The works of Cuban artist Roberto Diago are made from scraps and found materials from his own neighborhood and others on the outskirts of cities like Havana. In his hands, the scrap metal, wood, and fabrics he finds become massive images that are both captivating and haunting. Black faces, with eyes like masks, stare out at the viewer, often with distorted or jagged limbs looking as if they'd been taken from other bodies. The earth tones surrounding these faces only serve to accent how dark and foreboding they seem. There's an unsettling sense of absence or displacement in these figures that's hard to ignore, especially given the typical size of one of Diago's works.
These creations are part of a new exhibit at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston, La Historia Recordada. The exhibit is the centerpiece of a semester-long, campus-wide interdisciplinary project called Cuba en el Horizonte, which includes classes and activities surrounding Cuban culture, politics, history, economics, and its future.
"The exhibit will be in conjunction with theatrical performances, dance, music, and more across different departments," says the co-curator of La Historia Recordada, Katie McCampbell. "All of this focuses on the history of Cuba and its potential moving forward, partially because of where our country is in our evolving relationship with Cuba." The political and social oppression of Cuba's communist era have been well-documented, but Diago's work takes on a lesser known subject: Race. The dark figures in his works represent the forgotten and repressed Afro-Cubans of his culture.
"It's essentially a direct criticism of racism in Cuba," McCampbell says. "Roberto is a black man; he's Afro-Cuban, so this is his personal history as well. It's not just about Cuban-ness but about race in Cuba. Roberto sees that, and we see it through him as a social issue that's been silenced, essentially."
Part of the silence came about because in post-revolutionary Cuba, the policy was to project a single identity, not a mixture of different races. Expressing an opinion otherwise, even through art, is essentially an act of rebellion.
"After the revolution it was about this national identity," McCampbell says. "So, to identify something as other than simply 'Cuban' was definitely a kind of resistance. To have a racial identity, or to be evoking any sort of negative aspect of the country was definitely revolutionary."
"It is often difficult to speak about racial issues in a country like mine, because there are many individuals who believe that speak- ing about it can divide the nation," Diago says, in a translated email. "I disagree entirely as I believe that discussing the issue makes us stronger. We can't deny the struggle and what has been achieved by black people in a country like Cuba, but there is so much more to do still."
Diago says that he draws his material from the neighborhoods around him because he wants to show the children in these places that art can exist anywhere.
"I love contributing and influencing children and youth so that they have an experience with art," he says. "That is why I work in communities, because it enriches me, and they learn something new in a fun way. I am doing as my own teachers [did]: Providing light where there is shade."
- Roberto Diago
- Diago wants to "provide light where there is shade"
Ironically, for an artist whose works are an outcry against oppression, Diago has faced many obstacles in getting his messages to the U.S., literally.
"It's been interesting to communicate with him," McCampbell says, "because in order to use the internet, he has to go to an open-air park in Cuba to use the Wi-Fi. So, if there's any kind of issue, if he's ill or if it's raining, we can't send emails to each other."
Since the Halsey Institute has dealt with artists from all over the world, they've experienced language barriers and spotty communications before. But in Diago's case, there's another layer of complication that might keep him from coming to America to discuss his own exhibit.
"He was supposed to have had a residency in Illinois in November and December, but he wasn't able to do that because of the current administration pulling embassy employees from Cuba," McCampbell says, seemingly choosing her words carefully. "He wasn't able to get a visa like he was supposed to. We don't know for certain if he'll be able to come here, either. We're hopeful that he will be able to, and we've been working around the clock to try to get him here, but we haven't dealt with the bureaucracy to this particular extent before."
Regardless of whether Diago can make it to our shores, McCampbell says his work still sends a powerful message, and perhaps even his difficulty getting here will do so.
"Part of what he does is give a loud voice to his own Afro-Cuban culture and history," she says. "You cannot miss his message, and you cannot ignore this voice that has been silenced for so long. If these kinds of struggles can bring all this to light, even in an unintended way, it can give even greater volume to that voice. I think he would be happy that it can shine in the same spotlight as his artwork."