XOTV WEEKLY: Q&A with Alexis Mendoza

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Everything XOTV

AfreeCAN, Alexis Mendoza
In 2021, there are individuals who have stepped up to offer truth and inspiration to society through various creative outlets. In particular, one artist that should be recognized for their impact and creative work is Alexis Mendoza. He resides in Bronx, NY, and is a painter, curator, and published author. I had the pleasure of interviewing him recently on an exciting new project that teaches about Afro-Caribbean culture and its historical influence. The interview includes Mendoza’s background, work, the meaning of this current project, and what is to be expected from it. 

Susej Mendoza: Can you tell us some facts about yourself as an artist, who you are, where you are from, your background in art?
Alexis Mendoza: I am an artist; a writer and an independent curator who presently lives in the Bronx, New York. I graduated from the National School of Fine Art in San Alejandro, Havana, Cuba in 1988, and received a Masters in Art History from Havana University in 1994. My artwork has been exhibited in museums and galleries around the world in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, England, France, Germany, Mexico, the Netherlands, Peru, Romania, Spain, Switzerland, and the United States. I am the co-founder and co-creator of the Bronx Latin American Art Biennial, This project evolved to The New York Latin American Art Triennial; Editor of ARTERATION Blogazine, Director of Alexis Mendoza Curatorial Projects, and a founding member of BxArts Factory. I’ve curated exhibitions and art projects in museums and galleries in Europe, Latin American and the United States. I am also the author of books, including Latin America, The Culture and the New Men, Objective Reference of Painting: The Work of Ismael Checo, 1986-2006, and Reflections: The Sensationalism of the Art from Cuba, all published by Wasteland Press; and Rigo Peralta: Revelaciones de un Universo Mistico, published by Argos Publications, Dominican Republic.

SM: How did you come up with the title Afreecan for this project and what is the meaning behind it? 

AM: Every single aspect of my work is based on my Afro-Cuban identity. I am always expressing some type of independence, similar to the original premise that drove the Cuban avant-garde and served as a model for a new society. I like to play with words and diverse meanings of words. “AfreeCan” is a combination of three words to create one that sounds like African. A free person can do... a free person can be… a free person can have the power to change the world. 

SM: What kind of art does the show consist of and how long is the project? What kinds of artists are included and how does their work contribute to the meaning of the project? 

AM: “Afreecan” examines and tries to bring to the forefront of the discussion a few key historical points that highlight the African influence in art evolution in the past century and more generally, the 'purity with which all art movements come to be identified by the generations that immediately follow. At its cores, the exhibition explores the inter-relationship between Afro-descendant artists from Cuba, Haití, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. The exhibition includes various art techniques including Painting, Sculpture, Drawing, Printmaking, and Installation. The show runs from April 9th to May 5th, 2021.

SM: Why is this a project you wanted to showcase to society? 

AM: The similitude in ideas, and developmental approaches. All the artists in this project at the moment reside and work outside of their respective countries, but their artworks are rich in Afro identity. The very real myth of the social pariah in this exhibition exploration consciousness is in fact the hidden subject in these artists, has developed their theme with both precision and compassion, to the extent that one sees the works themselves, or more precisely their sources, as exemplifying a closing off of modernist aesthetics to social reality throughout the present century.  These artists base their work on an ancient practice, but their approach at the same time is very much contemporary, fresh in constant movement and development.

During the brutality of the slave trade, many enslaved Africans brought their religious and cultural traditions to the Caribbean and the United States. These traditions were maintained in subtle ways in the United States, most notably in the Christianity of Black Americans. Over the next two centuries, Black Americans have explored their connection to African heritage and religions. “Afreecan” as a project reflects in the past, on the lives of the slaves bound for the plantations, mines, and workshops of the New World embarked on their involuntary journey from the coast of western Africa that runs between present-day Senegal and Angola. Among the approximately ten million who reached the Americas, there were a few Christians and many more Muslims; but the vast majority observed traditional African religions, carrying their complex legacy to the New World. Today that legacy is part of the multi-cultural landscape of the Caribbean. Though always subtly visible in the Christianity of Black North Americans, it is vibrantly apparent in the religious traditions that were brought to the United States by Caribbean immigrants in the late 20th century, including Cuban Santería, Haitian Vodou, Jamaican Revivalism, and Rastafarianism. The presence of these Afro-Caribbean traditions in the U.S. has contributed to new forms of African-influenced religious life among African Americans.

SM: What is the message you want people to take away from your artwork and this project?

