For the next two months, in honour of the Soccer World Cup, South Africa’s art galleries and museums will be bloated with postcard affirmations of South African history and identity.
But the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG) is breaking ranks. On Sunday May 23 it opens Without Masks: Contemporary Afro-Cuban Art, an exhibition of 80 works by Cuban artists, which address in some way a long-standing cultural link between Cuba and Africa. As the exhibition’s Cuban curator Orlando Hernández says: “There is a very strong African tradition in Cuba. We inherited many religious practices from Africa — Santéria, Ifa, Abukuá — and there are a lot of Cubans of direct or mixed African descent.”
Africans first arrived in Cuba in the custody of 16th-century Spanish imperialists. By the mid-19th century Cuba had developed a strong agricultural economy and almost half the population were African slaves. After a military genocide of Afro-Cubans in 1912, issues of race vanished from the political discourse, only to return again on the lips of Fidel Castro.
In Cuba today Afro-Cubans and white Cubans may enjoy the same political rights and equal access to state facilities, but many black Cubans perceive themselves to be omitted from aspects of public life.
“They are under-represented on television and in government and over-represented in the prisons,” Hernández says.
According to him, even contemporary literature on Cuba’s history tends to represent Africans in Cuba predominantly as stowaways and slaves.
In addition to its international scope, what makes Without Masks an unusual guest at the gallery is that it is more or less ready-made. It is not a pick-and-mix pulled together from various collections (which is common curatorial practice for group shows), but comes in its entirety from an existing collection of contemporary Cuban art.
In 2007 South African-born businessman Chris von Christierson approached Hernández to compose a collection of Cuban art for him. Given carte blanche, Hernández chose to curate this collection according to the theme of Afro-Cuban identity, a subject he felt would be of relevance to the Christiersons, having come from the heel of Africa.
In Without Masks, the greater part of this collection, makes its public debut. There are 25 artists featured, which means that, in most cases, more than one work by each is included. This offers some referential grounding when looking at individual works, given that they present specific, symbolic conventions and cultural allusions.
The relevance of Without Masks to South Africans extends beyond an African heritage held in common with Cuba, however distant. Although the show makes reference to the difficulties of real racial integration it seems to acknowledge that identity is not entirely contingent on entitlement to one particular place.
For the gallery director, Antoinette Murdoch, Without Masks is an important fixture on the museum’s World Cup itinerary because it reminds us of the validity of inter-continental identities.
“The World Cup is not just about looking at our identity as South Africans, but is also about how our relationships with other countries shape our identity,” she says.
Stripped to the bone, Without Masks is undoubtedly about blackness. For non-blacks it moves towards an understanding of why the colonial (and apartheid) experience has made people simultaneously inseparable from and despised in the place they inhabit. And how the history of black transnationalism has made our regional fervour at this time look somewhat feudal.
Without Masks opens on May 23 at 5pm at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, King George Street, Joubert Park