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Zeitlin says these layers of meaning are what attracted her to the idea of doing an exhibition of Cuban art. She had visited the island in the late Seventies, when the arts were suffering from the Caribbean strain of socialist realism -- the Soviet flu that had effectively killed most art in the Eastern bloc. When she visited Cuba again in 1996, she saw an art world that had been transformed.
"The work was amazing because of the high skill level," Zeitlin recalls. "But it was doing more than just demonstrating its own mastery." It had a political and cultural edge that intrigued her. Initially she wanted to organize a show of works by Cuban artists working in Cuba or in exile, but that became too political. The current show isn't meant to be a comprehensive overview of the contemporary Cuban scene. It concentrates on the challenging political works that have grown from Cuba's artistic tradition of social commentary.
In addition to the political aspects, says Zeitlin, much of the work displays the resourcefulness that poverty has elicited from just about every island undertaking. Not long ago, she says, Los Carpinteros told her that "the process of trying to figure out how to do something against tremendous odds -- how to get the food and materials you need, or how to get from here to there in the city -- trains your mind creatively. And that's a key aspect in this work. It has to do with the idea of inventando, of inventing something out of nothing."
Zeitlin says the contrast with the concerns of some American artists couldn't be more obvious. "The other night an artist from L.A. was in town," she says. "And at dinner all he talked about was the market and whether his work would sell." When she asked him what his work was about, he said, "It's about excess. I put a blob in the middle of the canvas and then I give myself permission to do whatever I want in concentric patterns."
"What am I going to do when this Cuban show is over?" Zeitlin asks rhetorically. "I can't go back to that kind of work, which seems so trivial -- really and truly trivial and self-indulgent." This is not a new sentiment for her. Zeitlin's 1995 exhibition of Salvadoran art, containing images inspired by the country's civil war, marked her evolving interest in art that exists in the danger zone of bearing witness to or commenting on a society's events.
It's evident that the sharp edge Zeitlin and others see in these works stems from the ongoing friction between the permissible and the forbidden in Cuban society. Less clear is how quickly the search by Cuban artists for more markets and creative freedom will affect that edge. But as it has already done in the United States, Europe, and some parts of Latin America, the free market will ultimately change the relationship between Cuban artists and Cuban society, between the art and its context.
For some that change is already under way. Toirac, for example, spent this past summer in Arizona developing a brochure to market his art, surfing the Internet, and learning how to use computerized visual tools -- technologies not available to him in Cuba.
And Zeitlin says "people are waiting to see what will happen to KCHO. He's been plucked out of the system by [New York art dealer] Barbara Gladstone. He's very young, 28, so it's hard to keep your feet on the ground. And his materials are so important to the success of the work. For a long time he used things he found, like parts of old boats, old wharves, things he made out of scraps. I think his recent show in New York was a real questionable one, because Gladstone gave him unlimited material."
The larger question is how such access to materials and information will affect Cuban art. Part of its distinctiveness can be attributed to the resourceful way artists use and reuse materials, and to the island's unique blend of Afro-Euro-Caribbean iconography.
Yet its uniqueness also inheres partly in Cuba's relative isolation from American culture, asserts Sandra Levinson, who heads the Center for Cuban Studies in New York and who has been traveling to Cuba since the early Seventies. "I remember we did a large show of naive art," she recalls, "and a Cuban-American art critic who came to see the show said it was wonderful, with truly naive art. He said you couldn't have that kind of show in the States any more because there is so much information available here that you'd have to be living in a cave to not be affected by the popular market and what sells. For years these artists in Cuba have just been doing their art."
The irony of the embargo is that it has given Cuban artists an advantage in an art world where original and exotic flavors are becoming harder to find. "The arts -- the fine arts and crude arts -- have had the chance to develop on their own there," observes Tom Miller. "Had there been no embargo to insulate and isolate them from American culture, they would have been far more homogenized."