Reference Entry

Art in Latin America and the Caribbean

Aaron Myers

in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition

Published in print January 2005 | ISBN: 9780195170559
Art in Latin America and the Caribbean

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Because art is such a broad topic and Latin America and the Caribbean is such a diverse region, this article will focus on the media of painting and sculpture. With a few exceptions in the field of architecture, the following discussion will not explore the contributions of black artists in other genres, such as the graphic arts and photography. Although they constitute a large and important part of artistic production by Blacks in Latin America and the Caribbean, festival arts, such as the costumes or floats produced for such African-based celebrations as Carnival, and sacred arts, such as altars or ceremonial accessories used in various African-derived religions, including Vodou, Santería, and Candomblé, are also beyond the scope of this article.This article is organized into three sections, concentrating on three countries in Latin America and the Caribbean where blacks have played a central role in defining the national art: Jamaica, Cuba, and Brazil. Haiti boasts perhaps the most famous and deeply rooted legacy of black art, which is discussed in an independent entry, Haitian Art. The article concludes by mentioning various artists of African descent, past and present, from elsewhere in the region. Much of the art by black artists in Latin America and the Caribbean has been and continues to be classified as “primitive” or “naïve,” but these terms are limited in their capacity to describe the diversity and sophistication of artistic production by artists of African descent in this region.JamaicaThe Spanish occupied Jamaica for over a century and a half, from Christopher Columbus's initial landing in 1494 until the British took possession in 1670. Under Spanish rule, the Taíno Indian population was virtually wiped out, and only a few examples of Taíno art survived. During the prosperous sugar-producing era (seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) Jamaica's Spanish and English colonizers relied on Europe for artistic commissions and prohibited African slaves from making art of any kind, especially ritual objects. Thus, although Africans and their descendants have historically constituted the majority of the island's population, no examples of Afro-Jamaican art survive from the era of slavery (from the sixteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries), that would otherwise suggest a continuity of African art traditions in Jamaica.According to many art historians, Jamaican art began in the 1930s, a decade characterized by labor protests and racial activism on the island. Marcus Garvey, who was in Jamaica from 1927 to 1935, promoted his form of black nationalism, and the religion Rastafarianism won many devotees among the poor, predominantly black working class. Taken together, these movements gave birth to an Afrocentric cultural nationalism in Jamaica that manifested itself through artwork that celebrated the black working class and through a proliferation of African-style sculpture.Ceremonie sous Mapou, a 1962 oil painting by Castera Bazile (1923–1966) shows a Vodou ceremony. Christie's ImagesThe undisputed icon of Jamaican cultural nationalism is Negro Aroused (1935), one of a series of wood sculptures created by the British artist Edna Manley (1900–1987). Of European ancestry, Manley spearheaded Jamaican art. After arriving on the island in 1922, she became an important organizer for the arts in Jamaica. In 1940 she started free classes at the Institute of Jamaica, and in 1950 she helped found the Jamaican School of Art, which became the center of a coherent artistic community, referred to here as the Institute Group.Jamaican painter and sculptor Everald Brown (1917–) often uses Rastafarian images, as in this painting titled Ethiopian Apple in which the central figure is both an Otaheite apple and a symbol of the sacred oneness of humanity and nature. National Gallery of Jamaica, Kingston/Photograph © Maria LaYacona/Courtesy of Everals BrownSome of the prominent members of the Institute Group were Albert Huie (1920–), David Pottinger (1911–), Ralph Campbell (1921–1985), and Henry Daley (1919–1951). Working in a post-impressionist style, many of these artists looked to local Jamaican settings and people for inspiration. For example, Huie painted rural scenes and activities, and Pottinger depicted aspects of daily life in Kingston's working-class neighborhoods.Since the 1930s Jamaica's art history has also featured many independent, untrained artists, often referred to as the “intuitives,” a term coined by Jamaican art historian David Boxer. They include John Dunkley (1891–1947), Carl Abrahams (1913–), William “Woody” Joseph (1919–), and Sidney McLaren (1895–). Dunkley, considered to be one of Jamaica's greatest painters, painted dark, mysterious landscapes populated by a strange assortment of animals. Joseph carved