Accentuating Latin American Art's African Dimensions  


Latin American art’s African dimensions have always been somewhat unstable, though Cuba and Brazil have the most widely recognized of such histories, signified by the now widespread usage of the terms Afro-Cuban art and Afro-Brazilian art. The somewhat patchy scholarly and curatorial acknowledgement of these histories is what this paper concerns itself with, mindful of the importance of the quest to fashion more inclusive histories of Latin American art. Such histories need to be characterized by more substantial recognition of the racial diversity that has not adequately been a characteristic of Latin American art, especially in the arenas of curating and scholarship. Perhaps, in pursuit of further progress, we need to critically consider the validity of hyphenated terms such as Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian. What is it that prevents these branches of art history from reflecting ethnic diversity, when shorn of their Afro prefixes? The text will consider the ways in which two African American art historians active at different periods—Samella Lewis and Colette Gaiter—have considered the art of Cuba, leading them to bring particular assertions to our attention, a number of which will be referenced in this text. While Lewis regarded Cuba’s racial progressiveness as a given, Gaiter was altogether more critical of what she regarded as Cuba’s racial contradictions. This essay ends with a consideration of a relatively recent exhibition of Latin American art and suggests that, though definitions of Latin American art have evolved, its Black dimensions are not yet a given. I also look to reference Kimberly Cleveland’s pioneering scholarship on Brazilian artists of African heritage, locating and contrasting it with other scholarly questions concerning Brazil’s construction of racial democracy. The text charts a trajectory from one of the earliest curatorial manifestations of Latin American art, taking place in 1939, through to a group exhibition, Ultra Baroque: Aspects of Post Latin American Art, which took place some sixty or so years later.  I seek to argue that despite the pronounced evolution of Latin American art (reflected in a show such as Ultra Baroque), and the ways in which a number of scholars have turned attention to Black artists in Cuba and Brazil, both of these exhibitions reflect a certain racial exclusivity rather than inclusivity.

            Despite the very pronounced racial and ethnic diversity of the countries of Central America, South America, and the Caribbean, Latin American art has perennially cast itself as owing its allegiances to its European roots, beginning with exhibitions such as Latin American Exhibition of Fine and Applied Art. This has happened even though African roots are a strong, evident, and unarguable feature of the history of the Americas. The catalogs and other publications on Latin American art that followed tended to replicate, rather than complicate, problematics of racial exclusivity. Over the course of the twentieth century, from the late 1930s to the early 1940s and onwards, these publications perpetuated a schism that in effect signaled an art historical and curatorial standoff between those countries of the region deemed to be Portuguese-speaking and Spanish-speaking and white, and those countries regarded as French or English-speaking, deemed to be Black. In this regard, the trajectory of such scholarship was set in train by the Latin American Exhibition of Fine and Applied Art, which singled out Cuba and the Dominican Republic as conclusively belonging to the Latin American axis.

            Perhaps an evolution of Latin American art histories would see the field accord to Black/African artists a necessary centrality. There is after all a particular, necessary, and self-evident entanglement between Caribbean art and Latin American art, though as mentioned there is still only scant or partial recognition of the latter’s African dimensions.6 But as textbooks, exhibitions, and catalogs have multiplied and the discipline has grown, Latin American art has tended to keep a racialized distance from Caribbean art, presumably in order to maintain a certain whiteness. African American and African Diaspora scholars have insistently and consistently pushed back against the nonrecognition of Black people in Latin America, in special issues of Black studies journals such as Black World and The Black Scholar, and in major features in magazines such as Ebony, as well as in texts, other peer reviewed journals, and elsewhere. These features and special issues include Ebony magazines of July 1965 and September 1965, and Black World of November 1972 (figs. 2–3). Peer reviewed texts discussing the politics of race in Brazil include David J. Hellwig’s “Racial Paradise or Run-around?” Such texts by African American and African Diaspora scholars pushed back against the nonrecognition of Black people in Latin America in general and, in Hellwig’s case, Brazil in particular. In his scholarship, Hellwig sought to take to task the country’s myth of racial democracy.

The above extracts are from Eddie Chambers'  “Accentuating Latin American Art’s African Dimensions”, Latin American and Latinx Visual Culture (University of California Press) Volume 4, Issue 2 (April 2022) 95-106