Cuban visual artist María Magdalena Campos, together with American musician Neil Leonard, her partner in life and work, presented the project Bar Matanzas as part of Documenta 14 at the Kulturzentrum Schlachthof in Kassel. Inspired by a friend’s wish to have a bar he would call Matanzas 1945, and with the purpose of paying tribute to María Magdalena’s hometown, they proposed a space for meeting, conversation, and confrontation of ideas on the history, culture, ecology, and challenges of humanity.
As part of the Bar Matanzas program, there were concerts, lectures, and performances where artists of various media, theoreticians, art critics and specialists from other disciplines exchanged ideas and presented their works to the audience.
Opened in 1978, Kulturzentrum Schlachthof has been a place where people from different social contexts come together. Since its foundation, the purposes of the initiative have been to practice an expanded and holistic concept of culture, create space for self-initiative, participation and self-determination, and at the same time promote cultural diversity. These objectives of the cultural center connected organically with the work of Campos and Leonard.
In an interview published on the occasion of a previous work, Leonard stated, “There are things we can do in the field of the arts that cannot be transferred to a cell phone, a YouTube video or a USB flash drive. They are multi-dimensional experiences that have to be appreciated in person.”
María Magdalena has always been interested in the research and study of the complex racial and cultural identity of her African origin, and for that reason her work is particularly interwoven in the best tradition of Cuban art of exploring these matters from a profound humanism and commitment. The critic Andrés Isaac Santana considers her work “a treatise against amnesia . . . a restoration of the memory. It is not just recapitulation; it is also a way of strengthening utopia.”
The city of Matanzas was fertile ground for the arts, music, literature, architecture and thought. The prosperity beginning in the late 18th century had its origins in the development of the sugar and coffee industries, whose production was sustained by the work of hundreds of thousands of Africans forcibly removed from their native territories to serve as slave labor in the ever faithful island of Cuba.
That cultural splendor was expressed in the buildings and urban layout of one of the country’s most beautiful cities, in the institutions created by their patrons, in the music of José White, the poetry of Plácido, the dramatic work of José Jacinto Milanés. However, and despite its high values, it did not take into consideration, did not know, and scorned one of the most authentic cultural expressions that have contributed to Cuban culture.
That Matanzas aristocracy, which compared itself to classic Athens, marginalized and ignored the legitimacy of what was happening in the barracks, rural crews, sugarcane communities, and suburban villages. There “cooked” one of the most authentic cultural phenomena among those that came from Africa, one of the strongest expressions of resistance to uprooting and defense of their identity: the rumba.
The rumba complex, made up of beats, songs, dances and pantomime, is one of the greatest and most popular folkloric forms of dance and musical expression, and because of its contributions and values was recently acknowledged by UNESCO as a Spiritual Cultural Heritage of Humankind.
The Muñequitos de Matanzas is one of the emblematic rumba ensembles, and on the occasion of their 65th anniversary they were invited by María Magdalena and Leonard to be hosts of Bar Matanzas with nine concerts in Kulturzentrum Schlachthof. With this action, 157 years after Matanzas received the title of Athens of Cuba, the artists place the heirs of one of the most marginalized cultural expressions in the center of one of the most validating events of contemporary art and, thanks to fate, this Dokumenta edition is dedicated to Athens, (the other, western one).
Thus, the rumba prolongs its role as an agent of liberation. Frantz Fanon’s “wretched of the Earth” still today persist in a project of constructing a new humanism, based on the authentic redefinition of the human being formed in anti-colonial struggles; conflicts that continue to take place, nourished by the cases of subjugation in a world that, despite its global nature, has not yet settled its differences and inequalities.