José Manuel Noceda Fernández

José Manuel Noceda Fernández

After graduating in Art History from the University of Havana, José Noceda (Matanzas, Cuba, 1959) worked since 1984 at Centro de Arte Contemporáneo Wifredo Lam, Havana.

He is an expert in the work of the renowned Cuban painter, as well as a researcher into Caribbean and Central-American contemporary art.

Since 1992, Noceda is a member of the curatorial team of the Havana Biennial. From July 2001 through May 2005, and again in 2010, he was Deputy Director of that institution. He is a member of AICA International Association of Art Critics.

Expansions and Perspectives in Art from the Caribbean

The Centro Wifredo Lam in Havana was officially founded in 1983. Not long afterwards, in May 1984, it convened the first Havana Biennial, an unprecedented event at the time 1In fact, Centro Wilfredo Lam legally existed since March 1983 following a decree by the Council of Ministers, although it still had no structure as such nor any headquarters. And so this first edition was organized by the Ministry of Culture’s visual arts department with the active call for critics and experts in the visual arts who were ultimately responsible for shaping the inaugural edition.. Holding up the life and work of the renowned painter Wifredo Lam (Sagua la Grande, Cuba, 1902-Paris, France, 1982) as the guiding beacon for the new institution proved a wise decision. His friendship with Pablo Picasso, his affinities with André Breton and his creative adventures under the banner of the second manifesto of Surrealism are facts often highlighted in his biography. Revered as the most universal of Cuban painters, Lam enjoyed widely accepted legitimacy during his time and travels in Europe in the period between the two world wars, particularly in Spain and France, where he rubbed shoulders with the ‘hard core’ of modernism in the School of Paris. In 1941 he had returned to the Caribbean and Cuba, an unbreakable bond he endorsed throughout his whole career, whereupon he transformed the history of painting in the region.

Like many of his Latin-American fellows, Lam had remained in a peripheral limbo. He was mentioned in passing in art history as a surrealist, an affiliation which he himself had often refuted. It is not until the present moment, in the light of multiculturalism and postcolonial discourse, that justice is finally been done to his name and to his legacy. A learned and sophisticated man with an insightful gaze, Lam grasped the historical keys to the Caribbean situation and set out on the task of building a decolonizing body of work 2In 1980 Lam told Gerardo Mosquera that his “painting was an act of decolonization”. Interview published in Bohemia, Havana, year 72, no. 25, 20 June 1980, pp. 10-13.. Nonetheless, any survey of his paintings, drawings, lithographs and etchings, of his murals and sculptures, ought to aim further than the always essential analyses undertaken by academics investigating the origins and meaning of his iconography and the connections between his various phases and periods.

Few scholars have had the perspicacity to plumb the depths of the vast undercurrents in his works. The writer Alejo Carpentier made reference to Unamuno when endeavouring to decipher Lam’s communion between the bounded and the eternal. Alain Jouffroy spoke of the reconquest of the lost unity in the memories of men on both shores of the Atlantic. Meanwhile, Édouard Glissant believed that Lam had reinstated the legacy of Black Africa within the Whole-World. Manifold readings that converge in the urgency to raise the voices of Caribbean culture to higher echelons of international circulation and production, something which Lam foreshadowed in his time.

Reengaging with Lam served as an essential step for a better understanding of the concerns of artists from the Caribbean and its diasporas and to embed them within the dynamic of Centro Wifredo Lam 3From here on in, when speaking of the Caribbean, we are referring to an environment that expands beyond the cartographic confines of the region and includes practically the whole planet.. And while Lam did not create a school, in the sense in which we usually understand the concept, he did leave a legacy of cardinal precepts that have served as a guide that still inspires more than a few contemporary artists when it comes to exploring the history and contemporary moment of the Caribbean in a world in which relationships between the most diverse contexts are brought into play and post-hegemonic horizontality is the ultimate quest. More than anything else, he facilitated a better understanding of the aspirations of a desire for renewal that surfaced first in Cuba in the 1980s and then spread to the rest of the Caribbean in the following decade.

In a cursory overview, the enquiries undertaken by the Havana Biennial proved decisive in calling attention to ‘advanced’ artistic production throughout the whole region. The crisis in the biennial model is a controversial issue in current intellectual debates on art and its circuits. Years ago, Hans Michael Herzog expressed his views on this issue in an interview with the journal Art Nexus (Bogotá-Miami) following a tour taking in eight Asian biennials. Using his own criteria, he weighed up the predictable benefits and mistakes of any mega-exhibition around the world in terms of organization, curatorship, artists and artworks. And, he commented, among other ideas, how almost all biennials are an operation in cultural marketing prompted by an interest in positioning a particular country or city within today’s global network.

