In 1984, when Humberto Castro was a young Cuban artist just getting started, he snagged first prize for drawing at the Triennial Intergraphic in East Germany. So he headed to Berlin to collect his award money, and there authorities asked him to paint a block-long mural on the Berlin Wall. The figurative work, which took three weeks to complete, made all the barbed wire and guards a little less menacing.
Five years later, after departing Cuba and ending up in Paris, he watched as the wall crumbled.
"It was incredible," recalls the artist, now 55 years old. "I remember collecting newspapers and sending them back home to my family."
Humberto Castro: Tracing Antilles
"Humberto Castro: Tracing Antilles": Through February 2, 2014, at the Frost Art Museum, 10975 SW 17th St., Miami; 305-348-2890; thefrost.fiu.edu. Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday noon to 5 p.m.
Along with José Bedia, Rubén Torres Llorca, and others, Castro is part of Cuba's vaunted 1980s generation of artists who made a splash on the international scene. As a teenager he studied at the San Alejandro institute and later graduated from the prestigious Instituto Superior de Arte before helping to start indie art collectives and staging exhibits often critical of the Cuban government.
He left Cuba in January 1989, just ten months before the wall fell. His peers who relocated to Miami were embraced by local collectors and went on to present major museum shows here. But Castro, in his European exile, remained noticeably quiet in South Florida.
He followed Bedia and Torres Llorca to Miami in 1999, though, and the next year the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale showcased a well-received survey of his work.
Now comes the most significant exhibition of his work in a decade: "Humberto Castro: Tracing Antilles," which will coincide with this year's edition of Art Basel. Indeed, Castro is the only local artist invited to present a major solo showcase during the mammoth December art fair.
On display at the Frost Museum of Art, the sprawling multimedia exhibit features more than 60 works, including video, installation, photography, paintings, drawings, and sculpture. It represents a sea change in his career, Castro says, and reflects his research into the historic events that have shaped Caribbean culture: colonization and emigration. He traveled to Haiti and Cuba for this project.
At the entrance to the Frost, visitors are greeted with a floor-to-ceiling video of ocean waves crashing onto a sandy shore. In front of the screen, an ancient canoe lies empty as if silently enticing spectators to embark on a journey.
Nearby, large-scale canvases and impressive bronze sculptures depict pre-Columbian tribesmen rowing their tiny boats across uncharted waters.
"People forget that the Antillean islands, Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic were populated by tribes that first migrated there from the Yucatán, the Orinoco basin, and even Florida," Castro says. "Later, the Spanish, French, and others colonized the region."
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Many of Castro's bronze sculptures portray human figures with oars fused to their limbs. A work titled Metamorphosis (2012) is reminiscent of an insect mired in quicksand. The Hunter (2012) shows a Christlike figure appearing as if suffering on the cross, and Mother of the Waters (2012) reminds one of the Middle Passage.
At every turn, there are dozens of starkly monochrome canvases, executed in ghostly greens, acidic ochres, and deep blues. They depict natives, African slaves, and armor-clad conquistadors.
In a rear gallery, several photos document the artist's recent visits to Cuba and Haiti, where political, social, and cultural chaos are rampant. Castro says the project is ongoing and will continue with visits to the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico.
The work that commands the most attention fuses the past and present. Escape (2013) is an installation comprising a piano, six wooden oars, and a video monitor showing a tempest-tossed ocean. Castro says the piano represents the transcultural notes still echoing worldwide today from the Antilles. "For all of us living in this area," he says, "everything began with a voyage and continues with a voyage."