Drapetomania: Grupo Antillano and the Art of Afro-Cuba
December 3, 2014 – January 4, 2015
A forgotten visual arts and cultural movement that thrived briefly between 1978 and 1983, Grupo Antillano articulated a vision of Cuban culture that privileged the importance of Africa and Afro-Caribbean influences in the formation of the Cuban nation. In contrast to the official characterization of Santeria and other African religious and cultural practices as primitive and counter-revolutionary during the so-called Quinquenio Gris (a "grey" period of neo-Stalinist censorship during the 1970s), Grupo Antillano valiantly proclaimed the centrality of African practices in national culture. They viewed Africa and the surrounding Caribbean not as a dead cultural heritage, but as a vibrant, ongoing and vital influence that continued to define what it means to be Cuban. Some Afro-Cuban intellectuals, such as the noted ethnomusicologist Rogelio Martínez Furé, proclaimed triumphantly that a "new," authentic Cuban art had been born.
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The art of Grupo Antillano belongs to a long tradition of Caribbean resistance and cultural assertion. It is part of what Haitian poet René Depestre has described as the African slaves’ “prodigious effort at legitimate defense” and “ideological cimarronaje (“Self-liberation”)” by which they managed to recreate their pasts and cultures in the new world.
Drapetomania is curated by Alejandro de la Fuente and sponsored by the Afro-Latin American Research Institute at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, Harvard University, with support from the Ford Foundation and the Christopher Reynolds Foundation.
This is a two-part exhibition that weaves together early and new works in a way that the old becomes the new and the new an echo of the old. With these works, Thomas creates alternative ways to approach portraiture that inspires reflective thought and evokes a sense of the sublime through memory, metamorphosis, and transcendence.
Thomas's work resonates with a historical idea of the sublime: a place of intense beauty, a place where one can imagine one’s full potential, a place where there are no boundaries …vast infinity. It is not something that is out of reach, but something that’s attainable. The title of the show “Beyond” emphasizes this idea: beyond boundaries and beyond categorization.
As an artist whose practice considers the body as a site and symbol of personal and cultural identity, the experiences of Black women provide a conceptual foundation for Thomas. Exploring identity through body parts and hair along with their social, political and historical significance, Thomas's drawings, sculptures, and installations raise questions about interpretations with respect to race and gender.
An exhibition catalogue, Lava Thomas: Beyond with contributions by Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins and Jacqueline Francis accompanies the exhibition.