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Hurricane Over the Expanded Field

Three recent New York exhibitions highlight Latin American and Caribbean culture, crossing contemporary art and anthropology: Pacha, Llaqta, Wasichay: Indigenous Space, Modern Architecture, New Art (Whitney Museum of American Art, July 2018–September 2018); Taíno: Native Heritage and Identity in the Caribbean (National Museum of the American Indian, July 2018–October 2019), and Lydia Cabrera and Édouard Glissant: Trembling Thinking (Americas Society, October 2018–January 2019). The first two spotlight indigenous Caribbean—Taíno or Arawak—culture. The last focuses on art that the curators feel responds to the ideas of Lydia Cabrera, a mid-century Cuban ethnologist of Africans and African-descended people in Cuba, and Édouard Glissant, a Martinican poet, philosopher, and critic. A series of ancillary panels accompanied all three exhibitions, with panelists sometimes overlapping between them.

Pacha, Llaqta, Wasichay featured contemporary Latinx artists whose work, much of it from the past couple of years, draws on indigenous architectural and ecological innovations (Latinx is a gender-neutral adjective for people of Latin American descent). Whitney Assistant Curator Marcela Guerrero writes that she envisioned the exhibition as a complement or corrective to a spate of recent shows that have advanced a more familiar narrative of Latin American architectural modernisms. These, says Guerrero, cast modernism as “the ultimate paradigm for the history of the Americas.” They explored the continent’s embrace of post-Bauhaus, international style architecture constructed in rapidly expanding mid-century metropolises, and reproduced mid-century developmentalist states’ own rhetoric of progress and modernization. Guerrero lists four such recent shows, including MoMA’s Latin America in Construction (2015). To these marquee architecture exhibitions we could add the past decade’s boom in research and exhibitions on geometric abstraction in Latin America (including the Whitney’s own Carmen Herrera show from 2016-2017).

Against this dominant modernist project, Pacha, Llaqta, Wasichay signaled instead points of contact between “Indigenous concepts of space and the canon of modernity,” and focused on less monumental, less ecologically disruptive practices. (Anticipating Guerrero’s concerns, a summer exhibition at MoMA PS1 of the work of Fernando Palma Rodríguez—a Mexico-based artist whose pieces focus on contemporary issues facing indigenous communities—borrowed from Aztec imagery, and used Nahua ideas of repurposing materials.) Guerrero is from Puerto Rico, and her attention to indigenous technologies as they intersect with modernist built environments seems particularly timely a year after the devastation wrought by Hurricane María. A built environment sensitive to local conditions, in a Caribbean beset by intensifying hurricanes—hurricane is a corruption of the Taíno name for the god of storms—is more urgent than ever.

Indigeneity encompasses many traditions, however, and developmentalist modernist projects also included their share of both genuine recuperations of indigenous pasts and discourses of “indigenismo” or indigenism—paternalistic fantasies of indigenous people written by others, as opposed to indigenous aesthetic practices or building techniques. Indigenous aesthetics or themes were sometimes incorporated into the very modernizing discourses of skyscrapers, new cities, geometric abstraction, or giant public works projects: think of some of Diego Rivera’s murals, Joaquín Torres-García’s interest in the geometry of Incan stonework, Brazilian modernists’ interest in Tupi history, Joseph Albers’s geometric abstraction based on Aztec architecture, or the theories of little-known Mexican architect and historian Francisco Mujica, who in the 1920s suggested that skyscrapers were a modern “return of the Meso-American teocallis” (temples).

Fig. 1. Clarissa Tossin, still from Ch’u Mayaa, 2017. Video, color, sound, 17:57 min. Originally commissioned and produced by the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs for the exhibition Condemned to Be Modern at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery as part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative. Choreographer/performer: Crystal Sepúlveda, cinematographer: Jeremy Glaholt. Image courtesy the artist.

Several works in Pacha, Llaqta, Wasichay explicitly return to these modernist moments to recast them in what artist Clarissa Tossin hopes will be an “archaeology of the present.” Tossin’s video Ch’u Mayaa (Maya Blue) (2017)—originally commissioned for the exhibition Condemned to Be Modern, as part of the coordinated scores of exhibitions of Latin American art that made up last year’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA—is a lyrical engagement with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House (1919-1921), built in Maya Revival Style. In Tossin’s video, performance artist Crystal Sepúlveda dances under arcades, down walkways, and across other spaces of the modernist home, periodically freezing against its stone walls in poses borrowed from Mayan codices, paintings and carvings (fig. 1).

