Known Artists: The Catholic Church, the Cuban State, and the People

Endurance Tests

Known Artists: The Catholic Church, the Cuban State, and the People

By Anna Martine Whitehead October 16, 2013

“Endurance Tests” is an irregular column on current explorations of representation, the ethereal, and compulsiveness by black artists working in the field of performance. Across profiles and interviews, the column takes seriously the proposition of performance as a repeatable and assimilable text. “Endurance Tests” will examine contemporary performance-makers actively syncretizing the many implications of "blackness": illegality, contagion, maladaptivity, and a privileged relationship to cool.


Q: When is a sheep not a sheep?

A: When it is a work of art.—Stuart Hall1

In some respects, the job of the artist is to make meaning by imagining something other than what already is. On September 12, 2013 artists Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Tanya Lucia Bernard began a 600-mile walk across Cuba in a performative response to the country’s complex relationship to spirituality, state control, and religion.2 Bernard and Alcántara carry with them an oversized papier mache sculpture of Oshún, Orisha of love and maternity and Cuba’s patron saint,3 finding a new place to stay each night by way of strangers they meet on the street. They will conclude their journey in El Cobre, site of the sanctuary of the Roman Catholic saint La Virgen, in early December.

Alcántara with sculpture of San Lazaro / Babalu Aye. The 18 mile trek.” Photo courtesy of Tanya Bernard.

Entitled With Everyone and For the Good of Some, the piece had already encountered major setbacks even before its start. Either despite or because of the work’s resemblance to the Catholic Church’s recently sanctioned procession across Cuba, the artists have been unable to secure any support from the Cuban government.4 Additionally, the independent Cuban Association of Artists and Artisans (ACAA), which had initially welcomed the artists, abruptly cancelled its backing upon Bernard’s arrival to Cuba.5

Given the implications of collective effort in its very title, this sudden withdraw of support from official channels further complicates With Everyone’s already ambivalent relationship to varying publics and their concomitant collective interests: the piece is at once a sharp critique of the Cuban church and state, but can also be viewed as a commentary on less context-specific ideas of cultural property and production. Here, José Muñoz’s theory of disidentification provides a useful lens when considering both the complexity and precariousness of With Everyone’s current situation. Muñoz contends that:

the importance of […] public and semipublic enactments of the hybrid self cannot be undervalued in relation to the formation of counterpublics that contest the hegemonic supremacy of the majoritarian public sphere.6

What is La Caridad when she is a black Orisha carried by artists and not clerics?

With Everyone… contains several layers of signification that beg the viewer to apply critical significance to the objects and ideas parlayed.  The piece is most effective as a series of questions regarding the production of the hybrid self in relation to a hegemonic church and state. Most obviously the With Everyone… asks: What is La Caridad when she is a black Orisha carried by artists and not clerics? This alone is interesting, but as a complex performance—as a very long walk and, prior to the walk, as a series of rejections and cancelled invitations—the piece takes on another dimension. How can artists use the exhaustion produced by a public procession when the state has withdrawn all support, and when that activity so closely mimics the publicly funded pilgrimage conducted by the Church? To answer this, the work must be understood as less about Oshún than the artists’ endurance of and commitment to an uncertain journey without any official acknowledgement. This is perhaps the most profound relationship With Everyone… shares with some people Alcántara and Bernard encounter on their procession—santeros who semi-secretly practice an iteration of spirituality several hundred if not thousands of years old.7

There is also a question of what the artists themselves signify in relation to both the people they walk amongst, and the church and state they have come up against. Practices of signification, representation, and double meaning are woven into both With Everyone… and Cuban spiritual life: Many Cubans pay respects to a deity called La Virgin, who shares a spirit (though not a body or name) with Oshún. What makes With Everyone an artistic practice of representation, then, and not simply a pilgrimage? After all, pilgrimages are not unfamiliar to Cuba—besides the Church’s procession with La Virgen last year, up to 10,000 Cubans walk across the country annually to pay homage to Babalú-Ayé, or San Lazaro (Saint Lazarus), Orisha of disease and illness.