Against the backdrop of the eighties, within the folds of centre-periphery tensions, a relationship examined by Raúl Prebisch, at a time when it was still difficult to find artists from the Global South in major international exhibitions and established biennials, Havana became a new platform for dialogue and communication for culturally ignored territories. Early on Luis Camnitzer compared it with laboratory operations. Havana foreshadowed a kind of experiment with an unknown object of investigation, whose results nobody was able to predict. Above all, it had the virtue of transforming the ideological sign of international mega-events, by offering space for the “intense sound of subaltern cultures”. These and other possible foundational contributions cannot be ignored in a global world in which many similar initiatives do not manage to take root or simply vanish without trace.

Since it first appeared, the Havana Biennial afforded a privileged space for contemporary art created in its immediate area of influence, the island-archipelago’s natural geopolitical context. It convened painters, photographers and sculptors with consolidated practices recognized locally, regionally and to a lesser extent internationally. Key to a proper grasp of this process, the second biennial dedicated its theoretical symposium to Visual Arts from the Caribbean in 1986 4The papers and conferences in the symposium were published in the book Plástica del Caribe, Editorial Letras Cubanas, Havana, 1989. The speakers included Juan Acha (Peru-Mexico), Rita Eder (Mexico), Robert Farris Thompson and Suzanne Garrigues (USA), Adelaida de Juan, Gerardo Mosquera, Lázara Menéndez and Yolanda Wood Pujols (Cuba), Rosa Luisa Márquez and Antonio Martorell (Puerto Rico), Roberto Segre (Italy-Cuba), Denis William (Guyana) and Maurice Xavier (Martinique)..

However, it was from the nineties onwards when the curatorial vision of the event settled its focus on instigating a process of updating in consonance with the particularities of the context, as well as with the readjustments or realignments introduced in art’s core languages 5See Gerardo Mosquera in “Esferas, ciudades, transiciones. Perspectivas internacionales del arte y la cultura”. Art Nexus, Bogotá-Miami, no. 54, 2004, p. 86.. The fourth edition in 1991 and above all the fifth in 1994 brought the attention of the public to bear on a group of artists influenced by a sensibility towards change and updating, with fertile subaltern contributions in artworks, languages and concepts breaking with the restraining standards of modernism and with the stereotypes on the ‘Caribbean’ still lingering in many sectors of the local and regional visual arts, stereotypes which contradictorily still had footholds at the end of the century 6It is crucial to bear in mind that I am not referring to a generational change. Besides inviting mid-career artists, these biennials were particularly important in showcasing emerging artists including Marcos Lora Read, Raúl Recio, Dominican Republic; Elvis López, Stan Kuiperi and Alida Martínez, Aruba; Yubi Kirindongo, Curaçao; Annalée Davis, Ras Akyen Ramsay and Ras Ishi, Barbados; Christopher Cozier, Trinidad; Enoc Pérez and Anaida Hernández, Puerto Rico; for Cuba the artists invited were from the 1990s, such as Tania Bruguera, Los Carpinteros, Fernando Rodríguez, Esterio Segura, Alexis Leyva Machado (Kcho), Sandra Ramos, Abel Barroso, among others.. In the light of these premises, the Caribbean art scene no longer gravitated to the dominant force of painting and, to a lesser degree, drawing, sculpture and documentary photography, and instead entered into the orbit of installation, object-based art, other uses of photography or the still incipient engagement with the territories of performance and video.

Thanks to the open projection in the nineties, the production during the period straddling the change of centuries was to operate akin to a gigantic Rubik’s cube. From today’s perspective, it is nigh on impossible to trace the genealogy of art through clearly defined movements, trends and leanings. Overarching categories fail to capture the multiplicity of recourses employed, nor is it possible to neatly compartmentalize works into conventionally accepted genres, supports, formats, mediums or typologies. Caribbean artists could be defined as inter-, multi- or transdisciplinary, even when they have subscribed to a specific support or manifestation of choice. If the Cuban scholar Fernando Ortiz conceived the ethnocultural miscegenation of Cuban (and by extension, the whole Caribbean) as a big ajíaco (stew) in times of unfinished modernism, in this complex moment we are witnessing the domination of a postmodern everything-goes. Artists operate like DJs, as Nicolas Bourriaud might put it; they mix everything, splicing visual and cultural studies, anthropology, sociology, theatre and literature. With a focus on tools and mediums as well as ideas, they embrace the ‘post-discipline era’ inclined towards the polyhedral assimilation of supports, mediums, languages, typologies, practices and methodologies, discursive recourses with which to dissect and better grasp reality.

