Today from our friends at Big Red & Shiny, we bring you a conversation between artist Chanel Thervil and artist and curator Silví Naçí. They discuss artist Juan Roberto Diago’s first retrospective, curated by Alejandro de la Fuente at the Cooper Gallery. Naci parallels the exploration of diasporic Africans in colonized Cuba in Diago’s work with the current political state of the U.S., saying, “…during a crucial moment in U.S. history, as we grapple with our political systems, Diago confronts us with the bitter truth of the migrant, an alien, the traveler que se trajo un barco hoping dios la cuida, leaving reminders on each painting for a future life.” This article was originally published on February 21, 2017.Chanel Thervil: Diago’s work is like a hybrid of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jasper Johns. There is a through-line of tension between the internal and external struggles of trying to navigate through race, history, and the lens through which both are remembered. Diago approximates the pain experienced as a result of this tension (oppression, discrimination) by manipulating the “skin” of his materials and found objects with cuts, scrapes, stitches, and burns. Walking through the exhibition forces the viewer to take this uncomfortable journey with him, while simultaneously questioning what does it take to actually cause these wounds to heal for good?
Silví Naçí: In a conversation with curator Alejandro de la Fuente, I heard Diago speak about the importance of looking at the past in order to understand the present. As you enter the gallery, you are met with Autorretrato (2000), Diago’s self-portrait. This is where I see the trauma beginning, with each keloid, scar, and memory guiding you into the pits of Diago’s story, and his sense of belonging as a black man. Walking through the hallway into the gallery, the walls are covered with found construction materials with original marks from previous lives, stacked like books in a library with histories of enslavement and hope.