Racism isn’t always easy to identify. Dr. Nuno Porto, curatorial liaison for Without Masks, hopes that this exhibition at the Museum of Anthropology dealing with Afro-Cuban social issues such as racism and exclusion can shed light on our own society and help us reflect on our situation.
“Racism is a universal issue in a sense,” he said, explaining that although there was a revolution in Cuba and many things changed, “racism is not over in contemporary Cuba.”
When Cuba was a Spanish colony in the early 16th century, explained Porto,“the Spanish exterminated the indigenous population. The population is not recognized as being part of the nation in a sense. Afro-Cuban art practice reflects that.”
First shown in Johannesburg and taken from a large private collection, this exhibit includes over 80 artworks by a diverse set of artists. The artists have very different ways of approaching the social issues. Some pieces are humorous and ironic, and some are more serious and ethnographic or spiritual in their social commentary.
“There is a tension between the different media and attitudes that makes for a diverse and enriching experience,” said Porto. “There is painting, photography, textile work, drawing, engraving, collage, installations, video, you name it. It’s very diverse in terms of media.”
One large work is done on a canvas made entirely of old coffee and sugar sacks to represent the slavery on the plantations. Written on the canvas are the words: “what is difficult is not to be a man, what is difficult is to be black.”
Some of the works are very large and intense, including a series of lithograph prints by Belkis Ayón. Ayon works with the themes of her double exclusion as a black female. Porto described her works as highly poetic saying they are “like plunging into a different universe. They’re hypnotic.”
One unique thing about the exhibition is that it is organized by the principles of Afro-Cuban culture, not by specific idea or themes. “It is organized from eldest to youngest, so the ancestors are first.” Three prominent Afro-Cuban artists who are now deceased are placed at the front of the gallery, drawing the audience in to see the works by younger artists. Porto explained that the public gets acquainted progressively with the artworks, and the works demand that they face these issues.
The setting for this exhibition is the Museum of Anthropology’s Audain Gallery, a large white cube. A gallery space is usually meant to be disconnected from the outside world, explained Porto. “The idea is that the outside world should not come in, but we have a series of artworks that are the outside world coming in.” With all their social commentary, Porto sees these works as a series of windows into other realities. “It’s food for thought both aesthetically and politically,” he said.
Porto said that there is a lot we can take away from this exhibition in terms of reflecting on social issues in our own region. As he read about the statistics of how much of the homeless population in Vancouver is First Nations, that resonated with him as relating to this show. “You can think it has nothing to do with racism,” he said, “or you can look at it without masks.”
Sometimes it takes removing the mask of our own perspective and looking elsewhere to come back to our own world with a better understanding of how these issues relate to us, and maybe we realize that they aren’t so unfamiliar.
Without Masks: Contemporary Afro-Cuban Art is presented by UBC’s Museum of Anthropology (MOA) from May 2 to November 2, 2014. Visit moa.ubc.ca for more details about the exhibition and related events.