With this instrument in their hands, an extensive part of art in the Caribbean endorsed the facts and contents of history within its grand subject matters, the fertile sediment and the main driving force that motivates it. History cuts across almost everything; it is a living, problematizing and prospective source. Swaying between yesterday and today, artists nonetheless have no intention of discovering absolute replies. Based on bibliographic data taken at face value or without an exhaustive leitmotiv, they handle ideas by means of images, objects and materials with historical-cultural connotations. With their sensibility, they turn back, retake old paths, wiggle their way into dates and events. Creators question and investigate, reread history with a seasoned eye, they dust off overlooked or forgotten corners, they rethink the Caribbean as a residual space, the consequence of misalignments of old data that situate the space in the vortex of contemporary debates on the local and the global, tensions addressed by artists in very different ways and forms. At this juncture it is worth recalling Walter D. Mignolo’s words on “the darkest, hidden side […] of the European narrative ….” 7Pedro Pablo Gómez and Walter Mignolo. “Estéticas decoloniales. Sentir, pensar, hacer en Abya Yala y la gran comarca.” In Estéticas decoloniales, Universidad Distrital Francisco José de Caldas, Facultad de Artes ASAB, Bogotá, 2012., an incentive to dismantle the most perverse constructs of coloniality.

As such, the Caribbean has been a key player in which the historical meanings of the space and the place in which art is produced truly matter and weigh heavily. Artists do not lose their anchoring in the insular reality of their origins and its sources that nourish them and keep them active. Its operations would fit in what Piotr Piotrowski defends as horizontal narrative or pluralism of trans-regional narratives, mindful of the relationship of the artist with his or her local environment, which is to say, what instils value to the voices of the personal context of creation in the midst of global dichotomic exchanges, which, while on one hand, undermine the identity-based handles with regards the place of origin, on the other, reinforce the urgency of conserving and strengthening certain signs of belonging 8Piotr Piotrowski. “Sobre la historia horizontal del arte.” Criterios, Havana, no. 89: 1 September 2016.. In the call to “open up the game” beyond how the West capitalizes the legacy of humanity, they bring into play strategies of resistance, innovation, contemporary cimarronaje and remix, inasmuch as strategies to deconstruct the “colonial wound” and advocate “a new form of humanity… founded …in a multiple identity that is opposed to the old idea of atavism, of unique identity and ethnocentrism…” 9I referring to some of the definitions and ideas of Jean Bernabé, Patrick Chamoiseau, Raphaël Confiant in Elogio de la Creolidad, Havana, Editorial Casa de las Américas, 2013, p. 121..

The list of manifold issues and problems of interest for contemporary artists also comprises those derived from insularity, self-referentiality, problematics of race, gender and authority, Afrodescendency, and the consequences of climate change for island territories. An inevitable point in their creative agendas is the debate on identity, understood as flexible and mobile in the midst of transatlantic exchange and dialogue, in which the Caribbean ought to be understood as a “highly intricate canopy” of cultures, of pluriethnic, multilingual and pluricultural interrelationships of individuals from different origins.

At the time when Centro Wifredo Lam and the first Havana Biennial were taking their first steps, while I was still in the classrooms of the University of Havana, I was far from imagining that just a few months later I would have the unique opportunity to appear on the rollcall of the founders of the Centre 10To which I am indebted to Dr Lilian Llanes Godoy, director-founder of the centre from 1984 to 1999.(today Centro de Arte Contemporáneo Wifredo Lam), and to be part of the team of researchers and curators, with a focus on the study of Lam’s work and, later on, in the early nineties, of Caribbean and Central-American art.

As chance would have it, just a few years later, CAAM (Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno) in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria would come into being thousands of kilometres from the arch of the Antilles and very close to the east coast of ancestral Africa. Through incisive curatorship, as borne out by, among other exhibitions, Islas; Otro país. Escalas africanas; Voces de ultramar, as well as the theoretical essays in the journal Atlántica Internacional, my colleagues and I ascertained more than a few points of connections between the third-world vocation of Centro Lam and the tri-continental remit implemented by the Canarian institution. The names of Orlando Britto Jinorio and of the brothers Antonio (RIP) and Octavio Zayas came up naturally in our conversations. With their frequent visits, their presences became regular and well-loved in the streets of Havana.

