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

Judging by the hurdles Zeitlin faced in arranging this exhibition, it may be too early to worry about any impending absorption of Cuban art. Cuban-American cultural exchanges are still bound up in miles of red (and red, white, and blue) tape. Embargo restrictions still prevent Americans from purchasing art in the United States directly from Cubans. Artworks must be paid for in Cuba, then shipped here.

Moreover, because there is no direct trade between the two countries, such shipments are expensive and complicated. So much so that Zeitlin chose instead to purchase about a quarter of the show (for something less than $50,000) during her studio visits in Cuba. She carried the art back with her on the plane (legally) and borrowed the remainder of the works from collections in Mexico, the United States, and Canada.

Another obstacle is political. And Gerardo Mosquera knows it well.
He says that over the years, because of his outspoken support of many of the Cuban artists who went into exile in the Eighties and early Nineties, he has gradually been stripped of his ability to pursue his work in Cuba. He lives in Havana but has been forced to work elsewhere. For example, he serves as a curator at the New Museum in New York, and he contributes to books and museum catalogues in North and South America and Europe. "The problem here is that the Cuban institutions really don't want to work with me," he says by telephone from Cuba, "because in a way I'm sort of a dissident and they're not very friendly. I am not invited to events. I'm out."

He has remained active and involved in Cuba's art scene at the street and studio levels. "But I can't publish here," he continues, "can't organize a show here. It's impossible for me. I'm a taboo person here."

That taboo, of course, isn't limited to Cuba. Mosquera was the Cuban art critic who was booked to speak in May 1996 on the work of a Mexican photographer at the Miami Art Museum (then called the Center for the Fine Arts). But after ugly protests from exiles greeted jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba's now-notorious appearance at the Gusman Center a month earlier, museum director Suzanne Delehanty rescinded the invitation. At the time, Delehanty told the Miami Herald that the cancellation of Mosquera's lecture demonstrated that the museum was "sensitive to the sentiments of the community."

Delehanty's decision catered to the feelings of those Cuban exiles who have long opposed the presence in Miami of Cuban nationals and their art, feelings most forcefully demonstrated by the bombing of the Cuban Museum of Art and Culture in May 1988 to protest a benefit auction there that included paintings by artists from Cuba. But recent events, such as successful appearances by several Cuban bands in Miami this year, have demonstrated that the exile community is not united in rejection of artistic expression from the island.

"Quite honestly, I don't think a majority of people feel that way," says Vivian Rodriguez, executive director of Miami-Dade's Art in Public Places program. "But it doesn't take a majority to create problems. I think you'll find a majority of Cubans living in this community are willing to separate culture and politics."

Delehanty acknowledges that may be so: "The musical activities have really helped to build bridges, and I think things are changing in Miami." But the ever-diplomatic Delehanty is still cautious about exhibiting art from Cuba. "I don't think we're fully ready for that yet," she concedes. "Look at this like a garden -- you have to be patient and let it grow."

Saying she knows nothing about the Arizona State University show, Delehanty adds that it's doubtful it would be exhibited at MAM because the museum's agenda is booked through the year 2000. "I think we certainly might consider it," she elaborates, "but whether we'd do it instead of other things we have on our roster of exhibitions is unlikely."

Carin Quoni, director of exhibitions at Independent Curators International in New York, the organization hired to arrange and oversee the traveling version of the ASU exhibition, says an establishment in Miami is among the American institutions that may host the show, but she won't reveal which one and she declines to discuss any steps she's taken to have the show visit Miami. Marilyn Zeitlin and other ASU museum officials also say a Miami museum has expressed interest, but they can't remember which one.

Delehanty and other Miami museum directors and curators, however, say they know either nothing or very little about the show. No official at any of the local museums contacted by New Times could recall being approached by either Zeitlin or Quoni.

"If they're talking, I'm sure it's a one-way conversation," huffs Fred Snitzer. "I'd be shocked if any museums here would do it." The art dealer has been closer to contemporary Cuban issues than perhaps any other person in the local art scene. Originally from Philadelphia, Snitzer became interested in the often politically charged work of young artists who arrived in Miami during the early Nineties, either directly from Cuba or after sojourns in Mexico. Selling works by artists who had grown up under the revolution to long-time exile collectors quickly immersed him in the complexities of Miami's cultural politics.

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