The Farber Collection
Facebook Twitter RSS

Alexis Esquivel

About Alexis Esquivel

b. 1968, resides in Cuba

Cuban art produced after the landmark 1993 exhibition, Las metáforas del templo (Metaphors of the Temple) was not only defined by an increasingly sophisticated artistic métier and a greater density of metaphor; it also expanded its scope to include subjects that had, in previous decades, been taboo.

Exhibitions such as Queloides (Keloids) I (1997) and II (1999), ’98 cien años después (’98 One Hundred Years Later, 1998-2000), Ni músicos ni deportistas (Neither Musicians nor Athletes, 1997), and El ocultamiento de las almas (The Hiding of the Souls, 1997) anticipated the current analysis about social inequalities and racist practices inherent in the ideologies of day-to-day life. These exhibitions reflected on the canon of history and on the socioeconomic tensions that emerged during the “Special Period.” Unlike the anti-academic avant-garde of the 1930s, this current of thought did not strive to vindicate an Afro-Cuban art, and it was not interested in mythologizing, as Wifredo Lam did in the 1940s. It neither coined a particular visual style nor attempted to represent marginalized segments of the population.

In the works of Alexis Esquivel and several other artists (as well as curators and critics), attention is focused on vital conflicts that are not publicly discussed, and on questioning the cultural stereotypes about black men and women that circulate in both Cuban national history and the tourist industry. While acknowledging the positive impact of the legal and practical measures taken by the Cuban government against racial discrimination, these artists also take the pulse of the streets—Cuban rap music, for example—and their demythologizing attitude, similar to that of African-American artists like Robert Colescott, Kara Walker, and Kerry James Marshall, continues the discussion of negritude conducted by black Cuban intellectuals since the 19th century.

Esquivel creates canvases, performances, and sculptures infused with parody, in which he subverts the division between history and popular beliefs. He erodes the imaginary pedestals of national heroes, from the indigenous chief Hatuey to José Martí and Che Guevara. In previous pieces like Black Power, Cuatro maneras de alisar el cabello (Four Ways of Relaxing Hair), and Pianissimo Concerto, Esquivel had referred to personalities and phenomena linked to the “black problem” both in Cuba and in the United States. But in Autopsia (Autopsy), he includes photographic evidence of an historical event: the racial slaughter that took place in Cuba in 1912. Under the Morúa Law, which excluded racial parties from the political arena, the Independent Colored Party (PIC), led by Evaristo Estenoz and Pedro Ivonet, was declared illegal. The ensuing protest was violently repressed by the army of President Gómez. More than 4,000 black Cubans, including PIC leaders, were detained and killed.

The image of Estenoz’s autopsy was offered as “real” proof of his death at the hands of the army. This evidence, which lends its name to the piece, is printed on a basketball backboard—a symbol of sports, one of the most visible ways for Cuba’s black population to achieve recognition. The basket, or net, is made of red and black Lycra, a ubiquitous material in the wardrobe of lower-class women and jineteras (female prostitutes, or “sex jockeys”). In Santería, the colors red and black evoke Eleggua, the orisha (deity) who opens and closes pathways and doors, and who is traditionally placed behind the front door of the house. Here, the basket is sewn shut, blocking any possibility of playing the game.

Autopsia has been created as a seamless collage, in which the historical image interacts with present-day cultural signs. Esquivel is interested in eroding the presumed objectivity of photography—a technology of reproduction linked, since the 19th century, to the classification of both non-European populations and criminals. Placed in a new interpretive context, the autopsy performed on the lifeless body of Evaristo Estenoz—leader of a frustrated racial emancipation movement in republican Cuba—extends to the social body of the Cuban nation.

References: Cited catalogue, p. 50. Ribeaux, Ariel, “Ni Músicos ni Deportistas” (Neither Musicians Nor Athletes), ArteCubano 3/2000, pp. 52-59.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

See also: Abelardo Mena Chicuri, "Unforgettable: Obama, Raúl, and Alexis Esquivel's Chronicle of Hope,” Cuban Art News, December 18, 2014.