater opportunities for the discussion of race in Cuba. “These are projects that build bridges,” he says.

(Mattress Factory, 500 Sampsonia Way, Northside. Oct. 15-Feb. 27: Sun., 1-5 p.m.; Tues.-Sat., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Adults, $10; seniors, $8; students, $7; children under 6, CMU and Pitt students, free. Info: 412/231-3169, Round table, “Queloides: Race and Racism in Cuban Contemporary Art. A Conversation with Cuban Artists,” 4130 Posvar Hall, 230 S. Bouquet St., University of Pittsburgh, Oakland. Thurs. Oct. 14, 12:00-2:00)

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