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

These emigrant artists have left behind a legendary specter, and their paintings have become icons incorporated by some younger artists as part of their own work. Last month, for example, a group of students from the art institute created a version of the board game Monopoly in which, instead of plastic hotels, miniature paintings by Tomas Sanchez, Jose Bedia, Tomas Esson, and other well-known expatriate artists could be bought and sold with pretend dollars.

In the early Eighties, Sanchez, Bedia, and other artists began exploring new art forms, searching for a Cuban aesthetic removed from staid academic styles and the official socialist-realist vision imported from the Soviet Union. Their work was often characterized by an underlying mysticism that had its roots in the country's native cultures and Afro-Cuban religions. By and large, it was not overtly political.

By the end of the decade, however, a younger group of artists had coalesced, and their aesthetic vocabulary was very much political. They engaged in audacious street performances that openly ridiculed the Communist Party and its policies. They created paintings showing the island of Cuba as a pile of excrement issuing from Castro's mouth, or Che Guevara fornicating with grotesque beasts. Cuban officials responded aggressively A censoring works, closing shows, and harassing exhibition organizers. "In the last decade here in Cuba the artists were very romantic and very rebellious. We tried to create our own revolution with our art within the revolution," recalled 27-year-old Elio Rodriguez, whose recent work includes humorous wall sculptures of wild-game trophies with oversize sexual organs protruding from their heads. "Then the censorship started and they began to close the galleries. At the same time a lot of people from abroad were coming here who appreciated the quality of the work and started inviting the artists to exhibit. So the artists said, 'Okay, if I can't show in Cuba, I'll just go somewhere where I can.' And they started to travel. Then they realized that art could be used not only to change society. It could be used to make money."

Another artist, Carlos Estevez, elaborated on Rodriguez's observations. "With the exodus of all the artists in the Eighties, some predicted it would mean the death of Cuban art. The artistic spirit really went down," said the 24-year-old Estevez, a slightly built sculptor and painter of serious demeanor. "Then we realized a more introspective approach was called for. And ultimately hard times have just made us more stubborn and insistent.

"It doesn't make sense to do overly dissident work any more. Why look for trouble?" he continued while walking through the worn streets of Old Havana from the Center for the Development of Visual Arts, where he works for about $1.60 per month. "It's so difficult to live right now, and it's even more difficult to make art. We have enough problems without putting ourselves in a polemic context. It's like throwing yourself against a wall."

And amid the adversity, Estevez, like Rodriguez, has been witness to a dramatic change. "In a short time," he noted, "we've found ourselves thrown into a world where the marketplace receives us like a vacuum cleaner."

It's true. While members of the Eighties generation had to leave Cuba in order to experience the strangeness of capitalism, that bold new world of commerce has now beaten a path to the island's young artists. And it couldn't have happened at a more awkward time.

Like other Cubans, the artists of the "special period" are forced to grapple with the drastic restrictions and shortages brought on by the fall of communism in the Eastern bloc. This has led to a scarcity of materials that has changed the way art is being made in Cuba. Oil paints and canvas are precious. Ideas for large-scale paintings or sculpture are discarded in favor of smaller pieces that can be more easily executed and taken to a gallery on the back of a bicycle. Found objects and scavenged supplies have become artistic staples, along with traditional crafts materials such as wood, ceramics, and fabric.

Coinciding with the logistical problems of artistic creativity and lending them a peculiar irony has been the government's realization that Cuban art, like tourism, can be a valuable commodity for foreign trade. And so the black market for forgeries is thriving (excellent renditions of Cuban masters, Picassos, or even a van Gogh are easily available). Legitimate artists, using whatever materials they can find, frequently sell their work directly to interested foreigners in meetings at their homes or in hotels. On an official level state-run galleries located in what were once grand mansions in Old Havana and in more modern buildings in other parts of the city sell artists' work, encouraged by a law passed last year that called for cultural institutions to become self-supporting. Artists are paid 50 to 70 percent of all sales made by galleries, and since this past February, the payments are being made in dollars, not pesos.

Since the revolution, artists have traditionally worked as art teachers in elementary schools or community centers, professors at the institute, or cultural center employees. Now the Castro government has become more lenient in granting "independent artist" status, which permits artists to attempt to live from their work alone, an obviously attractive alternative when a single painting can be sold to a foreign buyer for a hundred dollars or more. A growing awareness of the mechanics of international art trade and the decline of living standards have prompted more and more young Cuban artists to adapt -- to create their work with a market in mind, to think competitively, to market themselves.

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