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Cuban resilience shines at Harvard, heroes take flight at BU

Detail of an untitled painting by Manuel Couceiro.
Detail of an untitled painting by Manuel Couceiro.

Grupo Antillano has largely slipped through the cracks of Cuban art history. The movement, active from 1978 to 1983, celebrated African and Afro-Caribbean influences in Cuban culture. “Drapetomanía: Grupo Antillano and the Art of Afro-Cuba,” on view at the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art at Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, traces the movement and where it has led. It’s a strong show, woven with turmoil and hope.

Communist rule in many ways honored Cuba’s ethnic diversity, but it espoused atheism, and Grupo Antillano artists often used religious symbols. Maybe that’s why it was written out. Then, the movement was run over by another, known as New Cuban Art, which brought to the fore younger artists concerned with installation, performance, and conceptual art. The artists of Grupo Antillano were mostly painters and sculptors.

“Drapetomanía,” organized by Alejandro de la Fuente, director of Harvard’s Afro-Latin American Research Institute, takes its name from a diagnosis applied to enslaved workers in the American South. It describes a pathological urge to escape. Slavery was abolished in Cuba in 1886.

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Issues of oppression, liberation, and redemption play throughout the exhibition. Santiago Rodríguez Olazábal’s powerful mixed-media painting “La suerte del mayoral / The Foreman’s Luck,” which depicts a ragged black figure tied to a tree, a geyser of blood spurting from his chest, hangs strikingly beside Oscar Rodríguez Lasseria’s “Inframundo /Underworld,” a painting of a supine black man, apparently interred. A white echo of the man rises above him; a snowy scrim joins the two.

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Next to the straightforward violence in “The Foreman’s Luck,” we can read “Underworld” in a number of ways. Depicting the white figure above the black one, the artist might describe strata in society. Or perhaps this is one man, transcending.

Elio Rodríguez Valdés’s “Selva en las Paredes / Jungle on the Walls” visits the same contradictions. Soft sculptures, abstracted figures made of white leather, dance across the wall. Look closer, and you’ll see chains and padlocks. Are they dancing now?

Most of the art — by the original Grupo Antillano artists and younger ones working in the same vein — was made in this century. Only a handful of pieces date to the organization’s heyday. Manuel Couceiro’s untitled painting from 1977 sports a design of abstracted, interlocking figures — a recurring motif here, depicting a tight-knit community.

Leonel Morales, another original member, paints brilliant, patterned, symmetrical renderings of Yoruban deities. “El mar de las Antillas / The Antillean Sea” likely portrays the sea goddess Yemaya, floating amid polka-dotted waves and smaller figures who carry offerings.

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It’s a sad irony that an art movement founded to recover and honor histories and imagery repressed due to racism should itself be threatened with disappearance. Curator de la Fuente shows us the grit and spirit of Grupo Antillano. May it not fade again.

Heroes take flight at BU

Aaron Norfolk’s narrative paintings and drawings at Boston University’s Sherman Gallery are both dreamy and caffeinated. There’s something mythic about his oversize protagonists; the fumbling monoliths read like lost heroes. He’s canny in the way he flattens space around his volumetric figures and deploys patterns and eye-popping colors to grab a viewer by the lapels.

Half of the figures have bodies sculpted in planes and angles like diamonds. Maybe they’re armored, maybe they’re robotic; in either case, they’re hyper-masculine, flawed superheroes, a trope so saturated in popular culture it’s hard to make original.

Norfolk’s more fleshly figures have much more traction. In “Pandemonium,” a red-skinned man paddles a small boat. Behind him, civilization burns. Stars dazzle in the blue sky, the earth is a jewel-toned purple, and a pale angel hovers before the oarsman, beckoning. The painting sings, and the narrative has delicious ambiguity.

Memorable works

Many of painter Sarah Meyers Brent’s canvases at the Walter Feldman Gallery at the Arts & Business Council of Greater Boston are standard-issue expressionistic garden scenes. Then she breaks out of the picture plane. If exhibitions had soundtracks, that’s when you’d hear the theme from “Jaws.”

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In “Mommy Loves Me,” she ruptures a pristine blank canvas. Stuff — paint rags, some saturated, others clean — spill out of the tear. “Mommy Loves Me II” follows the same route, but here Brent adds foam. Color and bubbles and ripped rags spill down and off the edge of the canvas. It’s kind of like vomit — or exultantly sloppy.

These small experiments lead to “Primal Garden,” a wall installation. The paint rags, foam, acrylic paint, and more here have distinctly botanical qualities. What appears to be loamy soil runs across the top. Vines straggle down the wall. The paint rags bulge and droop; they’re mulchy. Yet amid all that organic richness you’ll find latex gloves, and you may wonder if this is a garden or a garbage pit.

Another painting on view is titled “Growth and Decay,” and that, of course, is what Brent’s work is all about — like flowers sprouting round a compost heap. Not always pretty, but memorable.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.