This article is adapted from AQ’s Top 5 list of Latin American art activists
In his self-portrait, Cuban artist Danilo Maldonado’s head is topped with a rooster, and underscored with his signature — El Sexto — and one word: despierta, or wake up.
Spray-painted on walls across Havana, the graffiti is one of many carrying Maldonado’s unsubtle message of public protest against the Cuban government.
He has paid a price for his activism: Speaking against the government has landed Maldonado in jail four times. Most recently, in what the U.N. called an arbitrary arrest, he was denied due process and spent two months behind bars. After his release in January, Maldonado fled to Europe and to the U.S., where he continued to showcase his art and to speak out on behalf of the Cuban people.
“In Cuba, they take away our rights to think as an individual. No one is allowed to think differently than the government,” Maldonado told AQ from Miami.
Maldonado’s work has always been a mix of art and activism. There was little Cuban street art when he started marking walls with political messages eight years ago. He’s now one of Cuba’s most important graffiti artists, and the winner of the 2015 International Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent. His work has grown to incorporate painting, drawing, poetry and performance art.
Despite his recognition abroad, in Cuba his political opinions have cost him, over time, gallery exhibition opportunities, cultural exchanges, even access to supplies. But it was the persecution and the detentions that pushed Maldonado to leave his home.
While he’s abroad, he worries about the safety of his family on the island. That includes his four-year-old daughter, whom he featured in a graffiti similar to his own: with a chick on her head, and below her, the word despiertica, a made-up diminutive of the Spanish word for wake up.
Asked why he left his home and family, risking so much for his work, Maldonado answered, “For liberty and respect for human rights, so that there is never a limit or a barrier to what (Cubans) can create.”
Bintrim is a strategic engagement associate for Americas Society/Council of the Americas.