Ana Mendieta "Untitiled (Blood and Feathers), 1974
It was something of happenstance that I travelled to Cuba at the very moment President Barrack Obama declared his desire to lift the 1962 U.S. trade embargo on the island nation. True, an intended action is not as momentous as, say, the actual fall of the Berlin Wall. It was, nevertheless, a privilege to witness firsthand such a poignant historic moment. I shared the euphoria of Cubans: perhaps now there would be a chance to rectify the crippling infrastructure decay that challenges their daily domestic and public existence. Would Cuba actually be better for it? The basic political, financial and social reality had not changed. Was the prize at hand solely the imminent appearance of Starbucks, KFC, 7-Eleven and Best Buy?
To be honest, I went to Cuba with the same prosaic motivations of most northern winter travellers. To be sure, I fantasized a Ry Cooder-worthy encounter, the discovery of the visual art equivalent of the Buena Vista Social Club. That quest dominated my short stay there. In some respects, I probably did find exactly that: a rich vein of underexposed, extraordinary artistic talent. In other regards, maybe I experienced something more significant.
Irrespective of sanctions on commercial products, the flow of ideas about contemporary art is vibrant. The principal artists pride themselves on their connectedness to contemporary art in Europe, rather than Latin America. Many have travelled, lived and exhibited abroad. Cuban contemporary art encompasses a broad range of expression: from hyperrealism to works within a dadaist-surrealist legacy to minimalism and clever, hip versions of post-conceptualism and installation projects. Regardless, much of the art of great power aligns with the Latin expressionist legacy, quickly and too simply described as the spirit, texture and touch of Cuban artist Wilfredo Lam. It may be the blessing – and curse – of a fine, privileged educational system.
Many leading Cuban artists have attended graduate programs at Havana’s Instituto Superior de Arte. The architecturally stunning facility is housed in what was originally an exclusive country club and is now under consideration for UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites. Faculty legend recounts that the club infamously denied entry to Cuba’s fierce dictator Fulgencio Batista, because he was of mixed race. Following the 1959 revolution, as the story contends, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara met there for a photo shoot. On the spot, they declared it ought to be an art school. Go figure? A priority of guerilla fighters was to train artists? Although I could find no corroborating evidence, endearingly, this folklore factors into the institutional body language. Castro proclaimed “our enemies are capitalists and imperialists, not abstract art.” Advanced art and Communism hand in hand:
“Within the revolution, everything; against the revolution, nothing.”
The school is a remarkable place; it tells a great deal about art in Cuba. It offers a four-year graduate program. There are no tuition fees, but entry is extremely competitive with only 15 students admitted each year. The school insists on exacting standards of achievement, highly developed craftsmanship, and dedication to traditional art skills. It often does not accept a full quota of students. How different is this to the customary practice of Canadian and American art schools, which elect to be puppy mills to benefit from economies of scale?
Much work at the institute, like Cuban art generally, is grounded in the earth: ceramics, strong calligraphy, narration and expression prevail. Like their cannibalized, pieced-together 1950s autos, much of the most powerful art is an engaging anachronism. Thank God. It brings us urgent, humane work that reflects primal Afro-Cuban experiences by artists such as José Bedia, Santiago Rodríguez Olazábal and Ana Mendieta. [Ed. Note: See examples below.]
In the wake of embargo discussions, Canadians may be exposed to more of the country’s powerful art – shows like Without Masks: Contemporary Afro-Cuban Art, exhibited last year at Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology; ¡Cuba! Art and History from 1868 to Today at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2008; or further residencies for leading Cuban artists at the Banff Centre. However, there’s more at stake. Cuba is a unique cultural reality. Its way of life is poised precariously on the verge of massive transformation. Some alterations will be welcomed as overdue; others perhaps regretted. Nevertheless, it is achingly real. Since, unhappily, trash is a visual constant in Cuba, you might expect more examples of found-object art, bricolage and graffiti. However, on balance, and perhaps appropriately, Cuban artists are not at total ease bringing attention to societal collapse. As ironically implied by the Rolling Stones song Already Over Me, poverty is not picturesque.
So maybe it comes down to this: an opportunity for artists from elsewhere to reflect upon Cuba and the human condition. Cubans revere Ernest Hemingway for his 1952 novel The Old Man and the Sea. But is this only the domain of literature? Fine films chronicle the spirit and texture of Cuba today. Yet, powerful social forces of this magnitude also call for visual artists to come forth. Cuba will alter imminently and irrevocably. Reform is desperately needed and desired. Yet, something remarkable and irreplaceable will be lost. Cuba seeks a chronicler and a champion.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTS AND IMAGES
- Instituto Superior de Arte
The central courtyard at ISA, Havana’s Instituto Superior de Arte. The original campus is comprised of seven distinctively-shaped domed, clerestory-topped brick structures that house the major visual arts studios and classrooms.
