Back to Basics: Susan Matthews’ Afro-Cuban Beat

Painting titled The Other Guantanamo by Susan Matthews.

Don’t tell Susan Matthews what she can and can’t paint. An artist with a mind all her own, she has ventured to remote villages in Cuba and met Black folk that few North Americans have known or cared about. And she didn’t go on a Venceremos Brigade. You remember them. Beginning in 1969, and for the next 50 or so years, thousands of North Americans joined a brigade, an offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In Cuba, they harvested sugar cane, basked in the sun and enjoyed Caribbean fun. Susan Matthews has traveled to Cuba nearly two-dozen times, connected to Afro-Cuban dancers, musicians and rituals far older than the Cuban Revolution and the Cuban government that has all-too often ignored. Tourists to Cuba have embraced Afro-Cuban culture and helped to keep it alive.

Matthews works in acrylic in her Oakland, California studio, where she creates large colorful paintings which have captivating titles such as “The Women of Dzodze,” “Rumba Taller Gráfica” and “La Caridad de Oriente.” Until the end of October 2022, her work is on exhibit at the Canessa Gallery, not far from City Lights Bookstore on Columbus Avenue. In homage to the members of the Beat Generation—who loved the bongos—and the beat of Afro-Cuban music the show is titled “Back to the Beat.” The largest painting, “Rumba Morena,” represents women drummers that Matthews met in Havana. It’s 72’’ x 54,’’ and priced at $5,000. The drummers seem to fly off the wall and into the gallery itself.

Matthews is neither Cuban nor Black; her ancestors didn’t arrive in the New World from Africa. She and her work embody what an academic versed in Afro-Cuban forms of expression might call “cross cultural fertilization.” During an interview shortly after the opening of her exhibit, Matthews told me, “It didn’t occur to me that I was a white person painting Black people. I was painting the people I met, and the ecstatic energy of their music, dance and culture.”

If every artist and writer today stopped creating, and instead reflected on his or her ethnicity and whether he or she had the right to depict people from cultures not their own, we might not have art and literature. That wasn’t Matthews.

When she had her first exhibit on the theme of Afro-Cuban music and dance in 2000 at Left of Center Gallery in North Las Vegas, African Americans gave her “the green light to keep working on her project.” One woman saw the paintings and told her, “I want to go to Cuba and study dance.”

The deeper she delved into her field of study, the more Matthews realized that the rhythms and songs sung in Cuba were uncannily similar to those ­transported from West Africa, across the Atlantic Ocean, to the Caribbean as “secrets under the skin.“ That phrase comes from a series of multimedia installations that Matthews co-created, and that moved from Cuba to Ghana and from Alaska to Oakland and San Francisco, from 2010-2014. She contributed a chapter in the book, Situated Narratives and Sacred Dance: Performing the Entangled Histories of Cuba and West Africa published by the University of Florida Press in 2021.

Matthews learned that in remote sugarcane towns in Matanzas Province, people knew their lineage, back to first generation Africans. “The elders who preserved the cultural expressions of their ancestors were passing away,” Matthews said. “We wanted to document their world while we had the opportunity. Our intention was to share our work with the rural people we met. My prints went up on walls in homes.

Matthews’ romance with the drum—one of the oldest instruments played by humans—and with drumming and with Black music began in 1976 when she was 22 years old. She and her boyfriend, who played the drums and happened to be Jewish, descended on the jazz and blues clubs on the “chitlin’ circuit,” as it was known, in West Oakland. “We were usually the only white people in the audience,” Matthews said. “The musicians always invited my boyfriend to sit in and play with them.”

At a tiny window, Matthews would order soul food made by local ladies, take a seat and enjoy the show. Matthews remembers that when members of the audience wanted more drumming, they would shout, “Give the drummer some.” James Brown helped to immortalize the concept in his single, “Funky Drummer.”

After she attended and graduated with a B.A. from UC Berkeley in 1979—and later with an MFA from San Francisco State University—Matthews took part in an Afro-Cuban percussion class on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley at La Peña Cultural Center, which was created by refugees from Chile who fled from the military coup engineered by General Augusto Pinochet. That bloody coup overthrew the legally elected government of Salvador Allende.  The class helped her along her journey, but she didn’t begin to play her first drum, a conga, until she was 40-years old.

“I loved the feel of it, the sound of it and the sense of rhythm,” she told me. “It was intoxicating.” So was her first trip to Cuba which took place in 1995. That year and in subsequent years, year after year, she began her education in the history of Afro-Cuban culture. Back in the USA, she delved into the culture of her own corner of Oakland, where she painted portraits of many of the people—bartenders, waiters, artists and community members—she met at the Merchants Saloon in Oakland. Matthews sat at the bar and had a drink or two. She didn’t ask anyone if she had the right to paint them. She just did it.

Titled “The 99%,” those portraits of working people—white, Black and brown—came with their names, places of birth, occupations and the locations of their current homes. “The portraits were inexpensive so people snapped them up,” Matthews said. They are as much a tribute to Oakland folks as the “Back to the Beat” paintings are a tribute to the Afro-Cubans in Matanzas Province. These days, Matthews teaches painting at College of San Mateo. “In the classroom I use the methodology I learned from Afro-Cuban drumming,“ she explained. “One concept builds on another and you don’t waste the students’ time.”


“Back to the Beat: Old and New Paintings” by Susan Matthews, through October 27, 2022. Artist’s talk and party Saturday October 22, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. To visit Canessa, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays contact Zach Stewart at For more information email Matthews at  Sue.Art.Matthews@gmail.coms

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.