Cuba on Canvas

The island's new wave of artists is abuzz about an exhibit that will be seen throughout the United States -- though probably not in Miami

In the art galleries and studios of Havana this past summer, "ASU" was the word on just about every artist's lips. They weren't parsing it out in three crisp letters, says a recent visitor to Cuba. They were exhaling it in a whoosh that sounded like a sneeze: Ah-soo! Ah-soo! Ah-soo!

The cause wasn't some covert American allergen. It was the Arizona State University Art Museum's exhibition with the drum-roll title "Contemporary Art from Cuba: Irony and Survival on the Utopian Island."

"It was really the buzz of Cuba's art world," says author Tom Miller, whose 1992 book Trading with the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro's Cuba has been this decade's most insightful travelogue from an American that details recent Cuban culture and society. "Maybe people in Scottsdale don't know what's happening in Tempe, but in Havana everybody has been talking about who gets to go and asking, What stage of the visa process are you at? And while you're there, could you mail this letter to my uncle in Hialeah?"

This isn't the first American show of art from Cuba. From the late Seventies through the late Eighties, occasional small displays would crop up in spite of the 36-year-old U.S. embargo against commercial trade with Cuba. In the decade since Congress exempted art and other "informational materials" from the embargo, American galleries and museums have brought an increasing wealth of culture from what the ASU press office is hyping as the "forbidden world." And in recent years a handful of young Cubans have landed in American galleries, including an artist with the radioesque name KCHO (pronounced ka-cho) and the three-member team of artists Los Carpinteros, all of whom are in this show,.

The distinction of the ASU show, say scholars inside and outside Cuba, is that it offers Americans the most extensive look to date at Havana's latest generation of young artists. They range in age from 24 to 39. Most of them hail from Havana's Superior Art Institute, Cuba's elite institution for training artists.

"Contemporary Art from Cuba" opened September 27, its more than fifty works by twenty artists spreading through every floor of the museum's main building and occupying other campus galleries as well. The show is scheduled to be accompanied by a slate of lectures, gallery talks, and a substantial catalogue; the museum also plans to develop a portfolio of prints by some of the artists. And after it closes in December, the show is expected to tour North America for up to two years. As of this past week, however, Miami appeared unlikely to be included among the stops.

The exhibition's array of paintings, prints, collages, sculptures, drawings, and installations promises to attract artists, writers, and curators from across the nation. Art dealers are sure to join the parade. "They've already heard about KCHO and Los Carpinteros," says Marilyn Zeitlin, who directs the museum and curated the show. "They know this stuff is hot. And they are going to want to buy work."

Zeitlin quickly points out that the ASU museum isn't in the business of selling art. She purchased some of the pieces while in Cuba; she says she and her colleagues will now work out a strategy for coping with dealers. Compared with the numerous political, diplomatic, and tactical conundrums she faced in assembling the exhibition, this one might seem relatively trivial. But it underscores the new reality of Cuban art: commerce.

Continuing the revolution means less in Cuba these days than does accumulating some private wealth in an economy that has been on the ropes for nearly a decade. American dealers, curators, and collectors are as eager to see the art as Cuban artists are to get their work off the island. In the past, defection has been the typical route for artists. But with shows like this drawing the attention of people with hard currency, this generation of Cuban artists may be the first to consider staying home.

The economic reality of having to look outside Cuba for cash has turned many artists into fishermen, says Gerardo Mosquera, a prominent Cuban art critic and curator who has written an essay for the ASU exhibition catalogue. "They live here [in Cuba] and work here, where it's cheaper to get materials. But they are developing their careers abroad -- in Europe, Latin America, and now the United States. It's like exportation of art, in a way."

Access to foreign currencies has put a relative handful of Cuban artists in an unusually fortunate situation. "Everything could change tomorrow," warns Adolfo V. Nodal, who manages the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs and who, along with a team of Cuban artists and scholars, is writing the first comprehensive book on twentieth-century Cuban art. "But the creative people in Cuba have really become an elite. They have access to dollars and they have access to expression."

That combination has encouraged young artists to think they may be better off in Havana than in New York, Miami, or Madrid, where, in Nodal's words, "they'd lose their special place and become just part of another large group of artists scratching to get to the top."

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