Art produced in the Caribbean or in its diasporas is going through a phase of vast expansion. Like Mieke Bal’s mutating and unfixed travelling concepts, whose operative value depends on each individual crossing 11Mieke Bal. Travelling Concepts in the Humanities, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2002., artists work from constant interactions, instabilities, transactions and transformations. Hundreds of them persevere in their contexts or produce abroad, to the point of making it a highly fraught task to keep track of their works and projects. Worth underscoring is the active participation of young talents better equipped thanks to studies in academies and institutes in their home countries, the USA and Europe. And, if this has been possible, it is largely owing to the doors opened to contemporaneity by pioneering and visionary artists like Lam—who built a legacy of symbolic and cultural correspondences and was a kind of ‘trailblazer’ in his focus on true intercultural dialogue—and also to spaces and initiatives like Casa de las Américas and Centro Wifredo Lam-Havana Biennial; to the Bienal de Pintura del Caribe y Centroamérica de Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (relaunched in 2010 for one edition as Trienal Internacional del Caribe), to CAAM and its journal Atlántica Internacional, other publications like Third Text and to the voices of scholars, critics and curators who have centred their gazes and efforts on the visual arts scene in the region, its experiences and perspectives.

  • 1
    In fact, Centro Wilfredo Lam legally existed since March 1983 following a decree by the Council of Ministers, although it still had no structure as such nor any headquarters. And so this first edition was organized by the Ministry of Culture’s visual arts department with the active call for critics and experts in the visual arts who were ultimately responsible for shaping the inaugural edition.
  • 2
    In 1980 Lam told Gerardo Mosquera that his “painting was an act of decolonization”. Interview published in Bohemia, Havana, year 72, no. 25, 20 June 1980, pp. 10-13.
  • 3
    From here on in, when speaking of the Caribbean, we are referring to an environment that expands beyond the cartographic confines of the region and includes practically the whole planet.
  • 4
    The papers and conferences in the symposium were published in the book Plástica del Caribe, Editorial Letras Cubanas, Havana, 1989. The speakers included Juan Acha (Peru-Mexico), Rita Eder (Mexico), Robert Farris Thompson and Suzanne Garrigues (USA), Adelaida de Juan, Gerardo Mosquera, Lázara Menéndez and Yolanda Wood Pujols (Cuba), Rosa Luisa Márquez and Antonio Martorell (Puerto Rico), Roberto Segre (Italy-Cuba), Denis William (Guyana) and Maurice Xavier (Martinique).
  • 5
    See Gerardo Mosquera in “Esferas, ciudades, transiciones. Perspectivas internacionales del arte y la cultura”. Art Nexus, Bogotá-Miami, no. 54, 2004, p. 86.
  • 6
    It is crucial to bear in mind that I am not referring to a generational change. Besides inviting mid-career artists, these biennials were particularly important in showcasing emerging artists including Marcos Lora Read, Raúl Recio, Dominican Republic; Elvis López, Stan Kuiperi and Alida Martínez, Aruba; Yubi Kirindongo, Curaçao; Annalée Davis, Ras Akyen Ramsay and Ras Ishi, Barbados; Christopher Cozier, Trinidad; Enoc Pérez and Anaida Hernández, Puerto Rico; for Cuba the artists invited were from the 1990s, such as Tania Bruguera, Los Carpinteros, Fernando Rodríguez, Esterio Segura, Alexis Leyva Machado (Kcho), Sandra Ramos, Abel Barroso, among others.
  • 7
    Pedro Pablo Gómez and Walter Mignolo. “Estéticas decoloniales. Sentir, pensar, hacer en Abya Yala y la gran comarca.” In Estéticas decoloniales, Universidad Distrital Francisco José de Caldas, Facultad de Artes ASAB, Bogotá, 2012.
  • 8
    Piotr Piotrowski. “Sobre la historia horizontal del arte.” Criterios, Havana, no. 89: 1 September 2016.
  • 9
    I referring to some of the definitions and ideas of Jean Bernabé, Patrick Chamoiseau, Raphaël Confiant in Elogio de la Creolidad, Havana, Editorial Casa de las Américas, 2013, p. 121.
  • 10
    To which I am indebted to Dr Lilian Llanes Godoy, director-founder of the centre from 1984 to 1999.
  • 11
    Mieke Bal. Travelling Concepts in the Humanities, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2002.

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