Art in Cuba

Dozens of crudely constructed little sailboats, canoes, rowboats, and rafts were strewn like scattered driftwood on the stone floor of a room in the Spanish Morro castle that overlooks Havana's harbor. Arranged in the form of a ship with the bow pointing north, the clumsy, crowded armada of toy boats raced toward a narrow window through which a calm ocean was just visible on the morning of May 7, the sunny opening day of the Fifth Havana Biennial.

The art exhibition, which runs through the end of this month and has been held about every two years since 1984, is presented as a survey of new contemporary art from a Third World perspective. This year it includes the works of nearly 250 artists and photographers from Latin America, Africa, Asia, immigrants from those areas living in First World countries, and some artists from Europe and North America who address, in the words of Biennial director Llilian Llanes, "universal, nonexclusive" issues. No Cuban-American artists were included among the sixteen participants from the United States.

Alexis Leiva, an artist also known as "Kcho," said he was inspired to create the boat piece, titled Regata, after the U.S. government turned down his request for a visa last year, when he was invited to attend the opening of a New York group show in which his work was included. His thoughts turned to the desperation that fuels the flight of Cuba's balseros, manifested in the calculated physical preparation undertaken for their unsure voyages. Leiva's endearing boats conveyed the innocence of children's games and their make-believe journeys to magical places, but the size of the work (about 300 square feet) was a sobering reminder of the scope of the current Cuban exodus.

"Everyone here is joining the race to construct an object to emigrate in, and they're all composed of common household articles," explained the dark-skinned artist as he jovially greeted friends and foreign visitors at the entrance to the castle's converted gallery, where a welcome sea breeze shifted the hot gritty air that hung everywhere in Havana. Some of Leiva's watercraft were made of wood he found washed up on shore, possible remnants of a countryman's fatal gamble with the sea. Placed among the precarious vessels, rope-bound bamboo sticks, and miniature inner tubes were personal effects A a worn, flattened sneaker and a child's sandal marked with the imprints of tiny toes, lending a poignant realism to the image on the floor. "I wanted to focus on the everyday aspect of emigration," he said. "In Cuba, it's too much of an everyday thing."

Leiva himself will have another chance to travel abroad this fall, when his work will be included in an exhibition of contemporary Cuban art to be held in Madrid at the prestigious Reina Sofia museum. At age 23, he has already attracted considerable attention from curators for his raw conceptual pieces charged with social commentary. (Some works, such as The Worst Trap, a ladder made of four machetes tied to tree branches with pieces of fabric in the colors of the Cuban flag, were shown at the previous Havana Biennial in 1991, amid threats that officials would censor them.) In response to a question about the possibility of his leaving the island in a craft like those depicted in his work, Leiva paused, smiled, and then said cryptically: "No. What I would like to do is to sail a raft from Miami back to Havana."

Professional artists today are not leaving Cuba in homemade boats. They embark on planes, carrying portfolios of their work, with letters of invitation from foreign art dealers or museum curators A and with return tickets in their pockets. But over the past few years, many have left the country for an exhibition or artist's residency and not returned. And that migration has created an odd situation: The Cuban artists now exhibiting in Havana, those who are producing work with a consistent formal and conceptual maturity, are conspicuously young. "Where will they come from next, nursery school?" joked the director of one gallery at which the creators of all of the works on display are less than 25 years old. Cuban art critic Gerardo Mosquera has likened the national art scene to a lawn that is mowed back each time it begins to grow.

Leiva's work could be interpreted as a sly allusion to the absence at the Biennial of most of the protagonists of the Cuban visual art avant-garde who came of age in the 1980s, the boats representing artists now living as resident aliens or political exiles in Mexico City, Paris, Madrid, and of course, Miami.

