Art in Cuba

Just when an artist can't find a tube of paint or a strip of canvas, the international art world has come knocking on Havana's door -- with money in hand

Dozens of crudely constructed little sailboats, canoes, rowboats, and rafts were strewn like scattered driftwood on the stone floor of a room in the Spanish Morro castle that overlooks Havana's harbor. Arranged in the form of a ship with the bow pointing north, the clumsy, crowded armada of toy boats raced toward a narrow window through which a calm ocean was just visible on the morning of May 7, the sunny opening day of the Fifth Havana Biennial.

The art exhibition, which runs through the end of this month and has been held about every two years since 1984, is presented as a survey of new contemporary art from a Third World perspective. This year it includes the works of nearly 250 artists and photographers from Latin America, Africa, Asia, immigrants from those areas living in First World countries, and some artists from Europe and North America who address, in the words of Biennial director Llilian Llanes, "universal, nonexclusive" issues. No Cuban-American artists were included among the sixteen participants from the United States.

Alexis Leiva, an artist also known as "Kcho," said he was inspired to create the boat piece, titled Regata, after the U.S. government turned down his request for a visa last year, when he was invited to attend the opening of a New York group show in which his work was included. His thoughts turned to the desperation that fuels the flight of Cuba's balseros, manifested in the calculated physical preparation undertaken for their unsure voyages. Leiva's endearing boats conveyed the innocence of children's games and their make-believe journeys to magical places, but the size of the work (about 300 square feet) was a sobering reminder of the scope of the current Cuban exodus.

"Everyone here is joining the race to construct an object to emigrate in, and they're all composed of common household articles," explained the dark-skinned artist as he jovially greeted friends and foreign visitors at the entrance to the castle's converted gallery, where a welcome sea breeze shifted the hot gritty air that hung everywhere in Havana. Some of Leiva's watercraft were made of wood he found washed up on shore, possible remnants of a countryman's fatal gamble with the sea. Placed among the precarious vessels, rope-bound bamboo sticks, and miniature inner tubes were personal effects A a worn, flattened sneaker and a child's sandal marked with the imprints of tiny toes, lending a poignant realism to the image on the floor. "I wanted to focus on the everyday aspect of emigration," he said. "In Cuba, it's too much of an everyday thing."

Leiva himself will have another chance to travel abroad this fall, when his work will be included in an exhibition of contemporary Cuban art to be held in Madrid at the prestigious Reina Sofia museum. At age 23, he has already attracted considerable attention from curators for his raw conceptual pieces charged with social commentary. (Some works, such as The Worst Trap, a ladder made of four machetes tied to tree branches with pieces of fabric in the colors of the Cuban flag, were shown at the previous Havana Biennial in 1991, amid threats that officials would censor them.) In response to a question about the possibility of his leaving the island in a craft like those depicted in his work, Leiva paused, smiled, and then said cryptically: "No. What I would like to do is to sail a raft from Miami back to Havana."

Professional artists today are not leaving Cuba in homemade boats. They embark on planes, carrying portfolios of their work, with letters of invitation from foreign art dealers or museum curators A and with return tickets in their pockets. But over the past few years, many have left the country for an exhibition or artist's residency and not returned. And that migration has created an odd situation: The Cuban artists now exhibiting in Havana, those who are producing work with a consistent formal and conceptual maturity, are conspicuously young. "Where will they come from next, nursery school?" joked the director of one gallery at which the creators of all of the works on display are less than 25 years old. Cuban art critic Gerardo Mosquera has likened the national art scene to a lawn that is mowed back each time it begins to grow.

Leiva's work could be interpreted as a sly allusion to the absence at the Biennial of most of the protagonists of the Cuban visual art avant-garde who came of age in the 1980s, the boats representing artists now living as resident aliens or political exiles in Mexico City, Paris, Madrid, and of course, Miami.

Among those artists remaining in the Cuban capital, the expatriates are commonly referred to as "the list." A recent issue of an unofficial artists' newspaper called Memoir of the Postwar published the names of 106 "internationals" who fled the country between 1990 and 1993. By way of comparison, just 90 students of painting, sculpture, and printmaking currently attend the Instituto Superior de Arte (known as ISA), the selective college-level art school built on the grounds of the former Havana Country Club, of which most on "the list" are alumni.

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