AM: In this exhibition, we explore in-depth the African traditions, influences, and contributions made by the slaves to the Caribbean and South American religions—Candomble, Shango and Umbanda in Brazil, Santería in Cuba, Shango in Trinidad, Obeah and Myalism in Jamaica, and Vodou in Haiti—while they were transformed into less recognizable forms in the United States. Scholars of African American history, noting that presumably similar traditions appear to have endured only in cultural fragments until they were re-introduced via the Caribbean, have asked what distinguishes the experience of these traditions in the Caribbean and South American countries from that of the United States. First, experts observe that Haiti, Brazil, and 19th century Cuba had a much higher ratio of African to European inhabitants. Further, both Cuba and Brazil received sizable numbers of enslaved Africans until far later than did the United States, allowing the continual reinforcement of African forms of knowledge and ritual life. Second, these were Roman Catholic countries where the rich iconography and mythology of the Catholic saints provided convenient symbols through which to honor Yoruba, Fon, and Kongo gods, each with his or her own distinctive emblems and traits. As they continued to develop in the Americas, most of the African-inspired traditions incorporated Christian forms, particularly Catholic statues, lithographs, candles, and stories. For example, the Yoruba or Lucumi tradition is sometimes called Santería, or the “way of the saints,” for the identification made between Yoruba orisha and the saints that are so popular in Cuban Catholicism. Caribbean immigration to the United States since the late 1950s has established a new range of African-inspired religions that has then reshaped the pan-Africanist impulse among native-born black Americans. Some have joined these Afro-Caribbean traditions, while others borrow practices from them as part of their quest to re-establish a connection with Africa.

However, there was a movement among black Americans to reclaim their American roots decades before this new infusion of Afro-Caribbean culture and religion. Despite its distance from the West African source of the slave trade, the biblical “Ethiopia” became, for some African American Christians, a beacon of hope as a source of black dignity. A political pan-Africanist vision reached its crescendo in the 1920s with the “back to Africa” movement of Marcus Garvey. Led by Garvey, the United Negro Improvement Association—the greatest mass organization in African American history—embraced no single denomination, but declared missionizing and building the African homeland to be the responsibility of all African American Christians. Garvey’s redemptive pan-Africanism finds prominent successors not only in secular African American fashion and politics but in religious movements like the Nation of Islam. However, the work of scholars such as historian Carter G. Woodson, sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois and anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits have deepened the understanding of Africa’s contribution to African American culture and progress. Herskovits in particular argued that American culture, while not preserving distinctive Caribbean religious traditions, was nonetheless replete with “Africanisms,” or African survivals. Among these are the many forms of dance, movement, music, and the experience of being “filled with the Holy Spirit,” that the Black church has contributed to American Protestantism in general and Pentecostalism in particular. Another example is the continual presence of certain magical and healing practices in the South, called “Hoodoo,” “Voodoo,” and “Conjure.” Subsequent research presented the “ring shout,” most pronounced among the Gullah of the Georgia Sea Islands, as further evidence of the African connection.

Today, people in the United States identify with distinctively African culture and religion in many ways. Among African Americans in the United States, there is a new consciousness of the contributions their forebears have made to the shaping of American culture, expressed in new forms of African American celebration such as the nine-day Kwanzaa festival held in December. Americans from the Caribbean bring with them the heritage of Catholicism as well as Afro-Caribbean traditions associated with Haiti, Cuba, or Jamaica. In addition, new immigrants from Africa’s many countries—including Ethiopia’s Coptic Christians, Nigeria’s Pentecostals, and Ghana’s Anglicans—have brought Christian traditions shaped by their own African cultures. These very different streams of tradition and culture, all linked to Africa, are now present in America.


SM: What was your inspiration for this project?

AM: The contemporary way of thinking of the artists in it, were seen as how Caribbean Art should look if they are to continue 'the intelligible continuity of taste and tradition and offer the viewer 'a sufficient degree of aesthetic power.  However, the approach and hence, by implication art, as the terminal point of [an] historical trajectory. It is arguable that contemporary art such as those included in this project represent a point beyond which art could not be further refined, and must therefore be reassessed or stagnates. Furthermore, in the context of the major social and political upheavals of the past century and thereafter, such work might appear increasingly irrelevant. From our viewpoint, privileging of aesthetic and technical issues marginalizes those types of art which can be validated by reference to their relationship with their historical context, to the way in which they represent their times. Following from this, if the most important thing about art is that it should connect with the conceptual framework of its socio-historical context, then technical issues can be subordinated to ideas, and new means of representation, such as photography and installation, which do not fit easily within a Modernist aesthetic, are legitimated. This statement expands the concept of art beyond the relatively narrow bounds set by writes, and thereby allows the consideration as part of a range of new conceptual works which 'plays upon the irony that language is both a medium supposedly distinct from art and the source of information about art's content and meaning'. This exhibition “Afreecan” provides a basis for identifying work as contemporary rather than traditional and also sets contemporary terms in the context of its antecedents in history. Afro-Cuban Identity, Afro-Caribbean Culture, and African History.

SM: Where will the events be? 

 AM: The exhibition will take place at:
 ChaShaMa 340 East 64th street New York NY 10456

About the Author:
Susej Mendoza
Susej Mendoza is a 21-year-old, Afro-Latinx person from Bronx, NY  and they use they/them pronouns. Their passion is to educate the world on real issues related to race, economy, politics, and religion. Their writing is a component of that passion and their goal is to share that with the world while making people dig deep into who they are.

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