The Foundations of Freedom: Carlos Martiel at Art Basel

The Foundations of Freedom: Carlos Martiel at Art Basel


Abel FL Berriz

With Carlos Martiel, there are no half measures. No clean-cuts. No chiaroscuro.
It’s all high contrast.
Kill or die.
Love or hate.
Though there’s also love in hate and vice versa.
There’s a certain death in every killer.
And that’s exactly what you get in Martiel’s performances.

That’s what you get in “Basamento”, presented at the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation (CIFO), during Art Basel Miami 2016.
That’s what I got, at least.

I get early to the place where the performance is to be.
A few people there, waiting. Some stare at old exhibits, scattered all around.
Others stare at me, at you, at everyone there.
There’s a performance of Carlos Martiel about to begin. Anyone around may be the killer. Anyone around may be the dead.

Someone at the phone. The photographer that is supposed to work with me just arrived.
We meet outside. We smoke –or, he smokes, I vape. We wait.
A woman comes near, staring at the photographer’s camera. She asks us if we’re with the media.
‘Yes!’, I exclaim.
‘Which one?’
‘,’ there’s some pride in my words.
‘OK, come with me.’
We’re in. Writer and photographer. The media.

A naked black man holds an otherwise three-legged table in the middle of the room.
He’s a pole, a leg.
The fourth leg of the table.
There’s food on the three-legged table.
A white man is putting food on the table. Another white man with plates. Several plates. Bowls. Trays.
The black man tries to keep balance while the white men put food trays on the table.
When they finish placing the trays, the audience is invited to join to the feast.
We’re invited.
I’m not hungry.
I’m just a bystander. A witness.
So is the photographer.
He takes pictures. I write.

People start serving food on plastic plates.
They eat.
I’m not eating, so I walk around, watching the scene from different perspectives. But always from the outside.
I’m not holding a table with food on it.
I’m not naked.
I’m not black.
There’s a voice. The voice of a middle-aged black woman.
The voice is all around.

I start watching a video, on a screen by the door. A middle-aged black woman is speaking –that’s the voice I hear.
She speaks of her heritage. Why and when she came to America.
She speaks of the white folks. Not with hate, not with anger. Just speaks. Natural.
She worked hard and opened her own business.
She, a middle-aged black woman, came to America and succeeded.

Meanwhile, people still eat around the table.
People watch.
The table is set as an offering.
The goods: typical African-Cuban meal. Congris (rice and beans). Boiled plantain. A casserole with –what I guess is– lamb. Chicken. Different kinds of meat. An invitation.
It all looks to be hot, spicy food.
There’s tension in the air. The people eat around the table, while the naked black man still holds the table. Sometimes he moves, slightly, a leg, the other leg. He changes the shoulder that holds the corner of the table.
Will the man ever free himself?

Of course, the naked man is Carlos Martiel. Of course, everybody is waiting for something to happen at the end. That can’t be all. The naked black man holding a table while people around feast and stare can’t be all.
Martiel is more than that.
And, if you know his work, you know there must be something else.

What’s about this young man? What’s this rage he needs to express, this demons he’s got to exorcise?
Martiel is young –born in Havana in 1989–, Cuban, black, male. All that hurts.
Would hurt much more if he was a woman, a Cuban black woman.
But, nevertheless, it hurts also being a black male, in Cuba, in the States, in this world. In 2016. Almost 2017.

His opus –himself– has traveled the world. He lives and works in Havana and in New York.
Both places are hard places to be young and black.
Martiel, as a Cuban artist, as a performer, is heir to Ana Mendieta and Tania Bruguera, two Cuban women that can claim the title of pioneers in Cuban performance art.
His work, as his mentor’s –Tania– and his mentor’s mentor’s –Ana– deals with all kinds of violence, with all types of blood.
More than mere performances, they are statements, standgrounds, defiances.
A rebellion against all sorts of injustice –racial, sexual, ethnic…
A manifiesto.

Martiel is a provocateur. His art is shocking, hard, merciless.
Every time he self-inflicts pain, he returns that pain to the eye of the beholder.
By hurting himself, he hurts you.
As centuries of slavery should hurt you.
As racism should hurt you.
As injustice should hurt you.

Martiel not only stands ground for his identity. He’s fighting you, fighting your moral ambiguity, your hypocrisy, your silent approval, your compliance, your conformism.
That’s what is happening here, at CIFO.

A crowd eats and stares, feasts on Afro-Cuban food, made by Afro-Cuban hands, while a naked Afro-Cuban man holds the table for the banquet.
And what do you do? You just watch, you just stare, you just eat.

A middle-aged black woman tells her story, how she came to America, the white, Anglo America, and succeeded, despite being a woman, black, alien.
But you just hear her voice, without listening.

The naked Afro-Cuban man shows signs of discomfort. He moves his tired, numb limbs. He changes the shoulder that holds the table.
The heavy wood hurts his naked shoulder.
And we just stare. We just eat his food.

This is taking too long. People start to chat among themselves.
Something’s got to happen. There’s expectancy. Impatience. Tension.
I start chatting with the photographer. I kind of figure out what’s going to happen. What MUST happen.
I tell the photographer we should move to the other side of the room. Something’s going to happen, and it shouldn’t get us in the wrong side.
He’s got pictures to take.

The photographer is somewhat skeptic. I assure him we should move.
I manage to convince him.
People around keep eating, chatting, laughing in self-contempt.

All of a sudden, the naked black man moves violently.
The naked Afro-Cuban man rises, free.
Emancipation. Finally.
The table falls down.
The food spreads all over the room.
People stares.

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