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From the “Cañaverales” series, portraying a sugarcane field. Painting by Ramón Menocal

From the “Cañaverales” series, portraying a sugarcane field. Painting by Ramón Menocal

  • Cuban Identity and Transculturation in Abstract Painting: An Interview with Ramón Menocal

    Afrolatinidad: Art & Identity in D.C. is an interview series highlighting the vitality of the local Afro-Latinx community. Before the term Afro-Latinx entered popular discourse, Latin Americans of the Diaspora have been sharing their stories through artistic manifestations online and in community spaces throughout the district. Their perspectives are intersectional in nature, existing in between spaces of Blackness and Latinidad.

    Abstract painter Ramón Menocal was born in Havana, Cuba, at the turn of the Cuban Revolution in the 1950s. Now a resident of Maryland and a long-time artist in the Washington, D.C., area, his artistic visions are embedded in the physical landscape of the region. He’s participated in public art commissions by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, contributing to the commission’s Art Bank Collection and the City Hall Art Collection. Before moving to Maryland, Ramón lived in Southwest D.C., where he held exhibitions and community gatherings for local artists at his home studio. 

    Selfie of Ramón Menocal, a Black Cuban American man, wearing a white sweater and leaning with his hand balled in a fist against his cheek. Behind him is an abstract painting, assumedly by him, of two shapes in bright orange and red, outlined in black.
    Ramón Menocal
    Photo courtesy of the artist

    As an immigrant, Ramón employs his artistic talents to form connections that extend beyond race and class. When he left Cuba in 1992, he took with him a rich history of personal experiences: memories of his childhood in historic Havana, the architecture, the spirituality, and the thinkers who contributed to his critical understanding of Afro-Cubanity.

    “I remember that when I was little, I always liked to draw and read, although the environment where I was raised was quite humble,” Ramón told me back in February over coffee and cookies at his home in Bethesda, Maryland. “My mother raised my brother and me. We were always studying, working, until I finished my secondary education. I studied visual arts at the Academy of Fine Arts in Havana with all the possibilities that the revolution gave to study, including people like me.”

    In 1982, UNESCO named the city of Havana a World Heritage Site, jumpstarting the architectural restoration movement. During that time, Ramón had the opportunity to work restoring murals on historic buildings. As he honed the craft of restoration, he became enchanted with the ways colors and textures appeared superimposed on the buildings.

    “I noticed how these buildings were painted in layers, one on top of the other. I was inspired to use this technique in my own paintings. I think that part of my painting technique still comes from that work of superimposing things, layers in my art that are also located in my way of thinking. I think that life is this. It is a way of thinking, like a palimpsest.”

    Abstract painting with blocks of orange, blue, and gray punctuated by a bold black line through the middle and strokes of green and red.
    Painting by Ramón Menocal
    Abstract painting with patches of spring green, yellow, orange, red, and black.
    Painting by Ramón Menocal

    Inner Worlds | “This series is a visual representation of the different worlds that make up my inner world. The conscience and spirituality of an artist from the Caribbean and from a nation with diverse cultural springs, are installed in a constantly changing world, where the areas of visual references are amplified showing a more common diversity and interpretation.”

    As an abstract expressionist painter, Ramón continues to draw inspiration from the colors of Havana’s streets and his cultural heritage as an Afro-descendant. 

    “I had my little studio in old Havana, where in addition to painting, I began to read and discover cultural theories that brought me a deeper understanding of my identity. I read works by Fernando Ortiz, who some call the third discoverer of Cuba. He researched about race and Cubanity and published many books about our island. As an artist and creator, I got the idea to bring his theories into my paintings. Also, to reflect on my identity.”

    Ortiz coined the term “transculturation”: an antidote to acculturation, the process of assimilation that some argue took place in the United States. While his contemporaries used the metaphor of the “melting pot” to describe the history of U.S. immigration, where identities meld into one cohesive society, Ortiz argued that transculturation was a complex system of exchange where languages, identities, religious practices, and histories remained intact, much like the ingredients in the Cuban soup, ajiaco. Ortiz introduced this concept in his most famous ethnography Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar. Ramón dedicated several painting series to Ortiz and his conceptualization of Cuban identity. 

