Afrocubanismo was the name given to an influential artistic movement of the late 1920s and 1930s in Cuba, similar in many respects to the Harlem Renaissance. It was characterized by an explosion of interest in Afro-Cuban themes in music, novels, painting, ballet, and other forms of expression that had no precedent in the Caribbean prior to that time. These were the first decades in which the culture of the black working class came to be accepted as a legitimate form of national expression by Cuban society as a whole. Afrocubanismo influenced virtually all types of art, both elite and popular, including the poetry of Emilio Ballagas, José Tallet, and Nicolás Guillén; the paintings of Eduardo Abela, Jaime Valls, and Wilfredo Lam; the novels of Alejo Carpentier; the musical theater of Ernesto Lecuona, Jaime Prats, and Gonzalo Roig; the symphonic compositions of Alejandro García Caturla, Amadeo Roldán, and Gilberto Valdés; and the phenomenal popularity of Cuban son music and commercial dance bands.
Afrocubanismo art was created and promoted by various groups. Formally trained (and primarily white) middle-class artists created representations of black culture that had a tremendous impact on national consciousness, especially through the medium of popular song. Cuba's black middle classes contributed significantly to the popularization of such repertoire as well, though primarily as interpreters. Working-class Afrocubans supported the movement more directly by forming carnival bands, popularizing new musical genres from within their own communities, performing for tourists, and by infusing commercial arts of various kinds with influences from cultural traditions (e.g., linguistic, musical, choreographic) of African origin.
While progressive in many respects, the movement was characterized by fundamental contradictions. Most exponents of Afrocubanismo tended to be middle-class Euro-Cubans who drew inspiration from black working-class culture but created highly stylized representations of it, depictions that at times bordered on being racist. Afrocubanismo art underscores the unease with which much of the middle class viewed African-influenced culture, as well as the racially divided nature of Cuban society at that time. Examples of Afrocubanismo recordings include those of pianist and singer Ignacio Villa (1911–1950), better known as Bola de Nieve. Villa, himself a middle-class black performer with classical training, became one of the most popular performers of songs by white composers such as Eliseo Grenet (1893–1950) that straddled the line between ridicule and celebration of Afro-Cuban heritage. The same sort of ambivalence is found in other works. Nevertheless, some middle-class black artists took part in the Afrocubanismo movement and promoted decidedly positive images of blackness, using their art as a means of addressing issues of racism and racial oppression. Examples include the paintings of Alberto Peña ("Peñita") (1894–1938) and sculptures of Teodoro Ramos Blanco (1902–1972). Clearly, the movement had different meanings for particular artists and their audiences.
Various international influences contributed to the development of Afrocubanismo. The 1920s saw fundamental changes in the commercial music of nearly all Western countries. Its most obvious manifestation involved concession to blue-collar and non-Western aesthetics on an unprecedented scale. This was the era of the tango, the jazz craze, bohemian Paris, the primitivists, the fauvists, Naive Kunst, and a host of related movements drawing inspiration from non-European traditions. From the perspective of the present day, the 1920s can be seen as a crucial first step in the gradual democratization of national cultures globally, paralleled by the emergence of musical genres such as calypso and samba and presaging negritude and black nationalism in other parts of the hemisphere.
Afrocubanismo art represented a reaction against foreign influences as well, primarily from the United States. Artwork with Afro-Cuban themes might be considered a counter-discourse of sorts in the face of European and North American assertions of inherent racial and cultural superiority. Economic upheaval in the 1920s made issues of sovereignty especially important. Underemployment and poverty became severe following the U.S. stock-market crash of 1929. This in turn threatened the political stability of the administration of Cuba's president Gerardo Machado (1871–1939), culminating in outright civil war in 1933. Machado had allied himself closely with the United States; resentment towards him was fueled by the widespread perception that the United States had contributed to Cuba's economic instability and that it could not keep from meddling in the country's domestic affairs. During the rebellion against Machado, and for a short time after its resolution, the country's intellectual elite attempted to more actively promote uniquely Cuban culture. The sudden prominence of African-influenced expression within Cuba owe much to these events.
Contrary to what might be expected, most spokespersons of the black middle class reacted negatively to Afrocubanismo art. They took exception with the tendency of the movement to stereotype blacks as a whole and to depict them in a demeaning fashion. After having struggled for decades to overcome discrimination, characterizations in poetry and song that too often described them as drunken, lascivious, or worse inspired outrage. Many objected to the very term "Afro-Cuban," pointing out that the common distinction of the period between "Cuban"—implicitly a white category—and "Afro-Cuban" implied that blacks had an identity distinct from that of other citizens. They did not view the new vogue of blackness as an attempt to redress the marginal status of Afro-Cuban culture historically, but rather as a means of further exoticizing and excluding them. To many, therefore, the emphasis on African-derived culture tended to factionalize the population.
The movement went into decline toward the end of the 1930s, primarily because Cuban society was not yet ready to fully embrace African-influenced arts. Mainstream Cuban audiences had come to accept representations of blackness in national culture, but only from a certain perspective, using particular stereotypes, and limited to well-defined aesthetic conventions. Listening to a white vocalist in blackface sing slave laments, or to a black middle-class artist read a humorous poem about the African god Babalú-Ayé could be tolerated, even enjoyed. But when working-class blacks themselves became increasingly involved in commercial entertainment and more openly infused their compositions with influences from Africanderived religions, when street drummers began to predominate as entertainers in cabarets, when scholars and folklorists arranged to have Yoruban batá drums performed on the concert stage, most middle-class listeners were horrified. Developments of this sort forced the intelligentsia to confront the fact that Afrocubanismo art had little in common with the actual expression of the black working class.
Perhaps the most defining characteristic of the Afrocubanismo movement was its ambivalence towards African-influenced expression. Imagery of African deities, of slaves during the colonial period, of drumming practices, and all other perceived Africanisms served as simultaneous sources of pride and embarrassment to the nation. They were powerful local icons to rally behind and markers of degeneracy—reminders of a cultural legacy that most considered shameful. An ongoing antagonism characterized the 1920s and 1930s, antagonism between an emergent racially and culturally based nationalism incorporating mulatto imagery and a widespread belief in the inherent superiority of whites over those of black or mixed ancestry. For the most part, the depictions of black culture from the period represent a fantasy of sorts, a middle-class projection that transformed the reality of the nation into a more Europeanized form. Despite these shortcomings, however, Afrocubanismo constitutes a relatively progressive moment in Cuba's history, and an important harbinger of change. The music, dance, literature, and visual art that it generated continue to influence present-day artists and have served as the conceptual foundation of modern Cuban culture ever since.
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robin moore (2005)