Avant-garde Cuban art at the Lowe in Coral Gables erases political barriers
At the Lowe Art Museum, the twisted musings of a galumphing guajiro depict the imaginary wedding of Fidel Castro and La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, Cuba's patron saint.
The hilarious bridal scenes, created on five hand-carved and polychromed wooden panels, poke fun at the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Communist regime and are rendered in a cartoonish, folkloric style. Nuptial Dream is the work of Fernando Rodríguez Falcón, AKA Francisco de la Cal, a bogus peasant artist and his alter ego.
Rodríguez's yokel appears at the lower portion of each scene, napping or day-dreaming as the bizarre nuptials unfold. On one of the panels, Fidel and his saintly bride break bread at Havana's La Bodeguita del Medio. On another, the three sailors the virgin saved during a storm flee the island as balseros. Given that the artist still lives in Cuba, it's a surprising and wry commentary on the dystopian regime.
The pieces are on display as part of "Cuba Avant-Garde: Contemporary Cuban Art From the Farber Collection." The show includes more than 50 works by 40 Cuban-born artists and offers a nifty survey of the broad-ranging art practices of the island's natives from the mid-1980s to the present day. It features large-scale paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs, and mixed-media installations. A handsome catalogue and informative wall text enhance the show.
Exhibited together without distinguishing between artists who left the island and ones who still reside there, the works eschew the political pitfalls and strident jingoism one might expect from el exilio. Ultimately, the theme of the sprawling show is about the ascendancy of Cuban art in the international arena, not about ideological or geographical divisions. Many of these works have never been shown publicly outside the island.
In fact, artists from both sides of the Florida Straits employ biting irony and satire to engage the viewer. They use a startling arsenal of strategies to address issues of religion, gender, race, the history of colonialism, and economic and political crises.
"I'm not a politician; I'm an art collector," explains Howard Farber, who along with his wife, Patricia, began to amass the works on display after a visit to the island in 2001. "There's an energy and passion in these works that I find very compelling." After being stung by the Cuban art bug, the couple, who also collect American modernist paintings and contemporary Chinese art, soon traveled the globe on a mission to build a contemporary Cuban collection.
Among the knockouts is José Bedia's The Island Waits for a Signal. Bedia is among the many artists who fled Cuba in the early '90s during the years of the "Special Period," first settling in Mexico before moving to Miami. In his haunting painting, Cuba is portrayed as the silhouette of a man gazing expectantly at the dusky night sky as a shooting star seems to careen toward him. Is it a harbinger for the totalitarian system's collapse or a signal for a parade along Little Havana's Calle Ocho? His ambiguous image offers no clues to solve the enigma.
Luís Cruz Azaceta, who migrated to the States in 1960 and now lives in New York, tackles the danger of fleeing the island on rickety crafts and the countless lives lost in the Florida Straits. Rafter: The Little House 2's searing image depicts a solitary rafter aboard a makeshift boat on the verge of sinking after taking on too much water. The man's head is bowed in agonized defeat as he contemplates the motivation for his escape — a tiny domicile he carries in his hands and pictures of food superimposed over his heart and head.
Kcho, who still lives in Cuba, deploys the same type of symbolism in his subtle silkscreen-on-cardboard work The Island of My Dreams. In his vision, the artist's native soil is transformed into the shape of a truck tire often used by balseros during perilous crossings to Florida. A handful of withered royal palm trees sprouts from the bobbing rubber hulk, hinting at his homeland's oppressive climate.
Armando Mariño, who resides and works in Spain, suggests that one can feel storm-tossed atop the inexorable tides of history without leaving the island. The Raft (La Patera) evokes thoughts of a landlocked balsero through its compelling image of a vintage American jalopy powered by the naked feet of the Cuban multitudes. These old clunkers, which often see duty as taxi cabs and are for many people the sole mode of transport between the island's far-flung provinces, are an enduring metaphor for chronic shortages and absence of technological advances since Soviet subsides dried up in the '80s.
Among the works with a strong conceptual bent are Tania Bruguera's Statistic, a Cuban flag created using clumps of human hair, fabric, and cardboard. Over several months, Bruguera enlisted island residents to donate their locks for her project, originally exhibited at the Sixth Havana Biennial in 1997 as a backdrop for her performance The Weight of Guilt. The artist splits her time between the United States and Cuba.
Photos of her landmark performance are on display next to the hirsute banner. The Weight of Guilt, Untitled #3 depicts the artist wearing only the carcass of a slaughtered lamb as a breastplate while consuming handfuls of dirt. It is a stinging commentary on the decimation of Cuba's indigenous people, many of whom, to defy their colonial captors, committed mass suicide by gorging on soil.
Equally attention-grabbing are works by Tonel, who splits his time between Canada and Cuba, and Angel Delgado, who still lives on the island.
Tonel's dishrag-size watercolor of himself shows the artist ready to make a meal of a rat, conveying the scarcity of food during the economic deprivation of the '90s.
Delgado speaks to the realities of being an irreverent critic of the regime and risking becoming the victim of a government crackdown.
According to wall text, on May 4, 1990, during the opening of a group exhibit called "The Sculptured Object" at the Center for the Development of the Visual Arts in Havana, Delgado provoked authorities to close the show. In his performance Hope Is the Last Thing to Go, he took a dump on the pages of Granma, the Cuban Communist Party's newspaper of record.
Promptly sentenced to prison, he continued making art using common handkerchiefs.
In one untitled work on display, it's apparent his spirit wasn't crushed behind bars. It shows three faceless men connected by their ribbon-like, intertwined tongues. The simple image conveys the notion of a prison snitch or perhaps conspiratorial plotting.
Plumbing this provocative exhibit, one can't help but be swept away by the scope of imagination and depth of thought reflected in these artists' work. It's a first-rate eye opener on the nature of Cuban art over the past several decades, and a show you'll want to visit again and again.
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