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'You Kill Racism By Speaking About It': Afro-Cuban Artist Sheds Light On Black Experience In Cuba

Three baby dolls hang from a white canvas at the Lowe Art Museum in Coral Gables. The art installation has painted message written in Spanish that reads: "Tu odio no me mata. Soy human igual que tu." or "Your hate doesn’t kill me. I am human the same as you." 

It's one of many featured works at the exhibition "Diago: The Pasts of this Afro-Cuban Present." Afro-Cuban artist Juan Roberto Diago presents a perspective of Cuban history that is centered around the experience of black Cuban — slavery, economic inequalities and racism on the island.

Diago was born in Cuba during Fidel Castro's regime, in the early 1970s in Pogolotti, a neighborhood where most of the residents live in poverty. 

His painting with the old dolls is called Día de Reyes or Kings Day. The dolls in the piece were donated to Diago by poor children in Havana. These old dolls have black paint plastered across their bodies and missing arms and legs. According to the aritst, in Cuba, it's often times hard for children to get brand new dolls, but when they do they are loved and treasured. This detail is a statement to white Cubans on racism.

"I always say racism is a virus," Diago said. "It’s a very common theme in Cuban history." 

In the late 1950s speech at the Havana Labor Rally, Castro vowed to end racism in Cuba. He implemented so-called anti-discrimination policies like equal access to jobs and universal education that promised equality for all. But that equality never actually came to fruition.

"Racism can coexist with that kind of egalitarianism," said Cuban-American Professor Alejandro de la Fuente, director of the Afro-Latin American Research Institute at Harvard. "You can have the same salary and still racism finds ways to discriminate people to differentiate people."

De la Fuente, an expert on race and slavery in Cuba is the curator of Diago's exhibit. During a tour of the exhibit, he talked to a group of art aficionados and museum members about Diago's career. De la Fuente says Diago is part of Cuba's "cultural and social movement" that emerged during the 1990s. 

"People who began a vocabulary to talk about an unspeakable theme [racism] in Cuban culture and in many Latin American countries," de la Fuente said. 

Credit Alejandra Martinez / WLRN
The work of Afro-Cuban artist Juan Roberto Diago depicts the black experience in Cuba.

"The inequalities remain," Diago said. "They don’t let you forget that feeling that you're nothing. That you're nobody and that you do not exist."

For Diago, a black Cuban, he channelled his lived expereince into his art. In Día de Reyes, Diago is referencing an old religious tradition in Cuba. In the 19th century, during an era of slavery in Cuba, Día de Reyes was the one day that African slaves could publicly dance and celebrate in the streets of Old Havana. 

"This tells people I exist. Look at me at my party. I exist. I live," Diago said. In Día de Reyes, he says he's trying to show how black people will always find ways to persevere through the hardship. 

Diago says he wants black Cuba to live not just on the island but outside, with the exile community in Miami and younger generations. "I want to share my history in a more dynamic way, especially with the new generations, children and young people," he said.

Credit Alejandra Martinez / WLRN
Vincent Pierre Joseph Brown, a Miami Gardens third-year architecture student at the University of Miami, in front of Sin Titulo by Afro-Cuban artist Juan Roberto Diago at the Lowe Art Museum.

Diago's work has resonated with Vincent Pierre Joseph Brown, a Miami Gardens third-year architecture student at the University of Miami.

"You can see a lot of pain and trials of tribulation," Brown said. 

Brown has lived in Miami-Dade County his whole life, but didn't know much about Afro-Cuban history. He encountered Diago’s work through an art history class. His favorite art piece is Sin Título or Untitled. 

"For me it was just the value of having melanin in your skin," said Brown. 

Sin Título is the first piece you see at the exhibition. It's painting of a face with black eyes and rough stitching that goes across where the mouth would be. The figure stands out against the black canvas. 

"You can see that he has been through something through his work," said Brown. "A lot of it was tied to African culture and what you are is what you are and there is value in what you are."

Brown says that as a black man, he relates to Diago's experience. He believes Diago's artwork is not only about racism, but the freedom to express yourself. 

"You kill racism by speaking about it, attack it by mentioning it and shouting so that it is heard and known," said Diago.

The exhibit "Diago: The Pasts of this Afro-Cuban Present" is on display at the Lowe Art Museum until Jan. 19. WLRN reporter Nadege Green contributed to this article.

Juan Roberto Diago, Dia de Reyes (Three Kings Day), 2019. Mixed media on canvas, 78.69 × 192.88 in.
Credit Courtesy of Private Collection. © Juan Roberto Diago

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