The Movement: Afro-Cuban Art In Miami

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By: Dr. Keshia N. Abraham

From nuanced hip hop to stylized jazz, from paintings in the streets to lining the gallery walls, from the folkloric to the sacred, from hairstyles to footwear, from the sounds of drums to arroz con pollo, Africa is everywhere in Cuba!

What Is Afro-Cuban Art

What Afro-Cuban art is, however, depends on where you are situated, where you are looking and the lenses through which you read what you see. There is Afro-Cuban art in many different spaces throughout Miami and there is Afro-Cuban art all over Cuba, and these “arts” are not in and of the same worlds.

Afro-Cuban art can be Black but is differently Black than, say, African American art. Black and Cuba are only synonymous if you are not from Miami, if you have actually been to Cuba, or if your work actively involves the African Diaspora. When we speak of African American art we are usually addressing art created by African Americans. What defines the Afro in Afro-Cuban art is its content and context, not necessarily the background of the artist. It is possible to be “not-Black” and make Afro-Cuban art that is appreciated for its Africanity in a way that has not been the case throughout the rest of the African diaspora.

The African presence in Cuba is undeniable, incredibly strong and visible - but because of the practice of whitening in the U.S., it is possible to shed, deny, or simply omit one's blackness in order to melt into the dominant, acceptable identity group in Miami. Here it is both possible and common to refer to being Cuban, refer to one's self as “white” while showing pictures of generations of family that include a Black abuelo or abuelita.

So when we talk of Afro-Cuban art, we have several distinctions and art that pays homage to African heritage and culture, art by Black Cubans, art that makes reference to Afro-Cuban culture, and none of these are mutually exclusive. As a “movement,” Afro-Cuban Art involves bringing what is Black about Cuba to the forefront and an important linking with Black diaspora arts as a much larger field or landscape. It is one in which Black/ Afro-Cuban lives matter.

For every art medium you can think of, there are extraordinary Afro-Cuban examples in Miami – from music, dance and sculpture to painting, photography and textiles. Since the very first time seeing the work of Jose Bedia, who captures the true essence of what we seem to mean when we say “Afro-Cuban,” I have been fascinated with the power of the African presence from this nation and its diaspora. Afro-Cuban art has given the world, and the African diaspora in particular, a symbolic language with which to speak to and about African spiritual systems, specifically with regard to the orishas. The iconography of spiritual African systems from many nations – Yoruba, Fon, Dahomey, Congo, Ketu, Ijesha, Egbado, Oyo, Nago and Jeje are all a part of what has become Afro-Cuban art. Here there are so many points of reference that people from throughout the African Diaspora will feel and see a “familiar” energy in a variety of artistic mediums in Cuba and the Cuban diaspora.

By using this symbolic language, embedding it in painting, music, sculpture, textiles, and other mediums, the narrative histories of West and Southern Africa (specifically Yoruba and Congo) that didn’t exist visually as art for art's sake in Africa have significantly contributed to the globalization of Lucumi/Orisha culture and positive associations with Cuban culture worldwide.

The Lucumi tradition, also understood as Afro-Cuban religion, has given us a New World lens on ancient African traditional spiritual systems by creating visible representations that offer a new and necessary lingua franca that we recognize as part of Cuba, bringing together African aesthetics from many different nations. As such, Afro-Cuban religion has traveled extensively and influenced the world. It is possible now to see certain images and identify them as representations of Oshun, Oggun, Exu, Obatala, Shango, Oya, Ochossi and their tools as both overt and embedded in artistic forms. This is a major specific contribution Afro-Cuban art has made to the world – it has in this way made visible narratives which only existed orally and in the minds and hearts of practitioners for many generations.

Now, because of Afro-Cuban art, students reading African American novelist Ntozake Shange or viewing international pop sensation Beyonce’s “Lemonade” can quickly pick up on the Osun imagery because we have a context for a yellow-wearing, mirror-having, beautiful brown-skinned woman in touch with her own sensuality. While our African spiritual traditions such as Ifa remain intact as practiced consistently for hundreds of years prior to the slave trade, in Cuba, the coming together of Africans from many different spiritual systems, languages, and nations necessitated a different approach to how we imagine and share knowledge which is continuing to benefit us and our ways of knowing.

