The depiction of dance holds a very special place in Cuban painting. From the 19th Century, right at the start of the cuban pictorial tradition, we have the famous Día de Reyes by Victor Patricio Landaluze, the genre painter and chronicler par excellance of the typical street types and customs of Colonial Cuba. In this celebrated painting, the African slaves are portrayed dancing their sacred religious dances, a tradition that was kept throughout the colonial period under the guise of a Catholic celebration. It is actually a depiction of the cultural syncretism at the base of the mixed African and Catholic religions that has given birth to the hybrid religion Santeria.
The very important theme of popular dances provide the artist with an opportunity to portray cultural identity. The modernist generation utilized the theme of ethnic dance as a reaffirmation of the cultural icons that they believed constituted the real and authentic roots of Cuban culture. Eduardo Abela's &IEl triunfo de la rumba (ca. 1928) is a great early example of this cultural expression. The central figure of this painting is a beautiful mulata, surrounded by dancing musicians that seem to hold her as a processional idol. Carlos Enriquez also made an important contribution to the depiction of dance. In his painting from 1935, Tocadores the dancer seems possesed in religious extasis, he looks directly into the mask of a diablito, the African dancers of the Colonial days, his eyes closed and mouth open, body strangely contorted, while the white-clad figure of a mulata rises on the right of the picture, very much the same apparition as the one in Abela's painting. From the 1940's Carreqo's Danza Africana is a famous work illustrated in Gomez Sicre's seminal work on Cuban painting, Pintura Cubana de hoy. Here the masked dancers closely resemble African deities engaged in a sacred dance. It is from this very important period in Cuban art that we have this great painting by Roberto Diago.
The frenzied dancers in Diago's painting are depicted in a classical, almost Grecian frieze. The figures are contorted, each involved in its own dance. They seem to respond to the spiritual possession that is so important a component of Santeria rituals. The simplification of forms and background provide an atmosphere of timelessness. This dance could be happening anywhere because it is depicting a trascendental experience. The figures' faces are mask-like and the contorted, the limbs of the possesed dancers are barely distinguishable from each other's bodies creating the illusion of monstrous shapes struggling in the claustrophobic picture plane.
The central figure is suspended in the air, it is jumping almost directly into another dancer, oblivious to the law s of space and time. It has two heads, looking in opposite directions, perhaps a representation of the spirit that is entering the body in extasis. It raises above an undefined shapeless body that lies on the floor and has the coloration of bloody remains, possibly pertaining to an animal sacrifice, as the hoof-like paw to the left of the figure seems to attest .
The dark, mysterious colors give the composition an air of strangeness. It is as if the spectator of this scene were intruding upon the ceremonies of an ancient and mysterious ritual that we can not understand, but can nevertheless appreciate as a source of spiritual energy.