Among those artists remaining in the Cuban capital, the expatriates are commonly referred to as "the list." A recent issue of an unofficial artists' newspaper called Memoir of the Postwar published the names of 106 "internationals" who fled the country between 1990 and 1993. By way of comparison, just 90 students of painting, sculpture, and printmaking currently attend the Instituto Superior de Arte (known as ISA), the selective college-level art school built on the grounds of the former Havana Country Club, of which most on "the list" are alumni.

These emigrant artists have left behind a legendary specter, and their paintings have become icons incorporated by some younger artists as part of their own work. Last month, for example, a group of students from the art institute created a version of the board game Monopoly in which, instead of plastic hotels, miniature paintings by Tomas Sanchez, Jose Bedia, Tomas Esson, and other well-known expatriate artists could be bought and sold with pretend dollars.

In the early Eighties, Sanchez, Bedia, and other artists began exploring new art forms, searching for a Cuban aesthetic removed from staid academic styles and the official socialist-realist vision imported from the Soviet Union. Their work was often characterized by an underlying mysticism that had its roots in the country's native cultures and Afro-Cuban religions. By and large, it was not overtly political.

By the end of the decade, however, a younger group of artists had coalesced, and their aesthetic vocabulary was very much political. They engaged in audacious street performances that openly ridiculed the Communist Party and its policies. They created paintings showing the island of Cuba as a pile of excrement issuing from Castro's mouth, or Che Guevara fornicating with grotesque beasts. Cuban officials responded aggressively A censoring works, closing shows, and harassing exhibition organizers. "In the last decade here in Cuba the artists were very romantic and very rebellious. We tried to create our own revolution with our art within the revolution," recalled 27-year-old Elio Rodriguez, whose recent work includes humorous wall sculptures of wild-game trophies with oversize sexual organs protruding from their heads. "Then the censorship started and they began to close the galleries. At the same time a lot of people from abroad were coming here who appreciated the quality of the work and started inviting the artists to exhibit. So the artists said, 'Okay, if I can't show in Cuba, I'll just go somewhere where I can.' And they started to travel. Then they realized that art could be used not only to change society. It could be used to make money."

Another artist, Carlos Estevez, elaborated on Rodriguez's observations. "With the exodus of all the artists in the Eighties, some predicted it would mean the death of Cuban art. The artistic spirit really went down," said the 24-year-old Estevez, a slightly built sculptor and painter of serious demeanor. "Then we realized a more introspective approach was called for. And ultimately hard times have just made us more stubborn and insistent.

"It doesn't make sense to do overly dissident work any more. Why look for trouble?" he continued while walking through the worn streets of Old Havana from the Center for the Development of Visual Arts, where he works for about $1.60 per month. "It's so difficult to live right now, and it's even more difficult to make art. We have enough problems without putting ourselves in a polemic context. It's like throwing yourself against a wall."

And amid the adversity, Estevez, like Rodriguez, has been witness to a dramatic change. "In a short time," he noted, "we've found ourselves thrown into a world where the marketplace receives us like a vacuum cleaner."

It's true. While members of the Eighties generation had to leave Cuba in order to experience the strangeness of capitalism, that bold new world of commerce has now beaten a path to the island's young artists. And it couldn't have happened at a more awkward time.

Like other Cubans, the artists of the "special period" are forced to grapple with the drastic restrictions and shortages brought on by the fall of communism in the Eastern bloc. This has led to a scarcity of materials that has changed the way art is being made in Cuba. Oil paints and canvas are precious. Ideas for large-scale paintings or sculpture are discarded in favor of smaller pieces that can be more easily executed and taken to a gallery on the back of a bicycle. Found objects and scavenged supplies have become artistic staples, along with traditional crafts materials such as wood, ceramics, and fabric.