An installation by Jorge González, a furniture artist who employs Taíno weaving techniques and materials native to Puerto Rico, staged a reading corner with chairs and printed matter to be read from aloud. Publications included photocopied journals with articles about archaeological excavations of Taíno material culture, reprints of works by 1930s Puerto Rican feminists and anarchists, and a book by the poet Luís Palés Matos, known not for indigenista but “Afro-Antillean” poetry, a style that has been alternately celebrated for highlighting black Puerto Rican culture and condemned as caricatured appropriation and dialect poetry by a light-skinned Puerto Rican author (fig. 2). Outside, on one of the Whitney’s terraces, William Cordova installed a piece titled huaca (sacred geometries). The piece connects the language of huacas (Andean sacred places or objects) with Haitian vodou vèvès design, and with stainless steel, the latter a nod to the Bauhaus-trained architects who came to the Americas in mid-century.

Fig. 2. Installation view of Pacha, Llaqta, Wasichay: Indigenous Space, Modern Architecture, New Art (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, July 13-September 30, 2018). From left to right: Ronny Quevedo, quipu, 2017; Ronny Quevedo, Errant Globe, 2015; Clockwise, from top left: Alice, n.d.; Robinson, 2017; Secador (Dryer), 2016; Las Lunas, Caguas, Puerto Rico, 2017; Fernando, n.d.; Taller Cabachuela (Cabachuela Workshop), n.d.; Eustaquio, 2016; La Pintadera (Stamp), 2016; Guadalupe, 2016; Monotipo (Monotype), 2016; Center of wall, left to right: Taíno culture, Dominican Republic, Amulet, 1200-1500; Pre-Taíno culture, Dominican Republic, Antillean calendar or seal, n.d.; On right: Jorge González, Banquetas Chévere (Chévere Stools), 2018. Photograph by Ron Amstutz.

The exhibition references a number of indigenous traditions—the show’s title is Quechua, and works draw on Mayan architecture, contemporary Mexican vernacular grain silos, and broader Andean abstraction—but it is novel in its attention to hitherto downplayed Taíno influences in Caribbean culture. This renewed interest in Taíno heritage pushes back against two previously dominant trends. The first is the claim, established early in Iberian colonial history and upheld until recently, that soon after Columbus’s arrival in the region and early labor exploitation, Taínos and Caribs were wiped out, a decimation that in turn spurred the massive enslavement of Africans. Recent DNA analysis, however, has suggested widespread indigenous heritage among contemporary Caribbean peoples, and, while controversial, has focused attention on the endurance of Taíno culture in the Caribbean. The recent shows also work to correct the tendency to wield an indigenous past as part of an anti-black identity discourse. The current highlighting of Taíno history at the Whitney and NMAI is careful, instead, to emphasize shared strategies of survival by both African and indigenous peoples in the Caribbean, and indeed the shared kinship established between the two groups throughout the colonial period.

Today’s take on the Taíno past and present also contrasts with prior antiquarianisms. Early scholarly interest into the Taínos and Siboneys overlapped with the final years of African and African-descended slavery in Cuba. Indigenous peoples of the Caribbean were located in a vanished past, while period literature and art often depicted contemporary African culture as exotic or barbaric. In 1881 the Cuban scholar Antonio Bachiller y Morales (who lived in New York between 1869 and 1878) published Cuba primitiva (Primitive Cuba), a volume on the residual vocabularies, archaeology, and colonial history of indigenous peoples of the island. It would not be until the early-twentieth-century work of Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz, his sister-in-law Lydia Cabrera, and Afro-Cuban anthropologist Rómulo Lachatañaré that African diasporas in Cuba would be the subject of academic studies and of elite intellectuals’ projects to foreground Afro-Cuban culture against Eurocentric narratives of the nation.

Two decades later, and from across an ideological spectrum, intellectuals and elites during Cuba’s first post-independence, republican administrations were invested in fashioning narratives of national identity. To do so, they mined and popularized the same cultures that the state had previously criminalized or marginalized: son music, for instance, was famously banned for its association with African-descended cultures, until, like samba in Brazil, it was enshrined as the national musical style. Puerto Rico, under a new colonial power since 1898, sought to distinguish island culture against that of the United States. These decades saw artistic and popular interest in, and appropriation of, African-diasporic culture by elite white artists, as well as the publication of scholarly books on Taíno anthropology and history, fruits of the new discipline of anthropology. Between 1930 and 1940 books were published with titles such as Taíno Civilization of Pinar del Río, Indigenous Puerto Rico, History of Cuba’s Indians, Cuba Before Columbus, Prehistoric Haiti: Memoire of pre-Colombian Siboney and Taíno Cultures, as well as a Taíno glossary.

