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."

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.

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."

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.

"The visual arts in Miami are so fragile and delicate and so hungry that we need to have the whole community behind them," Snitzer explains. "You're not in a position where you can afford to alienate 50 percent of the community. I've had those choices to show art directly from Cuba, but I didn't feel it was worth pissing people off. If people want to see Cuban art, they can go to Phoenix or New York, or Christ, they can go to Cuba. You're really not going to change anything by bringing it here, so I say don't do it."

Zeitlin says she understands the myriad emotions this show might arouse in Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits. "We're not pursuing it all that assiduously," she says of a potential Miami venue. "We don't want to push anybody about it, because it's a bigger risk for them than anybody else."

But in fact, local museum officials contend that the political implications of the show have little or no bearing on why no Miami venue has been found for the Arizona show. "Of course you could do a Cuban show in Miami," asserts Dahlia Morgan, director of the art museum at Florida International University, who reports that she has received no information about the ASU exhibit. "I don't imagine there'd be any problem at all from our perspective at the university, not at all." Like Delehanty, Morgan says her exhibition schedule is already booked far in advance with locally pertinent exhibitions, including a retrospective of the work of celebrated Miami-based Cuban artist Jose Bedia.

Bonnie Clearwater, who is gearing up for the season at North Miami's Museum of Contemporary Art, says a Cuban survey is not the type of exhibition that would interest her. "We don't usually do a one-country show," she says. "I never even think of nationality when I'm curating an exhibition."

Bass Museum of Art director Diane Camber also has little enthusiasm for the idea of taking the ASU show, but on other grounds. The Bass, located in Miami Beach, is currently undergoing substantial construction and will restrict its exhibition schedule for the next couple of years. Most openings have already been booked. She does envision showing the work of artists from Cuba in the future. "I don't think we're going to do it any time soon," Camber says. "But I was in Havana in the Fifties and I'd love to go back. I've decided that when we're ready, we'll do our own Cuban show."

Judy Cantor contributed to this article.

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