Coinciding with the logistical problems of artistic creativity and lending them a peculiar irony has been the government's realization that Cuban art, like tourism, can be a valuable commodity for foreign trade. And so the black market for forgeries is thriving (excellent renditions of Cuban masters, Picassos, or even a van Gogh are easily available). Legitimate artists, using whatever materials they can find, frequently sell their work directly to interested foreigners in meetings at their homes or in hotels. On an official level state-run galleries located in what were once grand mansions in Old Havana and in more modern buildings in other parts of the city sell artists' work, encouraged by a law passed last year that called for cultural institutions to become self-supporting. Artists are paid 50 to 70 percent of all sales made by galleries, and since this past February, the payments are being made in dollars, not pesos.

Since the revolution, artists have traditionally worked as art teachers in elementary schools or community centers, professors at the institute, or cultural center employees. Now the Castro government has become more lenient in granting "independent artist" status, which permits artists to attempt to live from their work alone, an obviously attractive alternative when a single painting can be sold to a foreign buyer for a hundred dollars or more. A growing awareness of the mechanics of international art trade and the decline of living standards have prompted more and more young Cuban artists to adapt -- to create their work with a market in mind, to think competitively, to market themselves.

The crucial ingredient in this new recipe for success, of course, is the foreigner (as one Havana gallery director put it dryly: "Cubans don't buy art. In Cuba food is the priority"). And this Fifth Biennial provided important opportunities for ambitious artists eager to make a sale, or at least a contact. An enthusiastic international crowd of art professionals -- curators, art dealers, and collectors -- converged on Havana in early May, at least 150 of them from the Uni-ted States alone.(Works of art, like books, music, or films, are classified as informational material and are therefore exempt from the U.S. trade embargo.) A few of the visitors, most notably German chocolate mogul Peter Ludwig, were well-known collectors of Cuban art. Some were museum curators who came to select the work of specific artists for group exhibitions already planned for 1995. But for most, drawn by mere curiosity about Cuba and Cuban art, it was their first visit to the island.

In the days just before the exhibition opened, the tiled patio bar of the recently renovated Hotel Seville, the setting for Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana, became an artworld meeting place, an international salon. The round white tables were constantly filled with casually attired English-speakers, which confused the pretty young mulatta prostitutes who normally use the area to meet their middle-age European cutomers. After a few attempts to engage the newcomers the girls were told gently by some Cuban artists that they wouldn't have much luck with this group, and they moved sulkily to some sofas in the lobby.

The foreigners downed endless bottles of Cuban beer and ate an occasional Cuban sandwich (the only item on the limited menu besides olives). They shouted over the songs of a Harry Belafonte look-alike who appeared in the bar with an even louder female performer early each evening. Cuban artists came and went periodically, toting their catalogues and their sets of slides. Sometimes they allowed a new acquaintance to buy them a drink using American dollars. More often they politely declined.

"People here work more on their careers than they used to," observed Elio Rodriguez, one of the more nimble table-hoppers at the Seville. "For example, you take care of your look." Tall and nappy-haired, he appeared at the Seville almost daily in a seemingly endless array of T-shirts with African motifs, which he wore with a fresh pair of Levi's. "The way you present yourself as an artist is important. So is the way you present your art. Before, people would come here and ask to see your work, and you'd have a couple of amateurish-looking slides and say, 'Hey look, this is my work.' Then we realized that just doesn't sell."

Rodriguez, who seemed to take delight in presenting himself as a sort of black Cuban version of the market-savvy American conceptual artist Jeff Koons, is more sophisticated about the rules of the market than many of his Havana colleagues. More than once the hotel lobby was the scene of an awkward dance between buyer and seller. Unlike the souvenir merchants who hawked overpriced maracas near the elevator, the young artists weren't at all sure what to charge for paintings some foreigners asked to purchase from them directly. The buyers themselves had no better idea what was an acceptable amount to pay. After fumbled exchanges and lots of nervous smiling an amount would be agreed upon, usually never more than a couple of hundred dollars. The prices at state-run galleries are usually higher than those reached in a private sale, but even gallery prices are far below what the same work would bring in Miami.

