To Cuba and Back: Glexis Novoa Dwells on the Contradictions of the Communist Country

To Cuba and Back: Glexis Novoa Dwells on the Contradictions of the Communist Country
Courtesy of Adalberto Roque

Glexis Novoa's painting Se Vende dominates the Juan Ruiz Gallery in Wynwood. The seven-by-ten-foot canvas is freighted with abstract symbols ranging from women's shoes to beer cans, a lap-top, a car, a pig's head, a bust of José Martí, an assault rifle, a skull next to a giant penis, and acronyms for Cuba's Committee for the Defense of the Revolution and Fidel Castro's July 26th Movement.

The 49-year-old Cuban-American artist, who was once a favored person on the island but emigrated in 1993, created it during a three-month stay in Havana this summer.

"While I was there, it seemed like everything was for sale," Novoa reflects. "I wanted to capture the fading political symbols that are part of the glamor of the Cuban atmosphere. The penis represents government machismo, and the skull represents the high level of cancer cases among the population, which, unlike those who visit Cuba for health tourism, often does not have access to health-care services."

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Novoa's work, on display in the exhibition "Glexis Novoa: Painting on Canvas," represents something even more profound than the art itself.

It wasn't that long ago that paintings produced on the island and shown in Miami drew violent reactions that included protests and even bombings. But now local painters travel to the island, stay there for months, and produce work that doesn't reflect favorably on the regime.

Part of the reason is enormous change in the politics between the two nations. Another part is Novoa's unique biography. Born in 1964 in Holguín, he grew up in an artistic family, began painting, and became involved in Cuba's cultural life early on.

His father, who Novoa won't name, is a painter, and his mother, Ivette Vian, is an author of children's books and the host of one of the island's most popular children's TV shows, La Sombrilla Amarilla.

"Mom is very famous back home. Her program is like America's Sesame Street," Novoa says before mentioning his maternal grandfather was also a writer and "nephew of the famous French author and surrealist Boris Vian."

Novoa, who graduated from ENA, the National School of Arts in Havana, wanted to pursue a career in film before focusing on art.

His first official job for the government, after completing school when he was 20 years old, was setting up an arts-and-crafts class for workers on the resort island of Cayo Largo, where Novoa engaged in a bit of acting and would dress "like a naked Indian, covered only in a loincloth," to sell tourists the trinkets his students made.

"There was a nudist beach at Cayo Largo that was always full of Italian and German women sunning themselves," he recalls. "So I created this character to have fun with the ladies and increase sales."

 

To Cuba and Back: Glexis Novoa Dwells on the Contradictions of the Communist Country
Courtesy of Juan Ruiz Gallery

By the late '80s, he'd become part of a generation of young Cuban talent that organized groundbreaking exhibitions and challenged both the regime's cultural politics and the stagnant visual arts scene.

At the time, Novoa and his peers were hailed as "the children of the revolution" for being the first generation of artists to grow up under Fidel Castro's socialist government. Many of them were tapped by the system to represent Cuba as "official artists," Novoa says.

"I was allowed to travel to places like Russia, Mexico, Finland, the United States, Germany, Spain, Colombia, and Venezuela and sold many paintings along the way. I remember I bought a motorcycle when I got back from one of the trips, but there were no stores to spend your earnings or even an organized art market system in Cuba back then."

To avoid the censorship that plagued his more contentious peers, Novoa says, he created a cryptic alphabet and nonsensical symbols to deliver coded critiques of the system. "I was painting using this subliminal language the government couldn't directly censor but which most people could understand."

In 1993, Novoa traveled to Mexico. He decided to stay for both freedom of expression and economic opportunity. Soon he was represented by Mexico City's Galería Nina Menocal and Monterrey's Galería Ramis Barquet.

After winning an artist's residency in Wyoming that allowed him to travel to the United States with his wife and daughter, Novoa decided to relocate permanently to Miami in 1995.

He has lived here ever since, though his mother and other family members remain on the island. Four years ago, he attempted to return home but was detained on the plane and sent back without explanation. "That's the way they do things over there," he says. "You only get details later through back-channel gossip."

This past summer, when he tried again, Novoa was met at the Havana airport. "When I returned recently, I was met by a vice minister who made it clear that I was expected to keep out of trouble during my stay," he says. "The reason I chose to return to Cuba was to revisit and continue working on the series of paintings called Etapa Práctica (The Practical Stage), which I had abandoned when I left the island 20 years ago," Novoa says.

"Freedom of expression as an artist free from politics does not exist there. Here at least I have the liberty to express my feelings about Cuba and disagreements with the American system."

On view at the Juan Ruiz Gallery is a suite of red-splattered canvases that Novoa recently created in his Havana studio, which he says is located on Calle 13 between D and E, next door to the Chinese embassy in Havana's Vedado neighborhood. Though he has been known for graphite-on-marble and -drywall works depicting surreal, urban landscapes that examine the architecture of power and politics, the work at Juan Ruiz marks a stark departure.

Two paintings merit special notice. One, simply titled CUC, isolates the acronym for "Cuban convertible currency" in the center of the canvas. It's a reminder that the notes are the more valuable of the two currencies circulating on the island. Most Cubans don't have access to convertible currency. And it has zero value on the international market. (Last year, Cuban leader Raúl Castro announced the two-currency system will be phased out.)

The other painting, enigmatically titled Screw, depicts a colossal, shimmering silver bolt pointed downward against a purple-and-blue background. The cryptic image alludes to Fidel's famous litany of windy rhetoric proclaiming that the production of Cuban workers has been successful in building a revolutionary utopia.

Other works, such as Dharma Wheel, Sutta, and Cetiya Vandana (Salutation to the Pagodas), reflect the artist's recent immersion in the study of Buddhism.

Novoa can be found most Sundays at the Wat Buddharangsi of Miami -- a Theravada Buddhist temple in Homestead -- cleaning bathrooms, sweeping floors, and assisting others as he prepares to take his vows as a monk. He says that the labor keeps him humble and rooted and that meditation exercises helped him remain focused and productive during his sojourn to Cuba.

"I am also working with the monks on a project for the next Havana Biennale, in May 2015, where we will collaborate on renovating a public park in Cuba and building a 28-foot statue of the Buddha as part of the undertaking."

"Glexis Novoa: Painting on Canvas" is on display through November 22 at Juan Ruiz Gallery, 301 NW 28th St., Miami., every Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Call 786-310-7490 and visit juanruizgallery.com.

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