A few weeks before Miami Art Week, a member of the curatorial team of the Faena Group, asked Frita’s Autonomous Department to produce a piece for Faena Festival: The Last Supper, in the context of Miami Art Week. Five days before the opening ceremony in which the commissioned piece entitled “Cajón” should have been presented, the curatorial team canceled the commission.
From the perspective of Frita’s Autonomous Department, this is a brief analysis of what happened, but even more important, this is a way of bringing Cajón into life and to recuperate what is ours by right: the capacity of engaging debate. We believe that sometimes a piece might change its material appearance due to new circumstances. This is the obvious case and has to be this way since the topics and questions that brought the piece into conception are still around.
Half a year earlier, in June 2019, Frita’s Autónomos Department in collaboration with hiccup (Ariana Hernández-Reguant), intervened Churchill’s pub, in Little Haiti, with the action “Rumba Wemilere.” The action recontextualized a traditional rumba “descarga” (jam) -columbia, yambú, and guagancó- at the epicenter of the local underground musical culture. The intervention was enacted by the musical performers of Rumba Wemilere, a band led by Freddy Cárdenas and based in Miami. The collaboration of Frank Falestra aka Rat and Beatriz Monteavaro were also key for the event to take place.
The context that gives meaning to the performance was thus obliterated, giving rise to a diverse experience and reading. The action/piece, in correspondence with Frita’s work principles, thereby enhanced specific political and cultural readings, since Frita’s is nothing other than the public expression of a team of people belonging to marginalized and disempowered sectors and social classes in the context of Miami Dade County.
In the vicinity of Miami Art Week, around the end of October, Frita’s received a notification from one of the curators of Faena Art in which she expressed interest in the Rumba Wemilere project for this year’s Faena Festival-themed as The Last Supper. The topic of The Last Supper, in our Caribbean context, has been traditionally reformulated as a re-reading of colonial relations. The curator requested a project and a budget. The requirement was provided within the agreed time frame and, several days later, it was notified that the project had been accepted.
For the opportunity, and given the change of context and because it is not Frita’s policy to blindly reproduce its pieces but to seek the maximum possible critical effectiveness, the original project was modified and transformed under the title of Cajón. While the idea of a musical group focused on the rumba complex was maintained, a new scenographic element was also added. This element consisted of a series of twelve photographic reproductions of historical figures that were described as fundamental in the conformation of the Afro-Cuban ethos. These images were designed to introduce a dividing line between the musical group and the audience, and formatted at 17 x 11 inches, they should have been raised about three feet above the ground supported by sign stands. This formal element sought to introduce a strangeness (an art technique also known as defamiliarization or ostranenie) that would have suppressed the possible folklorization of the cultural product (the rumba complex and its performance) while attempting to present that cultural element as an active foundation of social and cultural resistance practices.
The Curatorial Team at Faena convened all parties involved in the project only six days before the inauguration (November 27). During the meeting, the Faena part set out some objectives regarding the event and linked it to “spirituality.” We were asked for information about the rituals related to the Ocha Rule and in particular about the songs to Yemayá. Frita’s have had previously decided not to incur in the exploitation of religious rituals because they considered such a practice as not of their own. Instead, a secular performance was proposed where certain elements of Cuban syncretic religious rituals were parallelized. In particular, the late was referred to as the practice of invoking the dead typical of the Regla de Ocha.
From that moment on, a series of technical problems arose. The stands for photographic reproductions had not been acquired, and the catalog did not include our text. The Faena team was informed of the urgent need for a page inserted in the catalog and relevant information was provided, as well as logistical clarifications. Faena informed us of a new date -early in the realization time – for completion, which complicated things even more and, among other things, led to an update of the budget and new disagreements given to the difficulties of carrying out the project with several days less time. Faena insisted that the representational element – the images of Afro-Cuban historical figures – had to be eliminated, to which Frita’s refused. Faena, then, declared his opposition to the inclusion of the images and, therefore, the cancellation of our participation.
“The Apple of Discord” consists of portraits of twelve Afro-descendant and Cuban women and men who played different roles in Cuban colonial and post-colonial resistance –intellectuals, artists, syndicalists, and revolutionaries. The need for the estrangement that these portraits were meant to produce is directly related to the subject of social invisibility of the subaltern groups and was a means of opposing that systemic invisibilization. This case is particularly about Afro-Cubans, and eliminating them removes at the same time the complexity and density that are necessary for any human group. In a sense, it is repeating the colonial practice of eliminating the collective and personal history of the slave.
Admittedly, certain poles must remain irreconcilable. If Frita’s had agreed to eliminate the images and thus the political value of the piece, it would have become yet an act of orientalism within the context of both the particular inauguration of Faena Festival and Miami Art Week. By “orientalism” we mean precisely what Edward Said described as a colonial and imperialist appropriation of the Other by constructing an image instrumentalized by objectification and for exploitation purposes.
From the beginning, Frita’s saw the possibility of this influence and conceived a project that replied to it. Frita’s, however, was clear and straightforward in its intentions, stating its point of view from the beginning through the written formalization of the project. Faena has managed to avoid being radically criticized as an institution that maintains a questionable profile in terms of its relationship with power asymmetries. Faena achieved this only through the elimination of the critical voice – and such proceeding allows us to question whether or not elements of racism are not present. This raises the question of what should be the ethical foundations of corporate groups – in this case, hotel groups – that seek to corporatize art. This has been a situation where different narrative lines have collided and heteronomy has dictated the outcome. We believe that this type of event should not go away without adequate public debate. Sometimes the echoes end up making a strong voice.
Otari Oliva Buadze
Hialeah Gardens, December 2nd.
*Carne Negra is a standby project at the moment. However, and given the circumstances, it returns for a few moments in order to accommodate this urgency.
**All photo credits to Directorio de Afrocubanas _directoriodeafrocubanas.com