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Diago: The Pasts of This Afro-Cuban Present” at The Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art

Juan Roberto Diago, Sin título (Untitled), 2011

By James Foritano

Cambridge, MA – So many insights in art, in scholarship and in life derive from accidents of attention grasped by some intuition insisting sotto voce, “Hey! This is important!” For me it was a prompt to walk once again through the first retrospective exhibition of the Afro-Cuban artist Roberto Diago currently at the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art — though I had already Velcroed and snapped my overshoes against the snow waiting in Harvard Square.

My overshoes squeaked, so I slowed down as I passed a lone couple conversing to the requisite hush society demands of us when together in the precincts of art. The whisper I heard as I turned the corner of the Cooper’s long central gallery asked, just above the whisper of my now disciplined overshoes, “Why are you being so quiet?”

I realized I was listening to a silence deeper than I could summon impromptu from a regard for polite social mores, a silence evoked from the quiet persistence of lived history versus propaganda, of deeds versus “received wisdom.” Above all of earned survival, earnest questing.

“Queloide,” a long wall sculpture of woven cotton is at once as touchable a crafted object as a warm shoulder, as dangerously spiky as barbed wire. It announces a quandary of two imperatives: stay within your present boundaries, and stay present as you keep moving forward.

The patient knots of “Queloide” interrogate, deeply, the Afro-Cuban past, it’s tendency, as in all officially sanctioned pasts, to represent complications, such as racism and classicism, as finished, as, for goodness sakes, “Over!” This interrogation sounds, quietly but insistently, in a virtuosity of semi-tones, of tragedy, of comedy, of good fellowship and, oppositely, of the use of your fellows for your own good.

In the magisterial “Oggun Series,” the cotton knots of “Queloide,” whose name references scar tissue, become seams in scavenged metal, as aching as past hurts, as bold and saving as impromptu but careful sutures. The balance and rhythm of each work of welded planes is as intriguing as any minimalist abstraction, yet the patination of wear in the much re-used metal reads like memories of hard times, painstakingly recalled, resourced to build a better-than-nothing present.

“Scream,” (“Grito”) in the first gallery, is as raw and as representational as the “Oggun Series” is subtle and minimal, yet each plays with the other’s contradictions in an antiphony of responses that stir more silences as we revisit their ties of complicated experience.

A gallery of family portraits in light boxes steps off the long main gallery. It’s a bath of sentiment amidst caustic references to pasts which threatened and still threaten to explode the ties of family, neighborhood and nation.

Indeed, the installation, “Ascending City,” in the very last corner of the Cooper Ethelbert Gallery, is an explosion of hand-crafted doll houses, each scrabbling past the other to reach a precarious height against containing walls. Burnt ugly in places but singed in other places to a silvery, satiny finish, these precarious shelters climb and cling to each other’s backs in desperate activity but fling free a few outliers. Are we here contemplating the classic tale of “survival of the fittest,” or the sacrifice of the many to the greater good of the few? Or both?

“Ascending City,” is, like the collage of salvaged boards on the walls of the Ethelbert Cooper’s entry ramp, an eloquent conundrum, a rustle of silence from the many pasts of this Afro-Cuban present. And, not least, the trajectory of an artist learning to speak of a self, a people and a nation.

The silences may be thunderous, the critiques slashing, but the rare draw of Roberto Diego’s art is its unique welding of the conceptual and the concrete, the lyrical and the painful: one long gallery initiating a journey through the psyche and soul of us all. Topical, also, in that through its illuminating historical and personal narratives we sense the tortuous evolution of an island neighbor moving ever closer to our own mainland, and our own pasts.

A fine and ample catalogue by curator Alejandro De La Fuente should be taken home, or at least to the reading room by the Cooper Gallery’s entrance.

(“Diago: The Pasts of This Afro-Cuban Present” remains on view through May 7 at The Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art, 102 Mount Auburn St., Cambridge, Mass. For more information, call (617) 496-5777.)