Art to Burn

Will the arrival of Cuban artist Manuel Mendive provoke another fiery response from anti-Castro forces?

On the night of April 22, 1988, Miami art collector Ramon Cernuda presided over an auction at the now-defunct Cuban Museum of Art and Culture.

"Going once, going twice ... and sold for $500," the auctioneer announced. The pounding of the gavel sealed the fate of the painting, which was titled El Pavo Real.

Jose Juara, the buyer, walked outside and set the Manuel Mendive original ablaze in the presence of about 500 protesters, who accused the artist of being sympathetic to Fidel Castro's regime.

As the the brightly colored peacock depicted on the canvas burned, the tragic lyrics of Cuba's national anthem filled Ronald Reagan Avenue. It was 11:00 p.m.

Now, after almost eleven years, Mendive's work will again appear in Miami. The renowned artist, known for his unique Afro-Cuban style, will attend an exhibition of his painting and sculpture on Friday, April 9 in Coral Gables. The display at Gary Nader Fine Arts, 3310 Ponce de Leon Blvd., will be on view for three weeks.

It is the first one-man show in a commercial gallery in Miami to feature the work of a Cuban artist who lives on the island, according to Cernuda and gallery owner Gary Nader, who is hosting the exhibition. Mendive will also appear at Washington, D.C.'s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts April 28 and 29 and May 2 with his thirteen-member dance troupe.

"The burning was not a good thing, it was a silly act, but it may serve as a lesson," Mendive remarked in a telephone interview from his home in El Cotorro, a small town 30 minutes from Havana. "The important thing is that in the end we're all Cuban, sons and daughters of the same mother."

But while most Cubans pledge fealty to the motherland, many dispute the legitimacy of her patriarch, Castro. Back in 1988 demonstrators branded Mendive an accomplice to the Cuban leader's genocide. The mob also denounced the auction of paintings by three other Cuban artists, Mariano Rodriguez, Raul Martinez, and Carmelo Gonzalez, because they had not spoken out against Castro.

"Eleven years ago I burned that painting because I foresaw the ideological penetration from communist Cuba that was beginning to take place in the Cuban exile community," declares Juara, a member of the Bay of Pigs Brigade 2506. "I became indignant and decided then and there to bring it to the attention of Cuban exiles."

Mendive is one of the most influential black artists in the hemisphere, according to James Early, director of cultural heritage policy at the Smithsonian Institution. Cernuda and Nader agree with that assessment, noting that Mendive's work has been shown from Paris to Mozambique. "He's the most important artist alive in Cuba, working from Cuba," Nader asserts. "As a black Caribbean artist, which is just about the last step in the art-world ladder, he's been accepted in Europe very well."

Mendive was born in 1944, the son of a ferry worker and a housekeeper. His career began when he was about ten years old. The child artist won first place in an international painting contest sponsored by Japan's Morinaga Society and the United Nations. Mendive's winning entry was a picture of his mother in the kitchen, cooking while he observed.

Mendive grew up in a poor Havana neighborhood amid the Santeria rituals that permeate his work. He later became an initiated santero and his work shows devotion to the orichas, Santeria deities who act as intermediaries between the human and the divine.

In 1963 Mendive graduated from the San Alejandro School of Painting and Sculpture in Cuba. Since then his art and sculptures have been showcased in more than 55 group and solo exhibitions in places such as Yugoslavia and South Korea. His work is an unusual blend of Primitivism, the avant-garde and dreamlike exaltation of nature.

Mendive's notoriety in Miami, though, traces to the 1988 auction. He says he barely remembers the incident. He was in Madrid for an art show at the time and when he called his home in Cuba, a friend described the burning and the protest. "It's very sad that my brothers hate one another," he says of the incident.

Juara's memories, however, are very clear. He recalls the crowds and the anger. And he remembers city commissioners' 1989 vote not to renew the museum's lease, as well as U.S. District Court Judge James Lawrence King's blocking of the eviction in 1991. (Citing free speech, King permanently enjoined the city from evicting the museum.)

"We will never lose the battle," Juara says. "Truth will always prevail. Reason has always stood by our side, and it always will."

Another indirect consequence of the burning and its aftermath: Cuban artists are better able to sell their art in the United States. Soon after the incineration of Mendive's Pavo Real, federal agents raided Cernuda's Brickell Avenue condo and confiscated 240 Cuban paintings. Federal prosecutors investigated Cernuda for allegedly violating the 1963 Trading with the Enemy Act. In 1989 a federal court ruled in his favor, returned the paintings, and lifted the U.S. ban on the import and resale of Cuban art.

To Dario Moreno, assistant professor of political science at Florida International University, the burning was part of a series of incidents that forced right-wing Cuban exiles to accept performances by artists and musicians from the island. In the past few years many of those performers have played on stages across the country and even in Miami, often without even a peep of protest. "Ten or eleven years ago it would be unheard of for Cuban musicians to play in Miami," Moreno says. "Now that happens every weekend."

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