Several years ago, before the United States renewed diplomatic ties with Cuba, I made a couple of legal trips to the island as a cultural reporter, and, like most travelers, was beguiled by the crumbling architecture of Old Havana, the colorful vintage cars, the widespread passion for ballet, and the music that seemed to pour out of every door. But it was the work of Cuba’s visual artists — both by those of decades past, and of this moment — that left the most enduring impression, particularly after my second visit which coincided with the Havana Art Biennial.

‘DRAPETOMANIA: GRUPO ANTILLANO AND THE ART OF AFRO-CUBA’
When: Through Oct. 16
Where: DuSable Museum of African American History, 740 E. 56th Pl
Tickets: $10 adults; $8 Chicago residents; free on Sundays
Info: www.dusablemuseum.org

Memories of those trips flooded back earlier this week as I visited the DuSable Museum of African American History, where a fascinating exhibition, “Drapetomania: Grupo Antillano and the Art of Afro-Cuba,” runs through Oct. 16.

Curated by Harvard University’s Dr. Alejandro de la Fuente, and already seen in Santiago de Cuba and Havana, as well as in New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Cambridge, Massachusetts, the show is a tribute to Grupo Antillano (1978-1983), a formerly suppressed visual arts and cultural movement that championed the importance of African and Afro-Caribbean influences in the formation of the Cuban nation. Comprised of paintings, multimedia works, sculpture and one notably haunting video, the exhibition features work created during that brief but hugely influential five-year-period, along with examples of the ways in which contemporary artists have paid homage to these mavericks.

Archival photograph of members of the Grupo Antillano. (Photo: Courtesy of the DuSable Museum of African American History)

Archival photograph of members of the Grupo Antillano. (Photo: Courtesy of the DuSable Museum of African American History)

First, a brief explanation of the show’s title is in order: The worddrapetomania” (rooted in the Greek — “drapetes” for escape, and “mania,” for a disorder), refers to the alleged “disease” found on the plantations of Louisiana and described by a clearly racist physician in the mid-19th century as “the slaves’ irrepressible and pathological urge to flee and be free.” (Of course “drapetomania” was the quintessential sign of health.)

The artists and intellectuals of Grupo Antillano proclaimed the centrality of African practices in national culture, and saw their work as part of a conversation on art, race and colonialism in the diaspora. They challenged the official characterization of Santeria and other African religious and cultural practices as “primitive and counter-revolutionary,” as they were declared during the so-called “Quinquenio Gris” (a “grey” period of neo-Stalinist censorship in Cuba during the 1970s). And they believed Africa and the surrounding Caribbean should not be seen “as a dead cultural heritage, but as a vibrant, ongoing and vital influence that continued to define what it means to be Cuban,” as de la Fuente states in his essay.

Artwork from the exhibit, "DRAPETOMANIA: Grupo Antillano and the Art of Afro-Cuba." (Photo: Courtesy of the DuSable Museum of African American History)

Miguel Ocejo’s “The Ancestors of the Fossils” (1978),  from the exhibit, “DRAPETOMANIA: Grupo Antillano and the Art of Afro-Cuba.” (Photo: Courtesy of the DuSable Museum of African American History)

Yet there is a bit of irony built into this exhibition, too. For many of these Cuban artists also were fierce modernists who often blended the influence of developments in 20th century European art, from Picasso and Matisse and beyond into their expressions of Afro-Cuban style. Of course adding to the cultural mash-up is the fact that those European artists were heavily influenced by African sculpture.

Sadly, none of this is fully explained in the DuSable exhibit which would have benefited greatly from some wall text. Aside from Fuente’s initial essay at the entryway to the show (paired with two vintage photos of members of the Grupo Antillano, including Cuba’s most famous painter, Wifredo Lam, who worked with them between 1979 and 1982, the year of his death), there are no explanatory labels. Nothing is put in context, and no demarcation is made between the work of the original artists, and those who followed in the “new Cuban art” tradition of the 1980s and ’90s that tended to be more oriented to trends in Western modern art.

In addition, nothing is mentioned about how this art can or will contribute to the debates within Cuba that are already underway as massive social and cultural change lurks, and as the always controversial role of Cubans of African descent plays out on the island.

Artwork from "DRAPETOMANIA: Grupo Antillano and the Art of Afro-Cuba." (Photo: Hedy Weiss/Sun-Times)

Manuel Mendive’s “Head Series” (2012), from “DRAPETOMANIA: Grupo Antillano and the Art of Afro-Cuba.” (Photo: Hedy Weiss/Sun-Times)

That said, the art itself is stunning and wide-ranging, and well worth seeing. Among the highlights:

— Miguel Ocejo’s “The Ancestors of the Fossils” (1978), a brilliantly colored, mystical, quasi-psychedelic, symbol-filled oil on canvas.
— Manuel Couceiro’s “Untitled” (1977) an oil painting with lush tropical imagery that bears echoes of the work of Henri Rousseau, the French Impressionist who worked in a “naive/primitive” style.
— Manuel Mandive’s “Head Series” (2012), a Matisse-like dance of African figures, part human, part animal, that is hand-stitched and dotted with tiny white shells, and topped by two flat, hammered metal sculptures.
— Douglas Perez Castro’s “The Bragger’s Garden” (2012), in which Olympic runners in modern day gym shoes are part of a neo-Egyptian-like panel of mixed media on wood.
— Marta Maria Perez’s “Una camino obscurity (“Dark Road”),” a haunting black and white video from 2011 in which a lit candle is used as a drawing tool, and a ritualistic finale finds similarly lit candles wedged between the toes of a man who walks slowly, as if in a trance.

NOTE: Among the special events connected to the “Drapetomania” exhibition are a conversation with Cuban scholar Giraldo Rosales (6:30 p.m. – 9 p.m. on July 15, in English and Spanish), about the historical context surrounding movements like Grupo Antillanos and others, and a program (6:30 p.m. – 9 p.m. on July 28), that will include a screening of a documentary film that follows Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates through Cuba, its culture, and its history of slavery, followed by a panel discussion about “how race and racism have fared since Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution in 1959.”

Artwork from "DRAPETOMANIA: Grupo Antillano and the Art of Afro-Cuba." (Photo: Hedy Weiss/Sun-Times)

Douglas Perez Castro”s “From the Bragger’s Garden” (2012), from “DRAPETOMANIA: Grupo Antillano and the Art of Afro-Cuba.” (Photo: Hedy Weiss/Sun-Times)