Fig. 3. Installation view of Pacha, Llaqta, Wasichay: Indigenous Space, Modern Architecture, New Art (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, July 13-September 30, 2018). From left to right: Claudia Peña Salinas, Tlaloc MNA, 2018; Claudia Peña Salinas, Tlalicue, 2017; William Cordova, untitled, 2015-16; William Cordova, untitled, 2016; William Cordova, untitled, 2016; William Cordova, untitled, 2015; William Cordova, untitled, 2016; William Cordova, untitled, 2016; William Cordova, untitled, 2016; William Cordova, untitled, 2016. Photograph by Ron Amstutz.

Such books purported to dig up a pre-Columbian history of the Caribbean believed to have vanished by the twentieth century. Cuba’s patron saint the Virgin Caridad del Cobre was named in part because of a seventeenth-century legend, according to which a statue of the Virgin, brought from Spain, intervened to save storm-tossed indigenous and African sailors; European, Taíno and African cultures were at the time still fused in national iconography. But by the early twentieth century a new identitarian commonplace was solidifying: modern Caribbean identity was understood to be a meld of African, European, and Asian cultures.

Chinese immigration to the Caribbean began in earnest in the mid-nineteenth century (earlier in Trinidad and Tobago) as African slavery waned. In Cuba, the Chinese were often invoked in the early twentieth century as part of a tripartite identity, but simultaneously allotted a minor role in nationalist discourses, often with recourse to clichés involving opium haze and prostitutes. Ideologies of mestizaje or “racial mixing” tended to reinforce a binarism of black and white forged during hundreds of years of Iberian-imposed enslavement of Africans.

In 1941, Wifredo Lam, the son of a Cantonese father and an Afro-Cuban mother, returned to Cuba from Paris, where he had observed European primitivism in the arts. He, too, highlighted the legacies of the three significant migrations, forced and voluntary, said to constitute Cuban (and his own) identity. But he did so now with the explicit goal of rejecting the folkloric, tourist-friendly or shopworn visions everywhere reproduced; instead, he researched and depicted cosmologies. Still, dispelling ideologies of mestizaje often meant reckoning with them rather than bypassing them altogether. The masculine and elite nationalist explorations of lo cubano—Cubanness—during the first decades of the twentieth century would, after the 1959 Revolution, often become fodder for parody or censure.

Literary Archaeologies: From the Archives

Does an archaeology of the present require the unearthing of different or overlooked pasts, or a reckoning with the ones that feed aspects of the present? New York’s recent exhibitions returned me to these early twentieth-century formulations of national cultures, and to how more recent work has engaged with or dismantled prior narratives. In Pacha, Llaqta, Wasichay, Tossin opts for a lyrical revisiting of the Mayan Revival structure, while Claudia Peña Salinas emphasizes gender fluidity in her sculpture Tlalicue (2017) (fig. 3). In post-revolutionary Cuba, Severo Sarduy’s 1967 experimental novel De Donde Son los Cantantes (From Cuba with a Song) corroded racist patriarchy through parody of its clichés and kitschification of its structures, while simultaneously signaling the importance of other persistent systems of meaning in Cuban culture, such as Yoruban religion.[1] Like some of the artists exhibited at the Whitney Museum and the Americas Society, Sarduy attempted to rewrite, and write against, modernism’s primitivisms and nationalist myths. Nevertheless, in a note at the end of From Cuba with a Song—however parodic its allusion to 1930s ethnographic authenticity may be—Sarduy asserted that “three cultures have overlapped to create Cuban culture—Spanish, African, and Chinese—three fictions that allude to them constitute this book” (235). Lam also appears in the novel, and Sarduy himself, throughout his career, often noted that his own family’s ancestry was African, European, and Chinese. Repeatedly, Sarduy insisted on Columbus’s original error of mistaking the Caribbean for Asia, forever linking the East and West “Indies.”