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- Roberto Fabelo
This charming sculpture by Roberto Fabelo (born 1951 Camagüey, Cuba) is in the collection of and has been on long-term display at Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana. It builds a semblance of a cathedral-like structure using as component building blocks discarded, degraded, humble coffee percolators: the sacred conjoined with the profane; history and tradition paired with contemporaneity? To be sure there may be newer coffee-making technology employed throughout Cuba; personally, I just didn’t happen to see it. So his decision to build a depiction of a place of worship out of antiquated ubiquitous domestic wares seemed all the more clever and poignant within the current Cuban social environment.
Fabelo Espresso Pot Sculpture (detail)
- Diana Fonseca
Diana Fonseca’s photographic triptych “Hobby” depicts her stitching thread into the palm of her hand. She creates rudimentary pictographs of a plane and perhaps cloud/parachutist/explosion. Latent violence, pent-up emotion and frustration resonates with this and other related works by her contemporaries. Some of these are perhaps a bit too illustrative, didactic, but the gravity of the social situation may well warrant this strategy. Fonseca and many of the top-tier Cuban artists are represented by the influential Galeria Habana. Its director, Luis Miret Pérez is an inveterate, knowledgable participant in international art fairs.
Diana Fonseca "Hobby" 1
Diana Fonseca "Hobby" 2
Diana Fonseca "Hobby" 3
- Ana Mendieta
Untitled (Blood and Feathers), 1974, by Ana Mendieta (Born Cuba 1948- died New York City 1985). Born in Cuba but raised and educated in America (University of Iowa), Mendieta is recognized as one of the most significant artists of her generation. Her performances, body art, land art and objects reflect a ritualistic strong connection with the spirit of the earth. She was a major contributor to feminist art. She died a violent death, falling out of her apartment window. Her husband, Minimalist sculptor, Carl Andre was charged but ruled not guilty of her murder.
Ana Mendieta "Untitiled (Blood and Feathers), 1974
- Santiago Rodriguez Olazábal
From left: “la sombra,” “Viento misterioso,” and “sin alma,” ("the shadow", "Mysterious wind" and "soulless"), installation and paintings by Santiago Rodriguez Olazábal at Galeria Habana in Havana. Olazábal, born 1955, Havana, is a Santería priest whose work attempts to incorporate the power and impact of religion derived from traditions of African origin. His works incorporate drawing, painting, collage and installation components. He was an artist in residence, 1998, at the Banff Centre for the Arts.
Santiago Rodriguez Olazábal installation and paintings
Courtesy the artist and Gallery Habana
Santiago R Olazabol, "Two Edges" (Dos orillas) 2014
Santiago R Olazabol, "Two Edges" (Dos orillas) 2014 acrylic, pastel and collage on canvas, 140 cm x 538 cm
Courtesy the artist and Gallery Habana
Santiago R Olazabol, "Two Edges" (Dos orillas) detail
Santiago R Olazabol, "Two Edges" (Dos orillas) detail 2014 acrylic, pastel and collage on canvas, 140 cm x 538 cm.
- José Bedia
Afro-Cuban artist, José Bedia, (born 1959 in Havana) is the maker of powerful mixed media installations and expressive paintings. His works pulse; his surfaces are raw, physically insistent, and weathered. Their bold mark-making reads more akin to scarification than to drawing. He is an avid collector of Archaeological and tribal arts particularly of Cuba, Africa and Mexico. He cites his collection of Plains First Nations ledger drawings as a primary influence upon his own artistic development.
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José Bedia "Muerto Grande" 1995
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Collection Los Angeles County Museum of ArtPurchased with funds provided by the Modern and Contemporary Art Council, Jose Iturralde, Sr., Ron and JoAnn Busuttil, Betty and Brack Duker, Judy and Marvin Zeidler and gift of Iturralde Gallery (M.2002.115)
José Bedia "Firm Stride" (Paso firme) 2001 Oil on canvas 70 3/4 x 120 in
José Bedia Firm Stride (Paso firme) 2001 Oil on canvas 70 3/4 x 120 in.
José Bedia "Las Cosas Que Me Arrastran"
José Bedia "Las Cosas Que Me Arrastran" (The Things That Drag Me Along) 1996-2008, Wax crayon, acrylic on canvas, found objects, 640x320 cm (wall), 915 cm (floor).
- Yuon Capote
Yuon Capote, born in Havana, 1977, where he lives and works, is an artist that makes work in a wide range of media: drawing painting, sculpture, photography, video and installation. Capote was one of four artists that represented Cuba at the (2011) Venice Biennale in Cuba Mon Amour. His post-conceptual sculptures often involve linguistic wordplay. A version of his work “Open Mind” constructed out of barricades was installed at the 2014 Nuit Blanche, Toronto.
Yuon Capote "Open Mind"
Yuon Capote "Open Mind" (aerial view)
Yuon Capote "Open Mind" (detail)
Yuon Capote "Open Mind" (detail 2)