The Politics of Race, Art, and Performance in 20th-Century Latin America

AHA Session 264
Conference on Latin American History 61
Saturday, January 7, 2017: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Mile High Ballroom 1B (Colorado Convention Center, Ballroom Level)
Lara E. Putnam, University of Pittsburgh

Session Abstract

This panel examines the politics of race, art, and performance in twentieth century Argentina, Brazil, and Cuba. The analysis spans different scales, considering the personal, national, and international politics of race. Performance, broadly defined, includes staged productions in theatres and nightclubs as well as quotidian encounters in private and public spaces. Protagonists analyzed in the panel range from internationally acclaimed cultural producers to lesser-known local figures. In each paper, individuals crafted particular identities in dialogue with broader discourses on race and nation. Sometimes this involved using artistic media to explore personal ideas about race and larger political categories like citizenship and nationalism. The panel reflects on the multifarious ways that individuals navigated and revised prevailing understandings of racial difference through their performances on stages, streets, and in daily interactions.

Juxtaposing different countries, the papers of the panel demonstrate how ideas about race relations and representation interacted and changed over time. Paulina Alberto analyzes Raúl Grigera (“El Negro Raúl”) – an eccentric Argentinean dandy who walked the streets of Buenos Aires in the early 1900s – and his place in cultural texts from tango lyrics to local histories. Alberto interrogates Raúl the man and racialized characterizations of Grigera as revealing of racial ideologies in Argentina. Jerry Dávila’s paper on African-American dancer Katherine Dunham’s trip to Brazil in 1950 examines how her experience with and protest of racial discrimination in São Paulo led to the eventual passage of anti-discrimination legislation. The paper explores how the incident prompted larger questions about race relations in Brazil. While Dávila’s paper shows how a foreign performer prompted national debates about race, Cary Aileen Garcia Yero focuses on internal discussions among Cuban visual artists over portrayals of race in art during the 1950s. Rejecting “tropicalisms” and “folkloricisms,” Cuban artists employed an abstract approach to reflecting on the centrality of blackness to national identity. In contrast to visual artists, Cuban dancers relied heavily on Africanist aesthetics in exploring Cuban nationalism choreographically. Elizabeth Schwall explores this theme in her paper on the career of folkloric dancer Nieves Fresneda. Focusing on the years after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Schwall analyzes how performers like Fresneda navigated shifting discourses on race by celebrating musical and dance practices on stages in Cuba and abroad.

Taken together, these papers consider linkages between small-scale experiences with race and politics and large-scale processes. Whether a dancer protesting racial discrimination in Brazil or an artist creating an abstract artwork on Cuban blackness, individual expressions reflected and sometimes shaped larger social and cultural shifts. The chair of the panel is an expert on race, labor, and migration in the Americas. We expect the audience to include those interested in race, nationalism, performance, and the arts in different historical eras and geographic regions, as well as historians of Latin America and the Caribbean.

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