“Ajiaco, Stirrings of the Cuban Soul” has been haunting my waking and sleeping hours for weeks. The magisterial exhibit opened at the Newark Museum on June 8, having traveled here from other showings, including at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in Connecticut. It runs through Aug. 14.
Whether you live for art or you have never been to an art exhibit, do not miss this show. The power, beauty and mystery of this art will grab your heart and never let go.
The Spanish word “Ajiaco” is a rich stew, co-opted to describe the people of Cuba. The European arrival on that magical archipelago meant the decimation through disease and weaponry of the indigenous people, including the Taino. From the 16th to 19th centuries, the island was peopled by the forced importation of a million Africans representing over 100 West African ethnic groups.
The slaves brought their Yoruban deities, the Orisha, and blended their rich spiritual traditions with the Roman Catholicism of their Spanish masters. Later, Cuba would be home to the largest Chinese population in Latin America, as laborers from the East contracted to work in the sugar fields. Their Buddhist and Taoist beliefs enriched the flavors of the stew.
Guest curator Dr. Gail Gelburd’s informing concept is Syncretism, the coming together of diverse cultures and in this diverse exhibit, the sum is even greater than the component parts. The paintings, photographs, works on paper, mixed media sculpture and installations seem to be holding a conversation with one another. And, you can almost hear Afro-Cuban percussion in the rhythm of many of the pieces.
This sound track becomes actual in the final rooms of the main floor exhibit space where the commissioned music of Leandro Soto’s (b. 1954) video and installation piece, “KachIreme,” plays on loop. In his massive piece, Soto calls down Egungun, the Yoruban deity of the collective ancestors, and he personally dons the ceremonial Egungun masquerade on video. Take the time to watch and listen carefully.
These ancestors are richly represented in many of the mixed media altar pieces and paintings. Altarpieces blend Catholic and Yoruban elements; on one, Oshun, the Orisha of unconditional love, is enshrined at the center where the Virgin Mary would be in a European altar.
Among my favorite paintings is Cepp Selgas’ (b. 1951) “Children of Obbatala,” an acrylic on canvas masterwork where the creation deity Obbatala is represented as both male and female, mother and father, suckling the children of the earth: The rounded back of each infant’s head becomes a breast nourishing the infant behind. In the interspaces between the curves of the infant faces are doves, perhaps representing the Catholic Holy Spirit and creating a pattern of negative and positive grounds.
The theme of nourishing the earth explodes from the canvases by the great Manuel Mendive (b. 1944), widely considered Cuba’s greatest living artist. In his brightly colored “My Soul Is Nourished, Se Alimenta mi Espíritu, 2007” strange, enchanting earthlings sprout creatures from the sea and air or arise from them. In this and companion pieces, some in a darker palette, the recurring motif is the infant being suckled.
The great, internationally known Cuban surrealist painter Wifredo Lam (1902-1982) is represented by enigmatic canvases invoking the metamorphoses from the belief system of the African side of his ancestry. There is also a wonderful ceramic piece, inspired by his father’s Chinese background. Read the wall inscribed with excerpts from Lam’s poem, “One Night in October, 1492:” “Cuba became the crossroads … So long isolated in the middle of the vast sea of the Caribbean … “
Tomas Sanchez (b. 1948) recreates a primeval Cuba in his lovely, meditative oil, “Land Ashore.” With its lush vegetation meeting placid waters, he transports you to another time, another place. Jose Bedia ( b. 1959) in “Oh, Tata — I Aytata Amparanas,” imagines an elongated Taino Indian, with a similarly attenuated dog licking wounds on his thigh, the dog being the man’s companion spirit.
Nearby is one of the exhibit’s rarest loans and most powerful pieces: the majestic, lighter than air 1985 “Bird That Flies Over America, Pajaro que Vuela Sobre America,” by Juan Francisco Elso, born 1956 who died of leukemia in 1988. Made of wood, branches, wax and jute thread, the bird’s body and head evoke Christ on the cross. The wing span, fully 12 feet wide, speaks to all the possibilities of the world.
On July 27, 28 and 29 there will be a special exhibit-related program for children. On Monday, July 18, from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., the museum will host an all-day lecture and symposia on Cuban art, with half-day options. See website below for details. Related programs include the subtitled Spanish-language film, “When the Spirits Dance Mambo,” (2002) on Wednesday, as part of the Newark Black Film Festival. The museum will open that evening at 5:45 p.m. to allow viewing of the art. On Thursday, July 21, there is a lunch-time performance of Cuban-born percussionist Dafnis Pietro in Jazz in the Garden Series at the Newark Museum.
There are also no charge, docent-led tours for adults at 2:15 p.m. every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from now until Friday, Aug. 12. The Newark Museum is at 49 Washington St., Newark, with onsite parking and easy access from all public transportation. The Museum Café offers food and free WiFi in Engelhard Court. Admission is free for Newark residents and members. Suggested admission for all others is $10; $6 seniors and students with ID. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. See www.newarkmuseum.org or call (973) 596-6699.