African Iconography in Contemporary Afro-Cuban Visual Art
The scarcity of empirical studies on contemporary Afro-Cuban visual art has impeded the understanding of the extent to which African contributions shape contemporary life in the Diaspora. Two Afro-Cuban institutions with roots in indigenous African tradition are Santería and Abakuá. They are derived, respectively, from the ancient Yoruba and Efik nationalities in what is now Nigeria.
Named Lucumi in Cuba, Yoruba slaves devised a survival strategy of worshiping their own deities (orishas) while appearing to worship their Spanish owners’ Catholic saints. This perceived practice was termed by the Spaniards as Santería (worship of the saints). Santería evolved into a supremely magical religious practice and has permeated the core of Cuban society.
Efik slaves who had hitherto subscribed to the Ekpe society founded Abakuá in Cuba. Ekpe was, and continues to be, an indigenous masonry, exclusively for men sworn to secrecy. Its Cuban offspring operated as an independent, stratified system of mutual aid. And because its key function was to buy people out of slavery, Abakuá became a mysterious, powerful liberation force. Its strict orthodoxy and network of secret shrines have enabled it to exert considerable control of the collective morality.
These two traditions have had, and continue to exert, undeniable influence on art in Cuba.
Roberto Amate, curator of contemporary Cuban art at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana, recognizes Wilfredo Lam (1902-1982) as the first Afro-Cuban artist to deliberately imbue his work, during the early 1940s, with Santería religious symbolism. Lam’s efforts and influence on Cuban art education spawned a new generation of visual artists in an expression of symbols and mythologies of Santería practices. The prominent Cuban art critic Gerardo Mosquera adds that Lam, who had been exposed to indigenous African masks and geometry in the School of Paris, returned to Cuba and “moved towards invention with the objective of communicating, rather than strictly representing, a mythology” of the region.
Corina Matamoros, curator of contemporary Cuban art at the National Museum of Fine Arts, recognizes Wilfredo Lam as “the great paradigm of the African spirit” but explains that shifting historical conditions have midwifed a new generation of visual artists who blend palpable Santería or Abakuá adherence with the visual imagination. A case in point is Santiago Olazábal, whose installations reconstruct African lore, legends and rites.
In The Box of the Drum, for example, Olazábal locates four tortoise shells on patches of dark earth, and then positions a huge wooden beam upon the shells. In an accompanying narrative, he explains the trickery of the ubiquitous tortoise in African folklore. Olazábal is not Black, yet he is responsive to the same current that propels Afro-Cuban aesthetics.
The art historian, philosopher, and Santería high priest (babalawo) Orlando Pascual, who is also not Black, contends that subscription to Santería has always transcended racial affinities. In a nation where persons of African ancestry constitute a majority of the population—at least 60 percent according to a recent study—the Santería presence would be pervasive.
On the second floor of the National Museum of Fine Arts, Matamoros showed me a highly symbolic figurative work by Belkis Ayón, a mulatta female artist who had managed to be initiated into Abakuá, but mysteriously committed suicide. Such stories accentuate the palpability of fear associated with Abakuå, much like Ekpe, its forebear. For instance, while living in Nigeria, I owned a life-size Ekpe masquerade doll that was installed on my patio. Maids and visitors would not go within six feet of the doll for fear of a mysterious mishap or sudden death. The house was even inexplicably skipped during a robbery raid.
My meeting with black artist Juan Picasso was illuminating. Also known as “el Picasso negro” (the Black Picasso) because of his shared ancestry with Pablo Picasso, Juan’s work demonstrates a deconstruction of Santería symbols in a visual narrative extolling orishas. A limited palette of juxtaposed dark and light colors is negotiated with distorted geometric constructs. Some of his linear work recalls aspects of Nsibidi—an ancient calligraphic system developed by the Ekpe society.
The foregoing conversations were documented in October 2007, during my week-long stay in Havana as an invited observer at the 22nd General Assembly of the International Council of Graphic Design Associations, in my capacity as past vice president of the world body. I currently seek grants to fund further research travels in Cuba, to continue the conversations beyond Havana. A resulting book will contribute to more profound understanding of the impact of Santería and Abakuá on contemporary Afro-Cuban visual art.
Dr. Haig David-West is Department Chair and Professor of Visual Communication and Design at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. He holds academic qualifications from New York University, The University of Wisconsin at Madison, Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria, and Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, Poland. He can be reached at
Afro-Cuban Visual Art