masks, animals, and human figures, sometimes combining elements from all three.Some Jamaican artists, after growing up on the island, sought artistic training abroad in Europe or North America, and later returned to Jamaica to develop their art. Sculptor Ronald Moody (1900–1984) studied in Britain and France, and his encounters with Egyptian sculpture while in Europe are reflected in his work after returning to Jamaica. Namba Roy (Roy Atkins, 1910–1961) grew up in Accompong, previously a maroon (escaped slave) settlement, and studied art in Great Britain, where he discovered African sculpture and began creating neo-African carvings in ivory. Rather than seek out African art in Europe, Kofi Kayiga (Ricardo Wilkins, 1943–) traveled directly to Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. His vibrant abstract works were inspired by his experiences in Africa as well as by Jamaican folklore and religious themes.After Jamaica achieved its independence in 1962, Rastafarianism gained wider public acceptance and became a major source of inspiration for several Jamaican artists. Painter and sculptor Everald Brown (1917–) won international renown for his synthesis of Rastafarian and Ethiopian Orthodox Church–derived religious imagery. Other artists, such as painter Albert Artwell (1942–), have expressed the more militant, political dimension of Rastafarianism, asserting an African supremist view.Although less influential than Rastafarianism, the Afro-Protestant religious tradition of Revivalism has inspired some of Jamaica's art. Some of the relief carvings of Osmond Watson (1934–) are based on Revivalism. The sculptor and painter Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds (1911–1989), perhaps the most famous Revivalist artist, produced a vast body of Revivalist-inspired sculpture from 1948 to 1967 that embody the rhythm, movement, and emotional character of Revivalist rituals.In Jamaica, the growth of cultural nationalism inspired a new interest in African sculpture. Like Edna Manley, sculptor Alvin Marriot (1902–1992) depicted black labor-related themes. In the 1960s, David Miller, Jr. (1903–1977) executed a series of carved heads that display a strong sense of black consciousness and Négritude. Works by David Miller, Sr. (1872–1969) exhibit a spiritual sensibility and kinship with African art. His Talisman (1940), for example, has four faces, a characteristic found in Kongo art.Jamaica, like Haiti, is one of the few Caribbean islands that have recognized and supported artists as ambassadors of culture and that have founded art schools and museums to foster the growth of the plastic arts. The 1960s witnessed the establishment of several private galleries and in 1974 the National Gallery of Jamaica was founded. These institutions continue to nurture the growth of Jamaican art.CubaAs in Jamaica, the documentation of African contributions to the development of art in Cuba is limited to the twentieth century. During the nineteenth century a Cuban school of painting based on French and Spanish academicism emerged around Havana's San Alejandro Academy (established 1817), but in this era there were apparently no painters of African descent. However, the social and political changes that followed Cuba's late-nineteenth-century struggle for independence led to the revival of African traditions, paving the way for increased participation of black artists in the plastic arts.Beginning in 1906, the Cuban anthropologist and political activist Fernando Ortiz published several studies on Afro-Cuban culture, which he discussed as an integral part of Cuban national culture. His work had a strong impact on the vanguard artists who emerged during the 1920s and 1930s, a period of increased political and cultural activism. Although diverse in work and interests, these artists focused on indigenous Cuban images and themes, including Afro-Cuban traditions. Their efforts were part of a larger movement known as Afrocubanismo.At first, Afrocubanismo in art referred to the romanticized representation of Afro-Cuban subjects. During the 1940s and 1950s, abstract expressionism became a popular idiom, and references to Afro-Cuban subjects became more conceptual and indirect. The artist who redefined Afrocubanismo and the direction of Cuban art during these years was Wifredo Lam (1902–1982).The “horse-woman” in The Siren of Niger (1950) by Wifredo Lam (1902–1982) combines imagery from the African-based religion of Santería with European traditions. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution. Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1972.Lam was an academically-trained painter of Afro-Chinese descent, and his work reflects his deep interest in Afro-Cuban history and traditions. He explained the motivating force behind his painting by saying, “I wanted with all of my heart to paint the drama of my country, but by thoroughly expressing the Negro spirit, the beauty of the plastic art of the blacks.” In his masterwork, The Jungle (1943), he simultaneously invokes the exploitation and resistance of the slaves by merging human forms with sugarcane and dense foliage. Other Lam paintings such as The Chair (1943) are related to the Afro-Cuban religion Santería, which was an important part of his childhood environment. Lam cultivated an interest in Afro-Cuban subjects and themes in Cuba's younger generation of artists, including Roberto Diago (1920–1957). Lam's followers sought to learn and communicate through their work the ideological significance of Afro-Cuban traditions and not just use them as a source of picturesque indigenous subject matter, as the early Cuban vanguard had done.Two artists stand in front of their mural portraying the people of Choiseul, St. Lucia. CORBIS/Bob KristOther Cuban artists of African descent who delved into Afro-Cuban traditions for subjects and ideas for their own artwork include: Mateo Torriente (1910–1966), Agustín Cárdenas (1927–), and Manuel Mendive (1944–). Mateo Torriente was a mulatto sculptor who, after focusing on female figures, depicted animal forms and musical instruments with an increasingly abstract approach from the 1950s until his death. Augustín Cárdenas was an academically trained sculptor of African descent who merged African designs, especially those of the Dogon people, with abstraction to create a new aesthetic. His example was followed by Rogelio Rodríguez Cobas (1926–) and Ramón Haití (1932–), both wood sculptors of African descent. Mendive is an academically-trained Cuban artist of African descent who is an initiate of both Santería and Mayombe (Palo Monte) and interprets contemporary events through the mythology of these religions.Over the course of the twentieth century, Santería and Palo Monte have witnessed the increased participation of people of European descent. As a result, some white Cuban artists who are initiates of these Afro-Cuban religions have incorporated related images and themes into their work. These artists include Juan Francisco Elso (1956–1988), José Bedia (1959–), and Santiago Rodríguez Olazábal (1955–).Black and mulatto female artists have been an integral part of the exploration of Afro-Cuban traditions. Ironically, artists such as Ana Mendieta (1948–1985) and Belkis Ayón (1967–) have used the myths and iconography of all-male secret societies called Abakuás to assert their identity as black and female and to comment on the patriarchal order of society. Representations of Abakuás, in particular the irmes—costumed members of the society that accompany Abakuá processions and Carnival—date to nineteenth-century Cuban costumbrista art. The irme has become a national symbol of Cuba and often appears in the work of such white artists as René Portocarrero (1912–1985).Since the emergence of the Cuban vanguard in the 1930s, both black and white artists have explored Afro-Cuban culture. Today, Afrocubanismo continues to be one of the most important trends in Cuban art.BrazilAfricans and their descendants have contributed to the development of the plastic arts in Brazil since the sixteenth century. They were initially apprentices or assistants working alongside other artists on the construction of churches and religious monuments. Afro-Brazilians carved religious images and embellished church interiors with paint and gold. They sometimes subverted the efforts to replicate the art and architecture of Catholic Portugal by introducing their own images and aesthetic preferences. This included transforming grapes (symbolizing wines and the blood of Christ) into pineapples and depicting traditionally white Virgins and cherubs as mulatto or black.Brazilian artists of African descent individually distinguished themselves during the period from the eighteenth century through the second part of the nineteenth century, a period of time spanning the baroque and rococo periods of art. During the eighteenth century, the major Brazilian artists were blacks or mulattoes who often belonged to fraternities that drew up the contracts for carving images, painting cathedral ceilings, etc. Among these Afro-Brazilian artists were: Valentim Fonesca e Silva (1750–1813), also known as Mestre Valentim; the painter José Theophilo de Jesus (1770?–1847), Francisco das Chagas (active late 1700s), also known as Chagas o Cabra (the “He-Goat”); and the sculptor Manuel da Costa Athaide (1762–1830). The most famous Afro-Brazilian artist of this era was the sculptor and architect Antônio Francisco Lisboa (1738–1814), also known as Aleijadinho (the “Little Cripple”). All these painters and sculptors applied their talents to religious art. They left many examples of their work in the urban centers of Minas Gerais, Bahia, Pernambuco, and Rio de Janeiro.Afro-Brazilian participation in the arts decreased with the advent of neoclassicism in the nineteenth century. Some art historians have interpreted Dom João VI's decision in 1816 to invite French artists to educate Brazilian artists as an attempt to “whiten” Brazilian art. This led to the establishment of French art academies in Brazil in the mid–nineteenth century. Although the institutionalization of art made artistic training less accessible to Afro-Brazilian artists, some such as Firmino Monteiro (1855–1888), Estêvão Silva (1845?