December 13, 2017 5:09 am Last modified: 5:03 am

Cuba Diary: Casa de las Americas, Afrocubanismo and Cultural Exchange

In March and April Source publisher Shaun A. Pennington shared a series of articles born from her trip to Cuba on a license obtained by the Nation magazine. These articles were collectively called The Cuba Diary. In May, Source reporter David Knight Jr. also had the opportunity to travel to Cuba as part of an event at Casa de las Americas in which his partner, Priscilla Hintz Rivera, gave a presentation. The following article is his personal reflection on the experience.

The headquarters of Cuba’s renowned cultural institution Casa de las Americas, located in the Havana neighborhood of Vedado, is a stately art deco building with austere lines and a commanding clock tower.

Once a private university, the building was appropriated by the government during the Cuban Revolution and, for the last six decades, has served as a meeting place for intellectuals and artists from around the Caribbean and Latin America. Casa de las Americas boasts one of the region’s oldest and most respected academic journals, awards one of its most prestigious literary awards, and hosts symposiums, workshops and residencies designed to strengthen ties between Cuba and its neighbors.

I arrived at Casa de las Americas on May 18 thanks to an invitation extended to my partner, St. Thomas-based curator Priscilla Hintz Rivera. The invitation had come from Marta Mabel Perez, executive director of the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico’s PROA program, who was organizing a presentation for “Coloquio Internacional, La Diversidad Cultural en el Caribe,” (International Conference on Cultural Diversity in the Caribbean) an event that Casa de las Americas hosts every two years as a prelude to the famed Havana Biennale.

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This year the theme of the event was “Africa y el Caribe,”(Africa and the Caribbean) and Mabel Perez and independent curator Cheryl Hartrup of Ponce, Puerto Rico, planned to present on elements of the African cultural heritage in Puerto Rican contemporary art. Hintz Rivera was invited to widen the scope of the presentation from Puerto Rico to the American Caribbean.

Although dialogue between Puerto Rican and Cuban artists has survived the islands’ diverging trajectories – the Cuban writer and independence leader José Martí referred to the islands as "two wings of the same bird" – there are limited opportunities for communication between Cuba and the U.S. Virgin Islands at the level of cultural exchange.

Hintz Rivera’s invitation to speak on a few contemporary USVI artists was an opportunity to share some of the work being produced in our islands with our large and intensely arts-focused, but politically distant, neighbor.

The theme of Africa in the contemporary Caribbean was a fortunate one for our group to experience. Cuba is known for its modern African cultural retention and transfiguration, a legacy of both Spanish colonial laws that did little to limit African cultural practices in the Cuban countryside, and the stated aims of the Cuban Revolution to address the social disorder of racism. In religion, music and visual arts, Afro-Cubans have been a major and very visible force in the development of the national culture.

“Africa is not the past. It is the present and the future. It is a commitment we have to our people,” said Yolanda Wood, program director of Casa de las Americas in an inaugural address that opened the symposium.

It is true that a Cuban reverence for the African heritage was immediately evident in the ceremony that opened the event. The attendees of the event climbed the stairs to the building’s "Che Guevara room" to the sound of Yoruban chants. Santería rituals blessed the opening.

The works of art hung around the Che Guevara room were by three contemporary Cuban artists linked to the Afrocubanismo movement, of which the legendary painter Wilfredo Lam was the best-known progenitor. Juanamaría Cordones-Cook, a Uruguayan professor teaching at the University of Missouri, screened a documentary about each. Through these films – “El Mundo Magico de Mendive,” “Diago, Artista Apalencado” and “Olazabal, Un Hacedor de Objetos” – we were given an illuminating glimpse into the philosophies and practices of these Cuban artists.

The international, Pan-Caribbean focus of the event soon became clear as Jamaican culture dominated the afternoon with several interesting speakers on the subjects of reggae, Rastafari and Bob Marley (in honor of the 70th anniversary of his birth).

Jamaica-born Syracuse University professor Horace Campbell gave a lively talk on the future of Rastafarianism in 21st century global movements titled "Bob Marley and the Resistance to War from Vindicationism to Emancipation and Spiritual Health.”

Carolyn Cooper, Yanique Hume and Sonjah Stanley Niaah from the University of the West Indies (Jamaica and Barbados campuses) each spoke about contemporary academic interpretation of the Caribbean icon’s music.

In what was perhaps the most arresting and entertaining presentation of the afternoon, Michael Alleyne of the University of the Tennessee explored the implications of the marketing of everything from Marley brand coffee to energy drinks and headphones in a presentation titled “Marketing Marley: Cultural & Commercial Consequences.”

If that all sounds intimidatingly academic, there were events for those with more artistic sensibilities as well. Among the most powerful was a performance piece by Martinican artist Annabel Guérédrat titled “A Freak Show for S,” a startling and moving tribute to Sara Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman who was exhibited as an attraction in 19th-century Europe.

Another highlight was the screening of a documentary titled “Reembarque,” directed by Gloria Rolando, that addressed the repatriation of Haitians from Cuba in the first half of the 20th century.

Attendees of the event came from around the world, and we were not the only visitors from the Virgin Islands. Andrea Leland of St. John accompanied Dr. Cadrin Gill of St. Vincent and presented two documentaries on the resurgence of Garifuna (Black Carib) identity in St. Vincent, including Leland’s latest work: "Yurumein: Homeland."

On the fourth day of the event, Hintz Rivera gave a presentation on the work of five practicing contemporary artists from the U.S. Virgin Islands. The topics she addressed included everything from La Vaughn Belle’s insertion of Afro-Caribbean cultural narrative into plantation sites via site-specific works and performances to Erik Pedersen’s use of African religious symbolism in his installations. Also included were works by Gerville Larsen, Jon Euwema and Shansi Miller.

For Euwema, the only artist of the five who chose to attend the event, there were numerous opportunities to network. These ranged from meeting fellow Caribbean visual artists to a chance to practice drumming, long an interest of Euwema’s, in the streets of Havana.

When I spoke to Euwema after our return to the V.I., he said the trip had energized him to sort through his studio and revisit 20 years worth of creative ideas that he said have a taken a back seat to his professional design work.

Although the art world is not free from the economic and political debates that have arisen from the thaw in relations between the United States and Cuba, it seems uncontroversial to welcome the potential for more straightforward exchanges between artists, writers and musicians. In our rush to wonder what consequences the latest political-shift in the Caribbean will have on the tourism industry, I hope we in the Virgin Islands don’t lose sight of the opportunities for new cultural collaborations on the horizon.

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