From Cuba with a Song is divided into three parts. The first section follows a Chinese transvestite in El Shanghai (a pornographic theater in Havana’s Chinatown) named Flor de Loto (Lotus Flower), who is pursued by a white General. The second section is about Dolores Rondón, a “mulata” concubine of a corrupt politician, and the prior subject of a 1963 radio play by Sarduy. A final section begins in the Spanish port of Cádiz and follows its characters as they cross the Atlantic to Cuba, reprising the route of Spanish conquistadors and enslaved Africans. Appearing in all three sections are shape-changing Yoruban twins (ibeyes) named Auxilio and Socorro (both words mean “help”).

Scholarship on the novel often focuses on the fact that Sarduy, who lived in Paris from 1959 until his death in 1993, sought in it to render “Cubanness.” In letters penned to his family back in Cuba, Sarduy first asserts that the novel will be titled El bumerang (The Boomerang)—to capture the circum-Atlantic nature of Cuban culture, endlessly nourished by circuits between Africa, Europe, and the Caribbean—but then changes the title to the words from a 1920s song that Sarduy felt instantiated “essential Cubanness.”[2] To my knowledge, no one has yet suggested a possible inspiration for the novel, or at least an uncannily similar anticipation of it: the 1939 short story “Cocktail,” by Spanish-born, Havana-based author Alfonso Hernández Catá.[3] “Cocktail” is a modern gothic story in which the horrors of Cuba’s history of African slavery and Asian indentured servitude persist explicitly into the post-independence present: both the Republican-era Cuba depicted in the story, and in the story’s own language.

Hernández Catá’s tale is an openly racist and misogynist reverie, while also containing a self-immolating indictment of such views. A couple of marines disembark in Havana and make their way to the storied El Floridita Bar (Hemingway’s favorite) to find “El General.” General MacClure is a hard-drinking British ship captain who has settled in Cuba; during bouts of dissipation he reminisces with colonialist nostalgia of lapsed days of bedding women in Ceylon, Egypt, etc. The General makes his own cocktails at the bar; he also, he implies, has mixed up his own racialized “cocktail” of a perfect mistress. His female servant, whom he physically and, we assume, sexually abuses, is a non-character, an empty receptacle for violence onto which the General projects his base desires: “For me, the emptier a woman, the better. And I fill her . . . !” (Hernández Catá, “Cocktail,” 173). The servant is said to be a mix of African, Chinese, and European ancestry, each past manifesting visually and psychologically as three different women in a single body, answering to three different names, and embodying three stereotypes: Balbina, a tortured, enslaved woman of African descent; Flor de Loto, an apparently demure but frightening Chinese woman; and María, a blankly “white” woman. The splintered psychology and visages of the woman is evidenced, to the Marines’ surprise, when the three men arrive at the General’s house and the drunk General calls out: “‘Slave, open up!’ And without giving sufficient time, yelled still more strenuously: ‘Don’t you hear me? Balbina! . . . Flor de Loto! . . . María! . . . ’” (171). The nearness of the terrors of racialized slavery (abolished in 1886 in Cuba) is explicit.

Hernández Catá then parrots a racialized discourse that will set the stage for Sarduy’s parodic rephrasing decades later:

The two marines perceived with astonishment that to each one of the vertices of the mestizaje corresponded an attitude. But all this mimeticism, so complicated, so artificial, was produced with mysterious naturalness. Without a doubt that game of transformations came from an indoctrination by the old man; but atop a special, basic, predisposition, born of the mixing of races. (172)

Hernández Catá’s description of the single, multifaceted but empty “woman” suggests some of the themes that would later obsess Sarduy, but transmogrified from carceral fantasy to liberating philosophy: mimesis (Sarduy brilliantly extended Roger Caillois’s reflections on mimesis to transvestism), artificiality, identity as performance around an absent center.

The General protests that the transformations are “not theater” but a cocktail “of flesh, blood, and entrails.” His racist diatribes continue until he passes out and the two marines flee to board their departing ship. Later, having followed the westward route from Europe and Africa to Cuba and further still to New Orleans, finally landing in New York, the sailors read in a newspaper that the General was murdered that same dawn. No one knows what became of his servant, who has, it seems, exacted her/their revenge. This allows the possibility of a recuperative reading against itself, in which the story contains its own obliteration. The murder of the stock racist character and liberation of the woman/women suggests a murdering of ideologies too. No culprit is found, and the police believe that “more than one person, at least three” were involved in killing the “excessively dead” MacClure, felled by a shot to the chest, an “oriental” cross on his back, and dents to his head from a heavy blow (175).