–1891), and Rafael Pinto Bandeira (1863–1896) entered the ranks of the artistic elite, where they often encountered racism.In spite of being untrained in a formal sense, some Afro-Brazilians continued to make a living as artists. During the late nineteenth century Mestre Manoel Friandes (1823–1904), an Afro-Muslim architect, designed several secular and ecclesiastical buildings, including the Ordem Terceira de São Francisco and the Igreja de Lapinha, in Salvador, Bahia. Considered one of Brazil's most famous vernacular artists, Francisco Biquiba de LaFuente Guarany (1884–1985) carved over a hundred carrancas (figureheads) for boats travelling on the São Francisco River over the course of a career spanning nearly eighty years. Heitor dos Prazeres (1889–1966) was a painter of Guarany's generation whose work reflects life in Rio de Janeiro, including the emerging Samba scene of which he was a part.The arrival of a large number of European and Asian immigrants in Brazil during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries effected a shift in Brazilian art to modernism. Using modern idioms such as cubism, many members of this next generation of artists explored Candomblé-related themes. Deoscordes Maximiliano dos Santos (1918–), better known as Mestre Didi, is a sculptor of Yoruban ancestry, whose multimedia works celebrate a number of orixás, the African divinities from the Candomblé religion, and are assembled using materials and colors associated with those gods. Terciliano Jr. (1939–) attempts to manifest the qualities and spiritual power of the orixás in his abstract paintings, in which the wooden offering bowl known as the gamela is a recurrent motif. The angular, abstract sculpture of Emanoel Araujo (1940–) attempts to capture in a minimal, nonrepresentational manner the movements and rhythms of the orixás, especially Exú and Ogún. The sculpture and painting of Rubem Valentim (1922–) evokes the symbols of the orixás through symmetrical compositions of bold unmodulated colors and combined geometric forms.Other Afro-Brazilian artists, especially those in the field of sculpture, have adhered to a more figurative approach. Some sculptors use abstraction and distortion in such a way that endows their sculpture with features often found in African art (larger head, geometric facial features, etc.). These artists include Agnaldo Manoel dos Santos (1926–1962), Boaventura Silva Filho Louco (1932–), and Maurino de Araujo (1949–).Contemporary Afro-Brazilian art is eclectic, both in its subject matter and materials. Some works refer directly to Afro-Brazilian beliefs and practices, others only allude to them, and still others concern themselves with more universal issues. As they have since the seventeenth century, Afro-Brazilian artists continue to play an important part in shaping Brazil's national art.Other Artists of African DescentDuring the nineteenth century a number of artists of African descent gained prominence in other areas of Latin America and the Caribbean. José Gil de Castro (1785–1841), known as “El Mulato Gil,” was a portrait painter in Lima, Peru and was the first artist to paint the heroes of Independence. Pancho Fierro (1810–1879) was another Afro-Peruvian artist from Lima who was one of the leading costumbristas, depicting in watercolors nineteenth-century customs and people in Peru. Notable Afro-Caribbean artists include José Campeche (1751–1809) and Michel-Jean Cazabon (1813–1888). Campeche was a mulatto Puerto Rican painter best known for his religious images and portraits of the Puerto Rican elite. He also inaugurated the depiction of African subjects in Puerto Rican visual art. Cazabon was also mulatto and, after studying in Paris, distinguished himself as a landscape painter in Trinidad and Martinique. There are a host of notable twentieth-century artists of African descent, among them Geoffrey Holder (active late 1900s) of Trinidad and Amos Ferguson (1920–) of the Bahamas.While this article has focused on individual black artists, there is at least one example of a collective black artistic tradition in Latin America and the Caribbean. The Bush Negroes of Suriname have preserved a distinctively African wood carving tradition dating to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They are the descendants of maroons who formed jungle communities that negotiated their independence with the Dutch in the late eighteenth century. In relative seclusion they reconstructed many aspects of the West African cultures, including an eclectic wood carving tradition. Thus, while many artists of African descent have asserted their identity within European artistic traditions and informed the character of their country's national art, Latin America and the Caribbean is not without an independent African artistic tradition.See also Carnivals in Latin America and the Caribbean; Maroonage in the Americas; Rastafarians.

Reference Entry.  3041 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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