The bearded, casual and accomplished Cuban curator, Orlando Hernández, was born in “La Habana” in 1953. He is a writer, poet, art critic and researcher in popular cultures and Afro-Cuban ritual arts. He graduated in art history in the Universidad de la Habana, Cuba, in 1978 and worked as a curator at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana from 1978 to 1989.
He has published extensively in Havana and New York and as a poet he has made “artist’s books” with some of Cuba’s most prominent visual artists: José Bedia, Julio Girona, Gustavo Acosta, Carlos Garaicoa, Lázaro Saavedra and Ibrahim Miranda.
He spoke to the Mail & Guardian shortly after his arrival on his first trip to South Africa. He was waiting patiently at the Johannesburg Art Gallery for the Cuban collection he has curated to arrive from London. He was jocular and gregarious, even though the task that lay ahead was daunting to say the least.
After art collector and businessman Chris von Christierson approached you to curate a collection of Cuban art for him, how did you go about making the selection that is represented in Without Masks at the Johannesburg Art Gallery?
Because the family is from South Africa originally, I decided on the Afro-Cuban theme. I then started to look at artists with a high level of importance in Cuba and internationally. From these, I chose different works that express different themes within this broader theme of Afro-Cuban identity.
Until now, we’ve built a collection of 99 works in a variety of media: painting, drawing, sculpture, video art and installation. I’ve included contemporary artists who have studied in the academy, but also at least four popular or folk artists who also make good work related to these themes.
Within the main theme there are two branches — one dealing with African religious traditions in Cuba and the other dealing with race, which is a live issue in both Cuba and South Africa.
Doesn’t Cuba pride itself on being a classless society, theoretically at least? In what way is racism an issue in Cuba?
Cuba is a society where there is really still a lot of racism, but the issue has been silenced in society. People in power say: “We don’t have racism because we are an egalitarian society.” But this is not the opinion of many black and mulatto people in Cuba who feel that the issue of race still needs to be discussed. They feel discriminated against by light-skinned Cubans.
How does racism manifest itself in Cuba?
For example, immediately after the revolution the government set up an institution for the equality of women and men — the Cuban Women’s Federation. Officially women were recognised by the state, but black women didn’t benefit from this federation. There are no longer any institutions, but increasingly the government is attempting to pay attention to certain sectors of society that have historically been discriminated against: women in general and gay and lesbian men and women. But black people are tacitly excluded from this.
Another example: when you are in the first level of education, you read about colonialism and the Indian presence in Cuba. But you never hear about the black cultures that were here at the same time. Africans are only ever spoken about in Cuban history as slaves or marooned people. There is no mention of all the cultural traditions that came to Cuba from Africa, like divination, rituals, objects for healing.
It’s important to educate the people about our different sources in society. We do not have only Spanish and Indian roots.
Have artists had any role in addressing this long-standing omission?
Visual artists were the first to address this issue in public. There were also some academics who began to speak about it. Only very recently, at the end of the 1990s, did these criticisms appear in public forums. Since the revolution in 1959, people have pretended racism and prejudice don’t exist, that everybody is on the same level.
And how much attention have other people paid to artists’ critiques? If you were to show Without Masks in Cuba, for example, would it have any impact on people who still espouse prejudices?
This exhibition does have precedent in Cuba. In the late 1990s there was a small group of black and mulatto artists who started to touch on themes of Afro-Cuban identity and discrimination, but the state saw this as something strange. The state thought it was itself some kind of discrimination to talk about race in Cuba because we are all supposed to be the same. So these artists were seen as quite controversial. They were referred to as “marooned artists”. This put a stop to these discussions in art.
But certain artists — Elio Rodriguez and Roberto Diago, for example — continued these themes in their work while many others set them aside and made works along “contemporary” themes.
But a show like this one is something new. Even in Cuba we don’t have any collections that deal with this theme. Perhaps if [Cuban] artists could see this show, they would begin again to make works about it.
Will the collection be shown in Cuba at some point?
For the moment I’m not sure. Not for political reasons but for financial reasons. Cuba doesn’t have enough money to move this exhibition, to pay for all the things you have to do to bring an exhibition over. Because the exhibition is of political and not just aesthetic importance, our intention is to take it to all the places where African descendant populations live — Cuba, Brazil, North America, Europe — if the money appears.
Especially given your global ambitions for the show, the title Without Masks makes me wonder if you are aiming to tell the world some hidden truth about Africa, what it “really” means to be African?
No, the title isn’t meant to suggest some sort of revelation of something secret. It is just about talking frankly, showing your face.
Also, Africa was one of the first places where masks were made. In rituals all over the world, masks are used and these can often be traced back to Africa. Africa is represented by a mask in many books of anthropology. But there is more to Africa than its masks.