    Like Ramón, I also found resonance in the philosophy of cultural theorists. I remember reading Homi Bhabha’s theory on “the third space” in college, when I was coming into my own as a musician and a writer with a Brazilian German American multi-hyphenate identity. In simple terms, Bhabha argued that in the realm of postcolonial theory, a third space—a hybrid ambivalent space—is created when two individual cultures interact. Like transculturation, it goes against the homogenization of colonized cultures. Along with the community of local Afro-Latinx artists, Ramón and I pull from concepts like these to help us understand our place in society, as changemakers and storytellers. Art holds the power to rename and reclaim the consequences of the oppressor on the colonized.

    Abstract painting angular shapes in black and white and accents of red and yellow and a blue background.
    Painting by Ramón Menocal
    Abstract painting reminiscent of graffiti, with various shapes in bold colors: black, red, turquoise, and yellow, with white showing through.
    Painting by Ramón Menocal

    Tranculturations | “This is a series that pays tribute to the great Fernando Ortiz; as an ethnologist, anthropologist, jurist, archaeologist and journalist, Ortiz examined the extraordinary presence of the Afro-Cuban historical-cultural roots in Cuba. His meticulous analysis of the African print in the process of transculturation and historical formation of the Cuban identity as a nation can be read in his phenomenal ethnographic work entitled: ‘The Cuban Counterpoint of tobacco and sugar’.”

    As an immigrant in a new society, Ramón’s work shifted to focus on identity in a multicultural and global world. He was interested in depicting solitude and loneliness, relationships, and the architecture of feelings in his works. But his positionality allowed him to be perceptive to the differences and resonances between Afro-Latino and African American experience in D.C.

    “When I moved to D.C., I started comparing my experience as an Afro-Latino to the afroamericano. I understood how different the stories are, because the history of the African American identity is another story. It has another formation. I think the African American identity has been permeated by the whole hard history of the United States. Cruel racism, in the case of the African American, did not allow mixing. The separation was brutal.

    “In many ways, I think segregation still exists today. I believe that when I left Cuba and came to New York and Washington, D.C., I didn’t lose interest in the afrocubano, but I believe that seeing another world in Europe and America opened my vision. But what remains of your identity manifests itself in another way. Sometimes it’s a little imperceptible, but it’s there. The identity is not lost, but the artist is in another world.”

    As a visual artist living through a global pandemic, Ramón is resting creatively. But he is sure the current situation will be reflected in his next creations. He is also using this time of respite to plan the design and logistics of his future studio, where he plans to host open studios and exhibitions.

    Abstract painting reminiscent of palm trees, with the shapes of noched slender tree trunks rising across the canvas in reddish brown and blue hues.
    Painting by Ramón Menocal
    Unlike the other paintings that are filled from edge to edge, this one is more sparse, with strokes of fading black, red, and blue and dots of green scattered on an off-white painted background.
    Painting by Ramón Menocal

    Cañaverales-Sugar Cane Fields | “ The Sugarcane fields series is a tribute to sugar cane as a symbol of Cuban culture. The history of Cuba was intrinsically embedded with sugar cane fields and therefore the cane sugar industry to the point that it defined the drinks one savored in the land, the socio-economic relations and the rural landscape. No other plant influenced so decisively the economic and cultural life of the Greater Antilles, Cuba, as the sugar cane.”

    Carolina Meurkens is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Goucher College and a fellow in the Smithsonian’s Internship to Fellowship (I2F) program at the Center of Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is a musician and writer, taking inspiration from the sounds and stories of the African diaspora across the Americas and beyond.

    References

    Transculturation, Syncretism, and Hybridity” by Joassianna Arroyo

    The ajiaco in Cuba and beyond: Preace to ‘The human factors of cubanidad’ by Fernando Ortiz” by João Felipe Gonçalves


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