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

Although young Cuban artists are admittedly more interested in establishing their careers than provoking scandals, their work is often more specific in its social analysis than that of their predecessors. The Havana Biennial, which included 40 separate shows at state-run galleries and cultural centers scattered throughout the city, testified to this phenomenon.

Near Alexis Leiva's fleet of wooden boats in a section of the Biennial called "The Other Shore" stood a set of painted suitcases that Sandra Ramos had decorated with Cuban landscapes, idealized visions of the American dream, and pictures of airplanes with the faces of departed friends peering out the windows. In a piece titled Memoria, Tania Bruguera spread bundles of old letters and other personal belongings on the floor. For two hours during the Biennial's opening day she lay down, corpselike, in the shell of a rowboat in homage to lost balseros.

Other issues addressed by Cuban artists included the physical deterioration of Havana's grand architecture, the rise of prostitution, the collapse of Soviet ideology, capitalist colonization, and the dollar-hungry black market. While they employed humor, the works were underscored with a biting reality that sometimes reflected an almost apocalyptic vision. Twenty-five-year-old Ibrahim Miranda, who has lived in Mexico and returned to Cuba, displayed a set of darkly allegorical xylograph prints. One of them, Ultimo retrato del profeta (Last Portrait of the Prophet), featured a skeletal presence with a knife through his neck and arrows through his body. Images of Saint Sebastian or Christ were frequent, martyrs whose suffering carried an ominous contemporary significance.

Fidel Castro, who at one time was depicted with reverence and later with disdain, had been reduced to little more than a benign folkloric figure. Fernando Rodriguez Falc centsn constructed a naive ceramic tableau featuring the comandante taking part in a country wedding. The 22-year-old artist also sweetly molded Castro's face into the shape of a crude, handmade plate and a tobacco pipe. In one painting on wood titled El color de mi sangre (The Color of My Blood) Castro cuts himself shaving. The diminutive Falc centsn, himself bearded, said the ideas for his subtly ironic works come from a fantasy alter ego he calls "Francisco de la Cal," who tells the artist what to paint. Falc centsn's pretend partner is a man from the countryside who suddenly went blind, coincidentally, at the start of the revolution.

Old American cars, Benetton signs, revolutionary slogans, Soviet monuments, and mulattas in Afro-Cuban party costumes were combined in the paintings of Pedro Alvarez, a 27-year-old artist who was included in a part of the Biennial called "Environments and Circumstances." Alvarez's works, with titles such as Old Ragged Cadillac, Crippled Monument/Future and Fin de la historia (The End of History), reflected the bizarre, postmodern mix of Soviet dogma, American capitalism, and Cuban folklore that is omnipresent in Cuba today. Like many other artists Alvarez seemed to be seeking to portray a vision of Cuba far removed from that repeatedly defined by revolutionary propaganda.

"Those in power have tried to substitute reality with a socialist representation," explained Jose Toirac, a political and at times polemical artist who has been working for some years at deconstructing official Cuban imagery. "This is a country without memory. Only the official memory exists." Toirac offers a revisionist version of history in his works. His best-known paintings, created together with two other artists, appropriate photographs from the Communist Party newspaper Granma, laying bare their illusions of prosperity and heroism. The artists ridicule the photographs' original intentions by using ironic titles, or subvert their meaning by inference (for example, the possible homosexual tendencies of Cuban military heroes).

Toirac welcomed a visit to his home to talk about his work, and drew a map leading from the hotel to his apartment, located on a dark street near the Plaza de la Revolucion. A small, brightly colored Che Guevara button was pinned to his T-shirt as he opened the door to his building. On the third floor, in his well-lit apartment, his brother was watching television with some friends. A silky spaniel, which the artist said originally belonged to the police drug squad, ran around the living room. Toirac had just returned from Madrid, where his solo gallery show opens this month, and the bedroom area he shares with his girlfriend was scattered with shopping bags and new-looking clothes A welcome gifts from abroad made possible by Toirac's growing financial success.

The artist offered a visitor a beer as he explained that he had proposed two projects for the Biennial. One was a series of works concerning "the false friendship" between Cuba and the Soviet Union. The other was to curate a group exhibition about emigration in which he hoped to include the work of three Cuban-American artists: Luis Cruz Azaceta of New Orleans, Felix Gonzalez Torres of New York, and Miamian Cesar Trasobares, former executive director of Metro-Dade's Art in Public Places program. Neither project was accepted.

Toirac has become accustomed to being out of favor with Cuban authorities. Recently a small book he produced, in which he compared the life of Castro with the life of Christ by illustrating passages from the Bible with press photographs of the Cuban leader, was confiscated by the state printing office. He seemed unconcerned, however, about the repercussions, or about continuing to criticize in his work the revolution and its heroes. "You've got to know the rules of the game," he said. "An artist has to be very clear about what the borders of art are and not go beyond them. The people who are going to see your work in a gallery are a specialized audience. Once you go beyond that, it could be very, very dangerous." (As it turned out the greatest controversy at the Biennial sprang not from the work of any Cuban artist, but from a Mexican photographer. Lourdes Grobet's portraits of Cuban immigrants living in Mexico were taken down and confiscated even before the exhibition opened. In answer to the photographer's loud protests Biennial director Llilian Llanes held a press conference to explain that the decision was due to purely "graphic discrepancies" between those photos and other works in the show, but eventually she agreed to display them in a less visible spot in the Wifredo Lam Center, one of the exhibition's venues.)

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