Broadway Billboard: Duke Riley
Socrates’ latest “Broadway Billboard” is by artist Duke Riley and is titled El Primero Desfile de San Patricio en la Habana, Cuba, or, The First St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Havana, Cuba.
St. Patrick’s Day marks the celebration of the life of the patron saint of Ireland and is observed by people of Irish descent around the world. But, as Riley states, “the tradition of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade is entirely American.” The first parade in honor of St. Patrick’s Day was organized by Irishmen serving in the British army stationed in Boston, Massachusetts in 1737. It began as nothing more than drunken revelry, singing, and a shared sense of homesickness. 200 years later the tradition was adopted in Ireland and today there are St. Patrick’s Day parades in 15 nations across six continents.
During a 2007 visit to Havana, Riley discovered that his Irish roots had Cuban connections. Infact, one of of the city’s main streets is called Calle O’Reilly, named for Alejandro O’Reilly, an Irishman and early abolitionist who served as a general in the Spanish army in 18th-century Cuba and later served as governor of Spanish-occupied Louisiana. Like O’Reilly, many Irish settled in Cuba in the 18th and 19th centuries, leaving a legacy of prominent historical figures of Irish-Cuban descent and there are still a great number of current day Cuban residents with Irish heritage.
With this history in mind, Duke Riley returned to Cuba in 2009 to stage the first St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Havana, a performance for ‘Chelsea Visits Havana’ at Museum Nacional de Bellas Artes as part of the Havana Biennial. The Broadway Billboard on view at Socrates Sculpture Park consists of a section of a larger drawing the artist did as a record of his 2009 performance, along with representations of iconic American cartoon characters marching through the streets of Havana.
Like the first parades in America, Riley’s St. Patrick’s Day performance reminded participants of the positive potentials of social inclusion and cultural exchange from the earliest parades and commemorations. Riley’s 2009 parade displayed a romanticized vision of a distant land – Ireland, Cuba, and America – separated by the sea. With today’s warming of relations between historically cool American and Cuban governments, El Primero Desfile de San Patricio en la Habana, Cuba presciently experiments with the merging of the two cultures.