During the Biennial a number of artists made important contacts with foreign dealers and curators, not the least of whom was Rodriguez. But he was also nostalgic for the days, not long ago, when artists would meet in each other's homes to talk about their work and debate political issues, not making deals with strangers in hotels. However, he acknowledged the change as necessary. "Maybe it's not good for the spirit, but it's good for your stomach," he laughed. "Cuba is a really crazy place. You can't be in Cuba thinking about your spirit; you have to survive."

The instinct for economic survival was evident among organizers of the Biennial as well. In one instance foreign artists were invited to a party at a cultural center where the staff unexpectedly informed them of an admission price of five dollars. Once inside it appeared that no Cuban artists had been invited, though there were numerous souvenir shops on the premises. The next day employees of the same center roped off separate exhibition rooms and attempted to charge three dollars admission to each, much to the dismay and frustration of Cuban artists whose work was on display inside. At another exhibition the gallery director charged visitors five dollars to take photographs of the works. One Cuban artist who witnessed the scene burst out laughing: "What I ask myself is if the Biennial is a declaration of independence from the First World or more a desire to be part of it."

Although young Cuban artists are admittedly more interested in establishing their careers than provoking scandals, their work is often more specific in its social analysis than that of their predecessors. The Havana Biennial, which included 40 separate shows at state-run galleries and cultural centers scattered throughout the city, testified to this phenomenon.

Near Alexis Leiva's fleet of wooden boats in a section of the Biennial called "The Other Shore" stood a set of painted suitcases that Sandra Ramos had decorated with Cuban landscapes, idealized visions of the American dream, and pictures of airplanes with the faces of departed friends peering out the windows. In a piece titled Memoria, Tania Bruguera spread bundles of old letters and other personal belongings on the floor. For two hours during the Biennial's opening day she lay down, corpselike, in the shell of a rowboat in homage to lost balseros.

Other issues addressed by Cuban artists included the physical deterioration of Havana's grand architecture, the rise of prostitution, the collapse of Soviet ideology, capitalist colonization, and the dollar-hungry black market. While they employed humor, the works were underscored with a biting reality that sometimes reflected an almost apocalyptic vision. Twenty-five-year-old Ibrahim Miranda, who has lived in Mexico and returned to Cuba, displayed a set of darkly allegorical xylograph prints. One of them, Ultimo retrato del profeta (Last Portrait of the Prophet), featured a skeletal presence with a knife through his neck and arrows through his body. Images of Saint Sebastian or Christ were frequent, martyrs whose suffering carried an ominous contemporary significance.

Fidel Castro, who at one time was depicted with reverence and later with disdain, had been reduced to little more than a benign folkloric figure. Fernando Rodriguez Falc centsn constructed a naive ceramic tableau featuring the comandante taking part in a country wedding. The 22-year-old artist also sweetly molded Castro's face into the shape of a crude, handmade plate and a tobacco pipe. In one painting on wood titled El color de mi sangre (The Color of My Blood) Castro cuts himself shaving. The diminutive Falc centsn, himself bearded, said the ideas for his subtly ironic works come from a fantasy alter ego he calls "Francisco de la Cal," who tells the artist what to paint. Falc centsn's pretend partner is a man from the countryside who suddenly went blind, coincidentally, at the start of the revolution.

Old American cars, Benetton signs, revolutionary slogans, Soviet monuments, and mulattas in Afro-Cuban party costumes were combined in the paintings of Pedro Alvarez, a 27-year-old artist who was included in a part of the Biennial called "Environments and Circumstances." Alvarez's works, with titles such as Old Ragged Cadillac, Crippled Monument/Future and Fin de la historia (The End of History), reflected the bizarre, postmodern mix of Soviet dogma, American capitalism, and Cuban folklore that is omnipresent in Cuba today. Like many other artists Alvarez seemed to be seeking to portray a vision of Cuba far removed from that repeatedly defined by revolutionary propaganda.