Bernard says, “We want to dialogue around this piece in an art context. When people say, ‘What are you doing this for?’ We can say, ‘It’s an art piece.’ And they’re not going to understand, and that transforms the conversation.”8 This disruption of common understanding of the procession allows space for public inquiries into the hybrid self, its construction, and its relation to the church and state. This artistic reconsideration of gestures commonly understood as religious and state-sanctioned shares ground with Muñoz’s ideas theory of disidentification. The recapitulation of La Virgen as Oshún, and the transformation of the pilgrimage into a relational practice, are both attempts at assimilating ideology in order to question where the self is located within that ideology.

Bernard describes this process in relation to With Everyone…:

We’re taking our own path outside the church to show that our sacrifice is something that anybody can do. But we benefit—we want to be known artists. We want to say, ‘We’re doing this for the people,’ because it’s art and want to be poetic. But part of the layers and unfolding is the contradiction, and we’re dismantling our own argument.

Without naming it, Bernard’s comments indirectly take up Muñoz’s indexing of disidentification as more broadly applicable to a broad expanse of minorty subjects, including the (mostly) black and brown Cuban artist and non-artists who make up the counterpublic to Bernard and Alcántara’s piece.  

The notion of disidentification as the artist’s process of relating to hegemony is applicable to the ways in which Bernard and Alcántara process ideologies through their creative practice, which both situates them as critical of ideology while still implicating them in it. “The church model [of pilgrimage] is both a reference point and a mirror to shine light on art and the art world,” says Bernard. “These are icons created to wield power and create separations between people, and it is the same with curators and artists.”

Procession participant. Photo courtesy of Tanya Bernard.

By way of example, Bernard goes on to acknowledge the access her passport provides the piece to the U.S. art world—galleries, media outlets, and curators who never would have considered Alcántara alone are interested in With Everyone…. Yet her citizenship has also damaged the project’s opportunities in Cuba, where she gets called “Empire” and where she worries her very presence in the project was motivation enough for the Cuban government to refuse support.9

Still, the artists’ admittance of wanting to be “known artists” points to their complex ties to the performances of church, state, and even empire. In this context, With Everyone… is very much a performance of religious devotion, state citizenship, and blackness along the disidentifactory lines which Munoz outlines. It is as much about connecting with people—“with everyone”—as it is about aspiring to be something beyond the people, and for the good of only some (in this case, the artists).

With Everyone and For the Good of Some will conclude early December of this year in El Cobre, Santiago de Cuba, after 300 miles across the country. Bernard and Alcántara give those who are not in Cuba the opportunity to track their progress by way of lacaridadwitheveryone.com. Several shows of the work are pending in both the U.S. and Cuba, including an exhibition at Avenue 50 Studio in L.A. and a video screening at the California African American Museum at a to-be-determined date in 2014.

Havana. Photo courtesy of Tanya Bernard.

Notes

  1. Hall, Stuart, ed. Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: Sage, 1997: 20.
  2. I caught up with Bernard in late August, the day before she left Los Angeles for Cuba, where she would meet Alcántara.
  3. Upon first contact with the Spanish, black people were confronted with enforced Catholicism. To preserve their spiritual footing during the development the New World, many Roman Catholic saints were syncretized with Yoruba deities to become Orishas, thus developing a new spiritual practice called Santería. Such is the case with La Virgen and Oshún. See Wikipedia’s entry, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santer%C3%ADa
  4. Last September the Catholic Church inaugurated the celebration of the 400th year anniversary of the sighting of La Virgen with a cavalcade procession across the country featuring a replica of La Virgen in a vitrine.
  5. Alcántara and Bernard were meant to hold a joint press conference with the ACAA shortly before their departure, but the ACAA cancelled the conference the day before, stating that Bernard’s presence as a U.S. citizen poses extra liability concerns and requires further paperwork. The spokespeople also mention their concern with recent press about With Everyone… popping up on Cuban “dissent” websites. So, with Bernard already in country and the walk due to begin two days later, the ACAA encouraged the artists to try again in a year, when they may have the full support of the ACAA.  (personal email from Tanya Bernard, September 13, 2013).
  6. Muñoz, José. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1999: 1.
  7. See http://www.wemba-music.org/orisha_faq.htm
  8. Interview with Tanya Bernard, August 30th, 2013.
  9. In a conversation with Bernard on September 30, 2013, she expressed the ambivalence with which she is received in Cuba, such that “they’re either heck of gassed that you’re American and you’re an opportunity, or they’re like, ‘Oh hell no, you are the Empire.’”

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