Skin That Speaks: Diago's Afro-Cuban Aftermath

Skin That Speaks: Diago's Afro-Cuban Aftermath

There are some things that are tangibly, unmistakably Caribbean: sand, driftwood, steel drums to name a few. But only a wunderkind like Juan Roberto Diago Durruthy (or just "Diago") of Havana, Cuba, could mold them into mixed-media pieces that are as true to nature as they are to Caribbean identity.


Truth guides the retrospective exhibit on Diago's work now on display at the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African-American Art in Cambridge, MA. As the gallery-goer crosses from the lobby to the first of the exhibition corridors, they are confronted with the literal "face of truth"; in Diago's eyes, wooden discards normally more fit for a favela than a gallery. Alejandro de la Fuente, director of the Afro-Latin American Research Institute at Harvard University and curator of the exhibit among other titles, explains that the spare pieces of wood were some of the only materials on hand in pre-Y2K Cuba. "[Diago] went to art school, but he used the materials familiar to him and where he grew up in Havana." For much of Diago's early work, this means castaway wood and DIY concrete. No irony is lost on curator Alejandro: "Most of the construction workers in Havana are, in fact, of African descent," he tells me.


A few years on in his career and Diago would move on to using iron, often scrapped from steel drums. For many in the Anglo Caribbean, this is like treason, a blasphemy against the steel pan rhythms of calypso and soca we grew up on and still play out every function. For Diago, however, this is worship: he titled one series of steel stylings "Variaciones de Oggún", a tribute to the Afro-Cuban orisha of metal within Santería.

“His seven iron implements, among which are: a rake, a spade, a pick, a chisel, a hammer, a knife, an anvil, and a machete... [in one path] the orisha has a dual personality, one bloodthirsty and violent and the other hardworking and peaceful.”
— Migene Gonzales Wippler, "Powers of the Orishas"

Religion is only one component of Diago's ritual: Alejandro centers what he calls Diago's "obsession with history." Another steel piece, "Un pedazo de mi historía", crafts the medium into a cargo ship hold, from which a gaunt and featureless dark-skinned face looks out. Above the figure is emblazoned the phrase: "Díos cuida", or 'God carries me'. "In present tense," Alejandro remarks, "meaning that the history [of slavery] is not over. Rather, it is a reminder everyday." Especially resonant considering Cuba was among the last of the colonies to abolish slavery, second in tardiness only to Brazil.


Dark-skinned figures populate many of Diago's portraits, including the frenzied "Aquí nadie gana". But comparisons to, say, America's Basquiat are a bit futile. "Basquiat [for example] was not taught in Cuba's art schools," says Alejandro. "Diago would have had no idea he existed." It is tempting to try to fit Diago into some sort of more comfortable Western canon, but if a box must be drawn Alejandro considers Diago to be solidly Caribbean. "This is an exhibition that transcends Cuba," he tells me. "Diago could very well be Jamaican, or Dominican, or Haitian. These are portable symbols."


At the same time, Diago's status as a Cuban national who works wholly from within the island and never outside it lets Diago retain some mystery. "That's the price of being Cuban," Alejandro solemnly remarks. "Isolation." The artist, however, has seen an international audience. Aside from this exhibit's audience in an otherwise segregated Metro Boston, Diago has participated in the Venice Biennale (1997), had works in Cuban-American mainstay gallery Cernuda Arte (2001), and traveled to his mother continent to present shows in Johannesburg (2010). In recent times, he has submitted work for the 2017 Venice Biennale, including a sculpture "Ciudad ascenso" ("Ascending City") crafted from charred wood blocks. A recreation of that piece haunts the gallery-goer as they arrive at the end of this exhibit; optimistically, it serves as a testimony that Cuba has survived baptism by fire many times over and still aims for prosperity.


"Diago: The Pasts of this Afro-Cuban Present" is open for exhibit from now until May 5 at the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African-American Art.

All images courtesy Alejandro de la Fuente, scanned from the archival book "Diago: The Pasts of This Afro-Cuban Present / Diago: Los pasados de este presente afrocubano".

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