Afro-Cuban Film

In Afro-Cuban film, the extraordinary work of Gloria Rolando has been for many of us the most connected and clearly diasporic repertoire- teaching us volumes about Afro-Cuban expression because it is visually, narratively, politically, aesthetically, and unmistakably African. For me, Rolando has been a sort of Afro-Cuban godmother bridging and explaining nuances of Afro-Cuban culture and the powerful relationship between Black Cuba, Black Americans and our common diaspora considerations. Her films “Oggun”, “Eyes of the Rainbow”, “Breaking the Silence,” “My Footsteps in Baragua” and “Dialog with My Grandmother” provide essential wisdom about what is Afro-Cuba.

Local Miami filmmaker Sergio Giral is also a major part of this tradition. When asked about the existence of an Afro-Cuban art movement in Miami, Giral explained that while “in Cuba there doesn’t exist an Afro-Cuban art movement per se,” filmmakers such as Giral, Nicolás Guillén, and Sara Gómez, “who are Afro descendants have dedicated their artwork to a high level of Afro expression.”

Afro-Cuban Music

It is the music which many see as the most visible and transcendent element of Afro-Cuban heritage. To quote Giral, “Cuban music directly descended from African rhythms brought by the slave trade during the colonial period and most of the songs in native languages of different African religions luckily survived slavery. For example, take Ernesto Lecuona, the great Cuban white composer who has devoted more than one of his pieces to African rhythms. Drummer Chano Pozo brought the tumbadora to American Jazz and Celia Cruz is the most internationally famous Cuban singer.”

Aruan Torres, a Miami-based Afro-Cuban drummer and drummaker, has been in Miami for over 15 years. Son of famed drummer Ezekiel Torres (winner of the Performing Arts award for 2014 and recipient of the “Key to the City”), Aruan comes from a drum-making family, preserving ancient traditions both in the construction and playing of sacred Orisha drums, like bata. He has explained that “Afro-Cuban art is art that people who came from Africa to Cuba are able to preserve and make our own. It is of Africa and something new, something preserved with unique new nuances. Through this art we pass the knowledge of whatever they brought, wherever they took them. It’s both a thing we preserve about our heritage and what we produce.” Together with the extraordinarily gifted Neri Torres, and her dance company IFE-ILE, Miami hosts an annual Afro-Cuban music and dance festival each August.

When it comes to an actual “movement” of Afro-Cuban art, the general consensus seems to be that what we have is something more of a way of life, a way of expressing, a unity that is alive in all of the expressions of art because here in Miami, Afro-Cuban art is generally known as Cuban art without any specific denomination. Even art critics writing about global Black art have a hard time recognizing or reconciling what could be called a movement of Afro-Cuban art… is it an artist like Jose Bedia (who is not phenotypically Black), a type of art like ritual or spiritual-based work, or is it perhaps a feeling of something that references Africa? As I experience it, this notion of a “movement” of Afro-Cuban art is what the presence of Afro-Cuban art within the context of the “Art of Black” makes room for – a way of seeing and thinking more broadly about what Cuba is, what Cuban art is and where the African/Black is in all of that.

As we think about who the artists are that immediately come to mind as examples of Afro-Cuban visual art with presence or references in Miami, we bow to the work of Jose Bedia, Wifredo Lam, Agustín Cárdenas and Manuel Mendive, who are examples of authentic, genuine artists mindful and intentional about how Africa is a part of them and their work. Recent exhibitions have included the wonderfully talented Tomas Esson, Armando Marino, Lupe Lawrence and Duane Cotes.

FIU Art Professor Carol Damian explains that, “More and more artists do not label themselves. People aren’t putting themselves in those categories. It seems that we are trying to get away from the Cuban thing where all of these strange identity labels (female artist, Black artist) enter into the discourse but I think in Miami a lot of it is blurring – the artists all work together – they are all in the same boat.” An example here would be Carlos Luna who, as explained by Damian, while not Afro-Cuban, creates work that is filled with all kinds of images in Cuba (roosters, cafecitos, Santeria objects, elements of Afro-Cuban rituals symbols that we can recognize if we know what they are). It's there because it’s part of the landscape that creates his work. He still uses so much of this symbolic language – but if you are doing an article on Afro-Cuban art you wouldn’t necessarily include him. He’s a Cuban artist living in Miami.”

So by now you must be wondering where to go if you want to see Afro-Cuban art. Check out our botanicas, go to the galleries, visit shows all over the place - because once you open your eyes and ears to it, you will surely notice as I have, Afro-Cuban art is everywhere in Miami.

Read more about the influences of Africa on art and culture in Miami on our Art of Black Miami pages.