The perils and heartbreak of migration at Pan American Art's new exhibit
Pan American Art Projects' new exhibit isn't your typical summer group show. At a time when most local galleries are dusting off their stock and having the ubiquitous fire sale to move brand merchandise, this Wynwood space is delivering a museum-quality show featuring top-drawer talent courtesy of Abelardo Mena, curator of international art for Havana's Museo de Bellas Artes.
Mena has organized "Uprooted/Transmigrations" to showcase a handsome collection of Pan American's holdings alongside works created specifically for the exhibit.
The deftly curated show deals with themes of forced migration and includes works by artists from the United States, Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, and Argentina.
On view are sculptures, paintings, installations, collages of varying sizes, and even interactive pieces.
Everything is for sale, with prices ranging from $1,500 to $60,000 —after all, the purpose of most summer group shows is to pay the bills during slow season — and Pan American's marquee strategy seems to be paying off in spades.
"We had a lot of important collectors and museum people come in during the opening," says Janda Wetherington, the gallery's director. "We have been talking to Mena about organizing this exhibit for us for the past two years. Our goal has been to get a curator of his international stature to come in and do something significant each season rather than just focusing on paying the bills."
Among the artists participating in the project are Cuban-Americans Luis Cruz Azaceta, Carlos Estevez, Humberto Castro; Cubans Kcho, Sandra Ramos, Santiago Olazabal, Abel Barroso, Ernesto Javier Fernández Zalacain, and Tania Bruguera; Argentines Hernán Dompé and Yaya Firpo; Jamaicans Milton George and David Boxer; and Haitian-American Edouard Duval-Carrié.
Mena has included some of Cuba's biggest names in the lineup, and their works are among the most compelling on display.
Abel Barroso's interactive installation, Dual Citizenship, is modeled after a carnival ring toss game. Isolated in Pan American's back room, the mixed-media piece combines printmaking and sculpture to deliver a scathing commentary on contemporary Cuban life.
The artist, who was born in Pinar del Río in 1971, constructed a wooden outline of the world map and floated the continents on a platform that rises to the height of the spectator's hip. Wooden pegs sprout from varied locales on the map, and viewers are invited to test their hand-eye coordination by purchasing three rings for three bucks and trying their luck at landing two or more of the rings on the pegs. Winners receive one of 40 hand-crafted "passports" Barroso made for the show and strung up with clothespins on a cord behind the game.
His work expresses the freedom that foreign passports offer Cubans on the island, whether the documents are obtained by marriage or a host of alternative means. By including scores of countries in his game of possibilities and playing up the chance factor of where the tossed rings might land, Barroso adroitly underscores the role fortune plays in the plight of immigrants forced to flee their homelands.
Works by Kcho and Ernesto Javier Fernández Zalacain deal with the history of Cubans risking their lives crossing the Florida Straits to find freedom in the United States.
Archipelago, one of Kcho's sculptures reflecting the permanent flow of refugees seeking jobs and prosperity, includes tiny rusted tin shacks germinating like a Depression-era hobo jungle from a truck tire inner tube. Another of his works offering a barbed take on the balsero phenomenon is a bristling kayak sprouting dozens of billfish spears from its center, giving the torpedo-shaped vessel the appearance of a torture device harking back to the Spanish Inquisition.
Fernández Zalacain's Dead End is a photographic light box that almost evokes a metronome of crashing waves. The black-and-white image depicts a young rafter, precariously perched on a craft cobbled from lashed oil drums and tires, undertaking a stormy sea crossing. The man stares glumly at the viewer while clutching a nearly empty water jug. At the bottom of the picture, a red neon sign reads, "Dead End." Fernández Zalacain seems to be commenting on Cuba's tortured history with the ocean — the watery threshold from which first colonialism and later revolution washed upon the island's shores — and the vessel used by his compatriots to flee their homeland.
Yet another Cuban who makes an impact is Tania Bruguera, a Chicago-based performance and installation artist who is no stranger to controversy.
In May 2009, Bruguera staged a performance in Havana during which she offered the audience a minute of free-speech time on an open mike. Participants who took the podium were flanked by two actors dressed in olive-green fatigues. Then a white dove was placed on the shoulder of each speaker in a spoof of a famous speech delivered by Fidel Castro in 1959. One of the speakers was Yoani Sánchez, whose Generación Y blog has given the Castro regime apoplectic fits. Cuba's government subsequently denounced Bruguera's piece.
At Pan American, she has a sensational wall-engulfing collage crafted from multihued swatches of human hair wrapped in fabric. Each snippet of hair is about the size of a wine bottle cork, and Bruguera collected thousands of them from her neighbors and friends in Cuba for the opus Estatística (Statistic). The labor-intensive piece was created between 1995 and 2000 and is an unusual feat marked by faith, says the artist, explaining that many Cubans are superstitious about properly discarding their nail clippings and hair.
Also on display are several stunning, large mixed-media paintings by Luis Cruz Azaceta, including Exile 50, depicting a tiny self-portrait of the artist nude and pulling the island of Cuba behind him on a rope. The form of his homeland was fashioned from a puffy heap of white cotton balls, whose mass is outlined along its entire length by chainlink.
Other works — such as David Boxer's riff on the history of slavery, and Yaya Firpo's skull plastered with reconstituted world maps — add to the melting-pot view of the diaspora theme in this intriguing show.
But the Cubans' works here steal the thunder. They are potent reminders that the curator knows that when it comes to the topic of migration, his homeland remains a wellspring of inspiration for talent on both sides of the political divide. It also reflects Mena's keen eye for putting on a solid show untarnished by the party line.
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