"Those in power have tried to substitute reality with a socialist representation," explained Jose Toirac, a political and at times polemical artist who has been working for some years at deconstructing official Cuban imagery. "This is a country without memory. Only the official memory exists." Toirac offers a revisionist version of history in his works. His best-known paintings, created together with two other artists, appropriate photographs from the Communist Party newspaper Granma, laying bare their illusions of prosperity and heroism. The artists ridicule the photographs' original intentions by using ironic titles, or subvert their meaning by inference (for example, the possible homosexual tendencies of Cuban military heroes).

Toirac welcomed a visit to his home to talk about his work, and drew a map leading from the hotel to his apartment, located on a dark street near the Plaza de la Revolucion. A small, brightly colored Che Guevara button was pinned to his T-shirt as he opened the door to his building. On the third floor, in his well-lit apartment, his brother was watching television with some friends. A silky spaniel, which the artist said originally belonged to the police drug squad, ran around the living room. Toirac had just returned from Madrid, where his solo gallery show opens this month, and the bedroom area he shares with his girlfriend was scattered with shopping bags and new-looking clothes A welcome gifts from abroad made possible by Toirac's growing financial success.

The artist offered a visitor a beer as he explained that he had proposed two projects for the Biennial. One was a series of works concerning "the false friendship" between Cuba and the Soviet Union. The other was to curate a group exhibition about emigration in which he hoped to include the work of three Cuban-American artists: Luis Cruz Azaceta of New Orleans, Felix Gonzalez Torres of New York, and Miamian Cesar Trasobares, former executive director of Metro-Dade's Art in Public Places program. Neither project was accepted.

Toirac has become accustomed to being out of favor with Cuban authorities. Recently a small book he produced, in which he compared the life of Castro with the life of Christ by illustrating passages from the Bible with press photographs of the Cuban leader, was confiscated by the state printing office. He seemed unconcerned, however, about the repercussions, or about continuing to criticize in his work the revolution and its heroes. "You've got to know the rules of the game," he said. "An artist has to be very clear about what the borders of art are and not go beyond them. The people who are going to see your work in a gallery are a specialized audience. Once you go beyond that, it could be very, very dangerous." (As it turned out the greatest controversy at the Biennial sprang not from the work of any Cuban artist, but from a Mexican photographer. Lourdes Grobet's portraits of Cuban immigrants living in Mexico were taken down and confiscated even before the exhibition opened. In answer to the photographer's loud protests Biennial director Llilian Llanes held a press conference to explain that the decision was due to purely "graphic discrepancies" between those photos and other works in the show, but eventually she agreed to display them in a less visible spot in the Wifredo Lam Center, one of the exhibition's venues.)

It came as no surprise to see Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez strolling around the Morro Castle one evening shortly before the Biennial, and not just because of his affiliation with a film school in Cuba. The country could be taken straight out of one of his fantastic stories. Local citizens frequently describe the current situation in Havana as "surreal." The week the Biennial opened, for instance, Castro announced the imminent implementation of new regulations that would include further cutbacks in food supplies and household goods, and price hikes for telephone service and electricity.

"They're raising prices on things that don't exist!" scoffed one artist who constantly picks up a dead phone and had been ten days without power for a refrigerator and lights, during which he often viewed the nightly voyage of a huge Spanish galleon blaring disco music as it cruised Havana harbor, its rigging decorated with enough bulbs to illuminate a couple of dozen homes.

One tourist not likely to be found on a party boat is wealthy German businessman Peter Ludwig, the most significant player in the contemporary Cuban art game. Ludwig has been collecting art in Cuba only since 1992, but after four or five trips to Havana and several buying sprees he has purchased 120 works, paying for them in a lump sum to the Cuban Ministry of Culture, which in turn has distributed 50 percent of the money to the individual artists.

