Grupo Antillano: Afro-Cuban art in New York City
by Alejandro de la Fuente
In an article published in the mid-19th century, Samuel Cartwright, a medical doctor in a Louisiana plantation, described a new disease among slaves. The most visible symptom of this disease, which Cartwright called drapetomania, was an irrepressible and pathological urge to flee and to be free. A form of resistance practiced by African slaves since the beginnings of European colonization in the Americas was transformed into a psychiatric disease. As any other pathology, drapetomania could be treated medically. The suggested remedies, however, were not particularly innovative. According to Cartwright, there were only two effective remedies to treat drapetomania: flogging and amputation, especially of toes.
Neither drapetomania nor the barbaric remedies prescribed by the famous doctor were new, of course. Along with other forms of resistance, the existence of runaways among African slaves in the Americas is reported since the early sixteenth century. Resistance and what the Iberians called cimarronaje were inherent to slavery and inseparable from it, to the point that sale contracts often included the propensity to flee as one of the “flaws” or defects of the slave. As early as 1535, chronicler Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, writing about Hispaniola, the first European colony in the New World, asserted that “Cimarrones… means in the language of this island, fugitives.”
The term cimarrón was initially applied to “wild” cattle and was used to describe barbarism, savagery and wilderness, attributes that, according to the slave owners, characterized all Africans. But the slaves invested the term with new meanings and cimarronaje came to represent not only the obstinate resistance of Africans and their descendants to slavery, but also to the processes of deculturation to which they were subject. What was initially an attribute of wild animals became a symbol of rebellion and resistance against European colonial oppression. In the twentieth century, Caribbean thinkers such as Aimé Césaire, René Dépestre, Edward Kamau Brathwaite and Édouard Glissant conceptualized cimarronaje as an expression of cultural resistance and as a central feature of Caribbean identity.
It is in this tradition of identity-building and Caribbean assertion that the work of the Cuban visual arts collective Grupo Antillano (Antillean Group) (1978-1983) needs to be analyzed. Founded by sculptor and engraver Rafael Queneditt Morales, Grupo Antillano’s foundational manifesto stated clearly that they wanted to recreate the Caribbean and African foundations of an authentic Cuban culture. They also made clear that, to them, Africa was a lively and vital cultural reference, not a dead historical heritage. As poet Pablo Armando Fernández stated, Grupo Antillano was asking a fundamental question: “What and who are we as inhabitants of the Caribbean?”
During its five years of existence, Grupo Antillano articulated a new vision of Cuban culture through the visual arts. This vision was popular, radical, Caribbean, Maroon, African, revolutionary. As the founding manifesto of the Group claims, they did not want to promote a new artistic concept, but rather sought to highlight the centrality of Africa in Cuban culture and to debunk dominant narratives that equated Cuban progress and modernity with European influences. They valiantly opposed the persistent belief, supported by vast sectors of the Cuban bureaucracy in the 1970s, that Afro-Cuban religious practices were backward, primitive and grotesque–a “remnant of the past,” as they were frequently described at the time. Cuba, Grupo Antillano proclaimed, was quintessentially an Afro-Caribbean nation. Cuban modernity was anchored in the knowledge, the aesthetics, the cultures and the sweat and blood of the African peoples. “We are not interested in other worlds,” their foundational manifesto asserted.
Grupo Antillano engaged the support of a large group of collaborators and created what can only be described as a vibrant Afro-Cuban cultural movement. Among their collaborators were key figures in Cuban art, including Wifredo Lam, who became an active member of the Group and its Honorary President until his death in 1982. But their exhibits were not just visual art events. They were multidisciplinary events that included theoretical workshops, theater plays, concerts and recitals where Cuba’s best and most notable intellectuals participated.