“Cocktail” was published in a Venezuelan literary journal as “an erotic tale”; it’s hard to know how it circulated, and if or how Sarduy might have encountered it. Sarduy’s letters back to his family from Paris in the early 1960s turn up comments on his second novel as it came into being, with no reference to “Cocktail.” But direct influence here is not really necessary. The clichés were sufficiently available enough to be the raw material for both authors. Still, a number of elements and concerns eerily anticipate Sarduy’s novel. It is as if the later author seized on the barest, most hackneyed elements of Hernández Catá’s story and spun from them a fantastical exaggeration, and hence undoing.

In From Cuba with a Song a Chinese woman/transvestite—a transformista (drag queen)—is also named Flor de Loto, and also is pursued by a white man named General who attempts to possess her.[4] As in “Cocktail,” there is a splitting of a female character into three racialized parts: Chinese, African, and European, with the concomitant use of terms such as “mulata achinada” or “guachinango” (Afro-Asian) in both fictions. In both, Republican-era Havana is depicted—typical of much period fiction—as a city with a “distillery, billiards hall, prostitute and marine on every corner” (Sarduy, De Donde, 110). A language of “mimesis” and “artificiality” (recuperated by Sarduy in his extensive critical writings, as well as in his fiction); racial clichés; the figuring of an evacuated subjectivity—all repeat. At the end of From Cuba with a Song the Yoruban twins destroy the General’s house. Christ, whose effigy has been carried into Havana, is a rotten wooden body that falls apart, “[h]is head split in two” (232).

“Cocktail” paints and performs a hideous portrait of colonial society and racism, but offers no alternative to the empty, familiar characters: they can be murdered within the story, but not reimagined in a new kind of fiction. Sarduy would recast the brittle caricatures as a fragile shell around a living history that burst through the old encasements, breaking them up as it did. In so doing, he prepared the way for contemporary returns to Caribbean history and to its modernisms, loosened from the stultifying stereotypes of this or that racial imaginary. The true relief that comes from contemporary aesthetics interested in indigenous aesthetics, cosmologies, and epistemologies is that the received modernisms no longer need be referenced. Different archaeologies, different pasts, and different presents are on view.


[1] Severo Sarduy, De Donde Son Los Cantantes, ed. Roberto González Echeverría (Madrid: Cátedra, 2010). Translations mine.

[2] “[A]noche por ejemplo comí en un restaurant de Nigeria, comida cubana con frijolitos, mango, discos de mambo y todo. El África aquí es La Habana, el último grito en África es la música cubana, lo que prueba que las influencias son como un bumerang, esa arma que vuelve siempre al sitio de partida. De allí que mi novela se llame El Bumerang, entre otras razones.” Severo Sarduy, Letter to his family, May 16, 1964. Severo Sarduy Family Correspondence 1959-1993. Rare Books and Special Collections, Manuscripts Collection C1475, Princeton University; “estoy pasando en limpio la versión definitiva de mi segunda novela . . . La novela se llamará, según creo, ahora, ya que el título es lo más difícil, así: ‘DE DONDE SON LOS CANTANTES’ ya que es una citación de la famosa canción de los Matamoros que creo que es lo esencial cubano, la cubanidad misma.” Severo Sarduy, Letter to his family, 20 March 1965. Severo Sarduy Family Correspondence 1959-1993.

[3] Alfonso Hernández Catá, “Cocktail,” in Cuentos Olvidados de Alfonso Hernández Catá, ed. Jorge Febles (New York: Senda Nuevas Ediciones, 1982), 169-176, first published in Revista Nacional de Cultura (Caracas, Venezuela) 3, (1939): 31, 34-36.

[4] The shared name might in both cases refer back to the name of a song by Ernesto Lecuona from 1938 (“Flor de Loto”); Lecuona, notably, wrote treacly songs about indigenous, African, and Chinese characters. The song’s lyrics describe a man (presumably white) saying “yes” to a “Chinita” as she says “no”: the man emerges victorious. The lyrics, by Roberto Ratti, begin “En un bosque de la China,” (in a forest in China) while the epigraph for the “Flor de Loto” section of From Cuba With a Song substitutes Habana for the original “China” (“En un bosque de la Habana”). According to a file in Cuba’s National Library, Lecuona’s song, in turn, was based on a poem by Gustavo Sánchez Galarraga, a friend and collaborator of Lecuona.