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

Jose Toirac, who has several major works in the Arizona exhibition, is among the artists in the show who have managed to market their Cubanness. At age 29 he has an impressive record of exhibitions, fellowships, and contacts in Europe and the Americas. Since this past June he has been a research fellow at Arizona State University's Institute for Studies in the Arts. Toirac says through an interpreter that the beginnings of the modern Cuban art market can be traced to the moment in 1993 when Cuba decriminalized the possession of American dollars.

"Up until then," agrees Tom Miller, "you could be thrown in jail for possessing them. In fact, a lot of people were." Dollars quickly became a currency not just of preference but of necessity. Dollars drive the extensive black market that provides Cubans with basic supplies and merchandise not available in stores. "When the dollar was introduced, it wasn't a brusque change," says Toirac. "It was gradual. So was the realization that the art market and art were not mutually exclusive. Until the Eighties the best offer an artist could receive would be to teach. It was the best offer because an artist would have access to materials. He would have contact with younger artists. And he would have time to do his work.

"Before the art market was legalized," he goes on, "to talk about an art market was taboo. And not only a political taboo. To talk about a market, and to think of yourself as a mercenary, was the worst insult you could put on somebody."

But that was before the collapse of the Soviet Union sent the Cuban economy in a tailspin that led to severe hardships and shortages for nearly all Cubans. Artists were no exception. Those who had come out of the elite Superior Art Institute in Havana and who had enjoyed relatively free access to materials suddenly found themselves more preoccupied with finding food than with finding art materials.

Zeitlin says Toirac's works are among the most astute political commentaries being made in Cuba. They exemplify the kind of games that Cuban artists play with imagery to avoid tangling with the government.

Toirac paints and draws his images as directly as possible from state propaganda, essentially manipulating and revising official accounts. For example, one of his installations features boards mounted with small drawings of photos from a book that memorializes deceased agents from Cuba's notorious interior ministry, which spies on Cuban citizens. Titled Heroes of the Ministry, the work can easily be seen as a memorial -- ribbons and all -- to men and women who died serving Cuba. But it can also be seen as an elegy for men and women who are despised all over Cuba. Toirac's bounce between irony and sincerity poses the question, Are these people heroes who deserve our respect or are they creeps?

Mosquera says the gamesmanship of Cuban art has changed considerably since the Eighties, when an adventuresome generation of artists -- including Carlos Rodriguez Cardenas, Flavio Garciandia, Rene Francisco, and others, as well as current Miami residents Consuelo Castaneda and Glexis Novoa -- unequivocally took on the Cuban government. "There was nothing written on what the limits of what you could say were," says Mosquera, who at the time worked at Cuba's Ministry of Culture and the Wifredo Lam Center. "It was something the artists tested." In 1988 and 1989, during Havana's version of the Prague Spring, artists and intellectuals pushed the limits until the government began pushing back -- canceling exhibitions, closing shows, and confiscating works that mocked Castro and his regime. "The critical aspect of that time," recalls Mosquera, "was that artists were the first ones to open the critique of our culture."

The government's backlash was swift.
In 1989 several liberal members of the Ministry of Culture were removed. Over the next two years an estimated 80 to 100 artists left Cuba for Europe, Mexico, and other parts of Latin America.

According to Mosquera and Miami gallery owner Fred Snitzer, many artists left for Mexico City under a special arrangement with the Mexican government. "It was a clever way to take a problem and move it somewhere else," says Snitzer, who frequently showcased the work of these newly exiled young Cuban artists in the early Nineties at his gallery, which then was located in Coral Gables. "Mexico got tired of it after two years and pulled the plug on the thing."

Instead of returning to Cuba, most of the artists -- including some of the finest of their generation -- dispersed once again to other Latin American countries, the United States, and Europe. The influx of talent into this country helped ignite an art boom in Miami and heightened American interest in Latin American art generally. In Cuba the exodus left the task of art to the generation of artists represented in the Arizona show and instilled a wariness about censorship and how far an image could go in critiquing Castro or the values of the regime.

"That's why there are so many metaphorical approaches," says Mosquera. "Sometimes there are three and four discourses in one piece of art or literature or theater. So the artist is pretending to say something and actually he is saying something else." Ambiguity, irony, and humor are the weapons Cuban artists use to disguise or insulate the political subtext of their imagery. Many of the objects and images in the ASU show live in this cryptic realm of innuendo and implication.

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