Morocco hosts one of Africa’s first exhibitions of Cuban art, a milestone for Afro-Cuban painters

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RABAT, Morocco — When Morocco ‘s King Mohamed VI visited Havana in 2017, Cuban-American gallery owner Alberto Magnan impressed him with a “full immersion” in the Caribbean island’s art and culture, drawing a line between the cultural and historical themes tackled by Cuban artists and those from across Africa.

Seven years after that encounter, one of the first exhibitions of Cuban art at an African museum is showing at Morocco’s Mohammed VI Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art.

It’s part of an effort to give visitors a view beyond the European artists who often remain part of the school curriculum in the North African nation and other former French colonies, museum director Abdelaziz El Idrissi said.

“The Moroccan public might know Giacometti, Picasso or impressionists,” El Idrissi said. The museum has shown them all. “We’ve seen them and are looking for other things, too.”

The Cuba show contains 44 pieces by Wifredo Lam — a major showing of the Afro-Cuban painter’s work more than a year before New York City’s Museum of Modern Art will honor him with a career retrospective show in 2025.

“We’re kind of beating MoMA to the punch,” Magnan said.

The Morocco show also marks the first time that the work of another luminary, Jose Angel Toirac, is being displayed outside Cuba. Previously, his paintings depicting the country’s late anti-capitalist president Fidel Castro in the iconography of American advertisements and consumer culture were not allowed off the island.

Other works in “Cuban Art: On the other side of the Atlantic” — open until June 16 — show prevalent themes in Cuban art ranging from isolation and economic embargo to heritage and identity.

In Cuba, almost half of the population identifies as mixed race and more than 1 million people are Afro-Cuban. The island’s diversity is a recurring subject for its painters and artists, including Lam. That’s why it was important to show his work — including paintings of African-inspired masks and use of vibrant color — in Africa, Magnan said.

Morocco is among countries that have shown new interest in Cuban art since the United States restored diplomatic ties with Cuba in 2014 and Castro died in 2016. American art dealers and major museums flocked to the previously difficult-to-visit island.

But the intrigue was curbed by the COVID-19 pandemic and former U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to redesignate the country as a “state sponsor of terrorism,” Magnan said.

Meanwhile, Morocco has increased funding for arts and culture in an effort to boost its “geopolitical soft power” in North Africa and beyond.

In both Morocco and Cuba, 20th century artists responded to political transition — decolonization in Morocco, revolution in Cuba — by drawing from history and engaging in trends shaping contemporary art worldwide.

But the current show does not touch on Moroccan-Cuban diplomatic relations, which were restored following King Mohamed VI’s 2017 visit to Cuba.

The countries had cut ties decades ago over Cuba’s position on the disputed Western Sahara, which Morocco claims. Cuba has historically trained Sahrawi soldiers and doctors and backed the Polisario Front’s agenda at the United Nations.

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