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Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies

When it comes to art, Cuba takes its cues from Africa

By Malcolm S. Eustache
Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies

HAVANA - Encircling the wrist of Gisela Arandia, a writer and researcher on Afro-Cuban issues, is a yellow beaded bracelet and a bright blue one. A string of cowries adorn her neck.

Draped around the neck of Cuban historian Tomas Fernandez Robaina is a black necklace.

But Arandia's and Fernandez's jewelry is tied more to symbolism than style. They represent their allegiance to the orishas – deities of the Yoruba of West Africa.

Yellow is the color of Oshun, the orisha of rivers and female sensuality, while blue represents Yemaya, the universal mother who oversees oceans and childbirth. Cowries are symbols of Yoruba divination, while black is one of the colors of Eleggua, the orisha that protects homes and oversees destinies.

But the African influence that Arandia and Fernandez wear around their wrists and necks also have links to Cuba's history and is expressed in its music and art. If culture is defined by art, then, for Cuba, Africa is a canvass of endless expressions.

"All Cubans, all Latin-Americans, all people from Europe, all people from Asia are of African descent. Africa is the cradle of humanity," said Heriberto Feraudi Espino, president of the Fernando Ortiz Foundation, which studies Afro-Cuban culture.

On a recent morning in this city, African-inspired drumming could be heard waifing through streets filled with people whose skin tones ranged from café au lait to chocolate mocha. From nearby restaurants the smell of food cooking mingled with the stench of sewage and pollution.

And amid all this people like Rafael Oviedo, a Cuban sculptor who has had his work displayed abroad, manage to create art by summoning the influences of his African heritage.

"The traditional wood carvings that I do come from Africa," said Oviedo. "This is a type of art that is not commercial. I am trying to bring our art from the back to the main room."

The National Folkloric Ballet of Cuba, in its 48th year of existence, has more than a room – it has an entire theater. And inside that theater the National Council of Performing Arts rehearses the dance of different African ethnic groups that were brought to Cuba during the slave trade. Most of these dances pay homage to those same Yoruba gods symbolized in the jewelry of Arandia and Robaina.

The ballet, which will perform in several U.S. cities this year, do dances that have a spiritual connection to the Africa that is both rhythmic and musical. During a recent performance in Havana, for example, each dance was accompanied by a choir of singers and a band of drummers that, together, created an African experience.

"In Africa they used their customs, their ways and their religious beliefs in their dances," said Manolo Micler, General Director of the facility. "These dancers do the same thing. Most of their dances come from West Africa and the Yoruba."

Gerardo Alfonso knows the Yoruba all too well. Alfonso, a singer/songwriter who is best known in Cuba for his anthem about Havana called "White Sheets," grew up in an area with a lot of religious influence from the Yoruba.

"It is in my blood. It is important to say it is in my blood because you can't take that out," Alfonso said.

hat intrinsic quality that flows through the veins of musicians like Alfonso is why some Cuban visual artists have been known to live with musicians, some contemporary artists say. The music they hear gives them inspiration for their work.

"The spoons and sticks, the drums, all have an important role in the Cuban art," said Jorge Torres, director of Cuba's Contemporary Center for Art. "These artists reflect on the issue of race. The issue of race mixed with politics."

Cuban artists like Wilfredo Lam, who died in 1982, won international acclaim with work that captured the linkage between Africa and Cuba. Torres describes Lam as "the pioneer… of expressions of Africa in Cuban art."

Cuban artists, like Oviedo, who are making a name for themselves today find inspiration in the work of Lam and others with a similar style.

But being an artist in this Communist country has a unique set of challenges. The U.S. embargo, for one, has made it difficult for them. Oviedo claims the 52-year-old policy makes it a hassle for him to find the unique materials that he needs to create his art. Also, as tough as materials are to find, finding a suitable audience is even harder.

"Many Americans who have visited Cuba, or seen my art in another way, like my art but cannot buy it because they cannot take it back the United States," Oviedo said. "It affects us all."

Rigoberto Lopez might agree. A filmmaker and president of the Traveling Caribbean Showcase – an organization that promotes the work of filmmakers from the Caribbean, Central and South America – won the support of Danny Glover and Harry Belafonte for his efforts.

But the U.S. embargo severely limits the ability of him and other Cuban filmmakers to distribute their work abroad. While the embargo has made life difficult for Cuban artists, the lack of American influence, ironically, has also allowed them to become more connected to their African roots.

"Everything that we do has Africa in it," said Oviedo. "The art, the paintings, my carvings, the music, the dancing - everything."

Index of IFAJS Special Report: Cuba in Black and White