In an article titled “Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race” published in 1851, Mississippi physician Samuel A. Cartwright attributed the African slaves’ desire for freedom to a disease he named drapetomania. He called it a “disease of the mind,” one that could be “almost entirely prevented” by treating the slaves like “children, with care, kindness, attention and humanity, to prevent and cure them from running away.” He further recommended lashings for those who resisted the cure.
More than a century later, a large number of Caribbean intellectuals and some hip-hop artists in the United States reclaimed the term as a symbol of resistance and rebellion. Drapetomania is also the name of a traveling exhibit dedicated to the works of a once-forgotten Cuban arts collective currently showing at the DuSable Museum of African-American History. Curated by Alejandro de la Fuente, Robert Woods Bliss Professor of Latin American History and Economics and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, Drapetomania: Grupo Antillano and the Art of Afro-Cuba collects the works created by the members of this collective during its brief existence (1978-1983) as well as some of their most recent output (including works especially commissioned for the exhibit).
The exhibit also builds a bridge between these artists and more contemporary ones who share the same commonalities and concerns with the collective. However, none of these younger Cuban artists had ever heard of Grupo Antillano; by featuring their work, de la Fuente creates a genealogy that unites both generations of artists. Some of the works featured in the exhibit incorporate elements and symbols from abakuá, the secret male Afro-Cuban religious fraternity, Santería and even the Franco-Haitian ceremonies celebrated in eastern Cuba, home to hundreds of Haitian refugees and exiles since the 18th Century. Some explore the sexualization of Africans; others address directly, and sometimes metaphorically, the legacy of slavery.
I recently spoke to Professor de la Fuente about the history of the collective, the reasons for its disappearance and its relevance today. What follows is an edited transcript of the interview, originally conducted in Spanish:
As a curator, what does it mean that institutions as influential in the African-American community as the DuSable Museum, are playing host to the exhibit?
Grupo Antillano had an afro-diasporic vision. They always saw their work, their art, their cultural production as part of a larger conversation with the African diaspora. It’s an act of justice for the group and its founders to have an African-American museum host an exhibit dedicated to them because that’s the kind of space they claimed as their own. To them, it isn’t a matter of building bridges: we are all part of the same history, the same community…Cultural projects like this exhibit help underline those commonalities without minimizing those experiences, that history, that are specific to each region, to each country.
When we speak of the African influence in Cuban art, all roads lead to Wilfredo Lam. How was Grupo Antillano born and how were they influenced by Lam?
The group was founded in 1978 in an effort to defend a vision of cubanidad, a vision of Cuban culture anchored in Afro-Caribbean elements. In their manifesto, they declared that Cuba is, in essence, an African nation in the Americas and their purpose is to rescue and disseminate that identity. It was the intellectual answer to a specific period in Cuban history where there was a certain resistance to any cultural expressions of African origin, especially Santería and other Afro-Cuban religions. This is one of the Cuban Revolution’s many contradictions: on the one hand, it wants to promote popular culture; on the other, it’s interested in creating this “new man,” a Westernized, technologically sophisticated, highly educated individual. In the early 70s, there is a deliberate attempt, within Cuba’s state bureaucracy, to undermine and limit any popular expressions of African origin. Grupo Antillano emerges in response to those efforts. They are part of a larger debate taking place in Cuba and Latin America about how to define our identities and where Africa fits in those definitions. Grupo Antillano says: “We are Africa. Africa is a central part of who we are and you can’t separate Cuba from Africa.”
In that sense, they connect with and claim Wilfredo Lam as one of their own, to the point that they name him “Honorary President” of the group in 1980. Lam not only works with them but exhibits his work with them. He recognizes that these artists provide continuity to his own work and concerns.
What were the reasons for the group’s dissolution?
Some members claim that, after Lam died in 1982, sectors of the bureaucracy they describe as racist created all these roadblocks and major hurdles for the group. Others say that they had organized a great number of exhibits by 1983 [over 34 in a five-year span] and that, as expected after such a productive period, each [member] followed their own path. I believe, based on my research, that in the same way that the group fought for legitimacy by inviting more and more artists to be part of their collective and exhibits, they also managed to dilute the core message and mission that brought them together in the first place. The group starts as a visual arts collective but soon begins to organize conferences and round tables about race, nationality and culture in Cuba, concerts, and exhibits in support of plays about Afro-Cuban identity. Grupo Antillano becomes, in 1980, a cultural movement that includes playwrights, musicians, visual artists, writers and dancers. And I’m sure the existence of such a group provoked adverse reactions in some sectors of Cuba’s bureaucracy.
Drapetomania: Grupo Antillano and the Art of Afro-Cuba officially opened at the Centro Provincial de Artes Plásticas y Diseño in Santiago de Cuba in 1983. Why Santiago?
Because Santiago is the capital of Afro-Cuban culture. It’s Cuba’s Caribbean capital. All important art exhibits open in Havana and I felt that a project like this one, one that would travel through the United States, had to be launched in Santiago where race and Africa’s legacy are part of the city’s daily life. The exhibit attained a degree of attention and visibility there that it wouldn’t otherwise have had in Havana. By the time it opened in Havana, the exhibit was already considered an important milestone in Cuban culture.
Do the artists feel vindicated by the exhibit?
One of them, Leonel Mirales, summarized it brilliantly; he said: “I’m the Compay Segundo of Cuban painting.” This feeling that this pioneering work, this selfless and outstanding work, was being acknowledged first in Cuba and then in New York, San Francisco and Philadelphia, was beyond their wildest dreams.
Drapetomania; Grupo Antillano and the Art of Afro-Cuba
WHEN: Closes October 16, 2016
WHERE: DuSable Museum of African-American History, 740 East 56th Pl., Chicago
HOURS: Tuesday-Saturday, 10 am-5 pm; Sunday, Noon-5:00 pm