Race and Racism in Contemporary Cuban Art
a conversation with Queloides curators Alejandro de la Fuente and Elio Rodríguez Valdés, moderated by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Queloides is an art exhibit on the persistence of racism and racial discrimination in contemporary Cuba and elsewhere in the world. Despite the social transformations implemented by the Cuban revolutionary government since the early 1960s, racism continues to be a deep wound in Cuban society, one that generates countless social and cultural scars. Racist attitudes, ideas, and behaviors have gained strength in Cuban society during the last two decades, during the deep crisis known as “The Special Period,” which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. As the Cuban economy became dollarized and competition for scarce jobs and resources intensified, racial discrimination and racial inequality increased. White Cubans began to use racist arguments to deny blacks access to the most attractive sectors of the economy (such as tourism)—those in which it was possible to earn dollars or other hard currencies.
In response to the official silence surrounding racism in Cuba, the thirteen artists who participate in Queloides have insisted on the need to acknowledge and debate this social problem publicly. This is the first time in post-revolutionary Cuba that the word “racism” has appeared in the title of an exhibition. The works in the exhibit—including video, large-format painting, and installation—invoke stereotypes, poverty, satire, sexuality, violence, secrecy, and silence to portray what it is to be black in a society that officially excludes the complexity of the scarring left by racism. Queloides is a long-term cultural project in which numerous intellectuals and artists from Cuba have participated. The title is drawn from the word “keloids,” referring to pathological, wound-induced scars. Although any injury may result in keloids, many people in Cuba believe that the black skin is particularly susceptible to them. Thus the title evokes the persistence of racial stereotypes and the traumatic process of dealing with racism, discrimination, and racist violence.
The exhibit builds on two previous exhibits with the same name that were presented in Havana in 1997 and 1999. It has never been conceived as a “black project” or a project “for blacks.” On the contrary, it represents the assertion by a multiracial group of artists and intellectuals that racial equality and inclusion are key to what it means to be Cuban.
TRANSITION is a publication of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University.