CAMBRIDGE — The Afro-Cuban painter Juan Roberto Diago came of age in the 1990s in the midst of a firestorm. The collapse of the Soviet Union devastated Cuban trade and the island’s economy suffered a teeth-jarring blow. Famine followed. Social unrest was inevitable.
Hardship wrenched open racial divides. Still, as late as 1997, President Fidel Castro said that in Cuba — a country that until 1886 had benefited from slavery — racial discrimination had been eradicated.
“Diago: The Pasts of This Afro-Cuban Present,” at Harvard’s Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art, charts the career of an artist who decries racism in a country that has largely denied it exists.
Fury drives the early works. That’s understandable in the face of stonewalling, and Diago was hollering into a void. He used simplified figures, graffiti, and aggressive marks to get his message across. The painting “Aquí Nadie Gana (Nobody Wins Here)” depicts a figure outlined in red and yellow with one eye in the shape of a cross. The background looks scorched; the piece reads like a sizzling brand.
The artist matured and his message deepened, thanks to an increasingly poetic use of materials. In slats of found wood covering the entryway to the gallery, the installation “De la Serie El Rostro de la Verdad (From the series The Face of Truth)” lucidly summons the textures of shantytowns where many poor black Cubans live.
The more abstract Diago’s work gets, the more power it carries. In the minimalist “De La Serie La Piel que Habla, No. 4 (From the Series: The Skin that Speaks, No. 4)” he binds a black canvas in strips of pale fabric, which might represent scars, barbed wire, or bandages.
If Diago’s earlier, more expressionistic art has the immediacy of blood on the canvas, his later evocation of scars is more poignant. Covered up or not, oppression leaves an indelible mark.
DIAGO: THE PAST OF THIS
At Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African &
African American Art, Harvard University,
102 Mount Auburn St., Cambridge, through May 5. 617-496-5777, www.coopergalleryhc.org
on Twitter @cmcq.