Off the Clock: Afro-Cuban Art in the United States

May 6, 2016

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Last week, the MU Department of Romance Languages and Literature hosted an international conference titled: The Afro-Cuban Artists: A Renaissance. The conference brought in artist and scholars from around the world to discuss ideas about Afro-Cuban art. One MU professor spent six years planning and preparing the event.

Professor Juanamaria Cordones-Cook of Romance Languages is excited to finish up her semester and spend three weeks in Cuba. She said she’s traveled there at least 25 times.

“I have lost track of the times,” Cordones-Cook said.

She’s not going to visit family, and she’s not visiting home either. Her trips to Cuba are all for research. Cordones-Cook was born in Uruguay, a country with an African art culture that she discovered to be virtually undocumented.

“This population of African descent has been kept in the margins of the margins of society,” she said.

She became interested in black theatre in Uruguay that she said had not been included in any book on theatre. So she began doing research, and eventually published the first book on Afro-Latin American theatre. Through her continued research, Cordones-Cook met Nancy Morejón, one of the most internationally successful and translated Cuban woman poets in the past fifty years.

Today, Morejón is a writer in residence and guest lecturer at MU.

“It’s been my world,” Morejón said. “The world sum of my poems and my essays. There’s a whole body of principles, ideas, feelings very near the character of Cubans.”

Defined by vibrant colors, Afro-Cuban visual art portrays an idealized view of rural life and enjoyment, despite the country’s hardships.

“I marveled to see something I hadn’t seen any other place in Latin America,” Cordones-Cook said. “And I thought, ‘This has to be known all over the world,’”.

She said the 1950s Cuban revolution brought changes to education and cultural policies that resulted in generations of black Cubans who excelled in the arts… and because of the country’s socioeconomic structure, many artists and their work remain in the margins of society.

“Even in Cuba today, there is racism, there is discrimination, and we have to recognize the power and excellence of the creations of these people of African descent,” Cordones-Cook said.

She worked with a committee of 55 members of MU faculty, students and community leaders to coordinate the conference. Morejón was one of four keynote lecturers, and she said the conference was so successful because it brought together so many people from different generations.

“There were the most expertized scholars and researchers, and then the youngest ones,” Morejón said. “And they get together, and I think this is very important for Afro-Cuban culture.”

The conference highlighted the work of three distinguished visual artists. Manuel Mendive is considered by many the most important living Cuban artist. He’s recognized for incorporating different mediums such as body painting and the integration of music and choreography. Santiago Rodríguez Olazábal is a painter whose work is defined by black charcoal lines and an emphasis on human experience. Eduardo “Choco” Salazar uses abstract figures and sculptures to represent cultural success following the Cuban Revolution. Cordones-Cook said the conference offered a unique opportunity.

“These artists, who had been exhibiting their work all over the world, were able to get together with academe,” she said. “This is the first time, and it’s a result of this event.”

She said the leading journal on Afro-Hispanic Literature will devote an entire issue to the conference. Cordones-Cook hopes the success of the event will lead to another conference in the near future but said the university can’t currently offer much financial support. However she said MU’s current Interim President Michael Middleton and his wife, Dr. Julie Middleton, have been very helpful to the process.

“They have given great moral support to this program, and that is worth a lot,” she said. “I hope this is inspiration to get the financial support we need to keep doing this work.”

In the meantime, Cordones-Cook will spend her summer in Cuba working on several documentaries, including one finished project on Cuban sculptor Alberto Lescay, which will premiere this summer at the Museum of Fine Arts in Havana, Cuba.