By DAVID CAVE
Trinidad and Tobago’s recent gift to Cuban President Raul Castro is a serious issue. I, for one, never imagined a day would come for the powers-that-be would need to appreciate the importance of Art Interpretation- a process that is perhaps an art in itself, given the strong element of subjectivity. Nevertheless, as has been repeatedly stated in this column, successful Art Interpretation cannot take place without being informed and guided by certain parameters; these being a basic knowledge of Art Theory and the investigative process of Art History.
Let me start by saying that in no way am I invalidating Minister Rambachan’s interpretation of the Painting Merchandise (c. 2011) by recent UWI Visual Arts Graduate Darron Small. As the artist himself told the Trinidad Express, the gift to Castro is “subject to interpretation”.
However, it was clear that El Presidente did not agree with Minister Rambachan’s interpretation of Merchandise. When the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Communications asserted that the, “black portion of the painting represented the dark hearts of the slave masters while the light portion depicted the white hearts of the slaves”, Castro’s responded by questioning why black had been used to depict evil, adding that he would interpret the painting in his own way.
Castro’s reply was very calculated, measured and diplomatic, but is also heavily rooted in the raison d’etre of Cuban Art, particularly the work of the mid 20th Century. I do not know if Minister Rambachan had formulated this interpretation on his own accord or if he was advised to do such, but perhaps someone in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs needs to be more sensitised to Cuban Art and the purpose that drives it.
The seminal Cuban painting that addresses the issue of social status and Blackness, specifically in reference to African origin, is Wilfredo Lam’s The Jungle of 1943. In conversation with the French Art Critic Max Pol Fouchet about the painting, Lam lamented social and class divisions among Cubans of African descent, and the context in which Afro Cubans were placed. He stated that, “Havana at that time was a land of pleasure, of sugary music, mambas, rumbas and so forth. The Negroes were considered picturesque. They themselves aped the whites and regretted that they did not have light skins. And they were divided—the blacks disdained the mulattos, and the mulattos detested their own skin because they were no longer like their fathers, but were not white either”.
Lam’s interrogation of the attitudes of Afro Cubans and Mulattos about their African heritage and this unnecessary compulsion to create division amongst themselves is a significant contributing factor that led Castro to enquire about the use of black to represent evil. Going back to Lam, the artist went on to add that the intention of The Jungle (1943), “was to communicate a psychic state.” Lam added that, “My idea was to represent the spirit of the Negroes in the situation in which they were in then. I have used poetry to show the reality of acceptance and protest.”
Castro, a man of the Cuban Revolution, gravitates towards art that challenges existing socio-political norms and seeks to instigate change. Through Lam’s assertions, one can see that the change this artist was pursuing was a universal acceptance of Blackness; a profound understanding of one’s heritage that surpasses the need to quantify one’s ethnicity. Hence Castro’s challenge to the colour as a symbol of evil and his preference for interpreting Small’s art from his own perspective.
By DAVID CAVE