“The voice of a new art is being heard,” ethnomusicologist Rogelio Martínez Furé wrote about Grupo Antillano in 1980. Yet neither this voice, nor this “new art” or even the very existence of Grupo Antillano are remembered today. In fact, Grupo Antillano has been erased from all accounts of the so-called “new Cuban art,” a movement in Cuba’s artistic production which took shape precisely during those years and that is frequently associated with the legendary exhibit Volumen Uno (1981). Volumen Uno is remembered today as the initial salvo of a new generation of artists who tried to break away from socialist realism and to experiment with new techniques and artistic expressions. Some of the artists of Volumen Uno, notably Ricardo Rodríguez Brey, José Bedia, Juan Francisco Elso Padilla and Leandro Soto, developed lines of work which included some of the concerns of Grupo Antillano. But Volmen Uno did not look towards Africa or the Caribbean for inspiration. Those artists searched for new formal and artistic horizons in Western art. The “new art” of Martínez Furé did not become the “new Cuban art” of the 1980s, that is, the art that was embraced by international collectors, critics, and curators. Grupo Antillano was relegated to oblivion, their contributions silenced for decades.
The exhibit Drapetomania: Grupo Antillano and the Art of Afro-Cuba (The 8th Floor, March-July 2014), seeks to recover the memory of this group and their important contributions to the art of Cuba, the Caribbean and the African Diaspora. Several members of Grupo Antillano had attended the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in Nigeria in 1977 and saw their work as part of a diasporic conversation on art, race and colonialism. At FESTAC they met other artists and intellectuals interested in race-justice issues, such as activist sculptor Mel Edwards, who became a lifelong friend of several members of Grupo Antillano.
The exhibit showcases works by the artists of Grupo Antillano (Esteban Ayala, Rogelio Rodríguez Cobas, Manuel Couceiro, Herminio Escalona, Ever Fonseca, Ramón Haití, Adelaida Herrera, Arnaldo Rodríguez Larrinaga, Oscar Rodríguez Lasseria, Alberto Lescay, Manuel Mendive, Leonel Morales, Clara Morera, Miguel Ocejo, Rafael Queneditt and Julia Valdés). Drapetomania also includes works by a group of contemporary artists (Belkis Ayón, Bedia, Choco, Diago, Esquivel, Marta María Pérez Bravo, Montalván, Olazábal, Douglas Pérez, Peña, Elio Rodríguez and Leandro Soto) who share some of the concerns articulated by Grupo Antillano in the late 1970s. I hear, or more precisely, “see” echoes of Grupo Antillano in the work of these contemporary artists. This does not necessarily mean that they acknowledge, either explicitly or implicitly, a debt to Grupo Antillano. As an intellectual and curatorial project, the exhibit suggests continuities and proposes a genealogy which does not depend on the introspection of each individual artist. The exhibit offers a fresh and alternative look at the “new art of Cuba” through the work of artists who have been concerned with issues of race, history, and identity. It reassesses the importance of Grupo Antillano by linking their work with that of a new generation of Cuban artists, particularly those associated since the 1990s with the Queloides curatorial project. Drapetomania argues, without hesitation, that the “new art” that Grupo Antillano produced in the late 1970s and early 1980s is part of what we have come to know as new Cuban art. Thirty-five years after its creation, Grupo Antillano continues to assert, as the late Fernando Ortiz used to say, that “without the black, Cuba would not be Cuba.”
Alejandro de la Fuente
 Grupo Antillano is not even mentioned in the best books on Cuban contemporary art, such as Luis Camnitzer, New Art of Cuba (University of Texas Press, 2003), Rachel Weiss, To and From Utopia in Cuban Art (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), or in Natalie Bondil, Cuba: Art and History from 1868 to Today (Prestel USA, 2009). To my knowledge, the existence of Grupo Antillano is registered only in two art books: José Veigas Zamora et. al, Memoria: Cuban Art of the 20th Century (Los Angeles, 2002) and Judith Bettelheim, ed. Afrocuba: Works on Paper, 1968-2003 (San Francisco State University Press, 2005).