To the young and aspiring artists on the island Ludwig represents an unsettling cross between a benevolent Medici and a colonizing Christopher Columbus A they are happy to have his interest and his money, but are suspicious of his influence. To the government, on the other hand, the German collector seems to be a godsend. He has had bestowed upon him various official orders of merit for his contributions to Cuban culture, and has received an honorary doctoral degree from the University of Havana. A Social Democrat known for his political leanings to the right, Ludwig on occasion has visited with Castro. Those meetings, according to Wolfgang Becker, director of the Ludwig Museum in Aachen, Germany, have centered on discussions of culture and literature.

The Ludwig Foundation, also in Aachen, offers four-month residencies to Cuban artists, a program modeled on a similar enterprise created by the foundation for Soviet artists in the late Seventies. In the coming months Ludwig plans to open a second foundation in Havana to implement cultural programs in Cuba. His initial funding for the organization will amount to about $35,000 a year, administered by a director appointed by the Cuban National Arts Council. As for the Biennial itself, it was helped along substantially by Ludwig's donation of $17,000 to the Cuban Ministry of Culture toward basic organizational costs. (In a highly unusual move for an international, nonprofit art event, Ludwig will pack up the entire show and bring it to his Ludwig Museum for display this September, along with 40 new Cuban works from his collection. The museum will pay all transportation and production costs.)

For most Cuban artists, having a work in the Ludwig collection is prized as an important stepping stone to other opportunities, although they often grumble that Ludwig is known for paying lower prices than other collectors, and even putting works on reserve but never claiming them (and thus preventing the artists from selling them to someone else). "Sometimes I see Ludwig as a sweet little old man and sometimes I see him as the devil," sighed Carlos Estevez, who, like most artists, cannot afford to turn down an offer made by any potential buyer, especially one as prestigious as Ludwig. "He has us up against the wall. The problem for Cuban artists today is that your work can be interesting, but you have to have the [financial and material] means to develop it, and in order to have that, someone has to 'discover' you."

Jose Toirac is one artist who has declined to sell to Ludwig. "I already have a foot in the door," he noted, referring to the fact that he is represented by a gallery in Madrid and has been included in several exhibitions abroad. "Ludwig comes here and he always wants to buy my work. So I can permit myself certain luxuries that other artists can't. If he offers me just $700 for a painting that I think is worth more, I'd rather just keep it. I do think he could give artists more money if he is really so concerned about them."

Carlos Estevez lives with his wife and child in a three-room, street-level apartment a block from the port in Old Havana where the Malec centsn, the fabled oceanfront avenue, begins its graceful curve around the city. A large, rough-hewn, Christlike figure was visible through the doorway as the artist greeted visitors who had come to look at slides of his work.

The front door opened onto a small sitting room that, like the rest of the impeccably neat apartment, was framed by water-stained, buckled walls. The sculpture, originally shown with a set of large detachable wings, was made from wood Estevez had gathered from the rubble of collapsed buildings in his neighborhood. Such debris in Old Havana is a popular resource for young artists whose ingenuity compensates for their lack of materials. Others have found that political banners, ripped from the streets in the night, make a decent substitute for canvas. (Those who are still enrolled at the Instituto Superior de Arte are far luckier. Students have comparatively plentiful access to paint, canvas, and other supplies, and it is well-known that many of them squirrel away as much as they can so they'll have something to work with after they graduate.)

There is but one official art-supply store in Havana, the only place to buy paint and canvas legally. But to purchase materials there, artists must produce a contractual letter stating that he or she will be participating in an exhibition, usually in a foreign country. An invitation to participate in the Biennial met this rigid requirement, but the results were not always fruitful. For example, in order to create his piece for the show, Estevez needed glue, turpentine, and black paint. "I only got glue," he shrugged. "It's really a challenge. It's an adventure that has nothing to do with art. But we use what we can find because we need to communicate."

In the dining room, filled with worn but still elegant Castilian-style furniture, Estevez showed the slides of his work using an archaic Soviet projector. The family's ration book, carefully covered with wrapping paper, sat on a nearby sideboard. "Take a look," he urged. "Someday that will be a collector's item." One roll of bread per day per person. Twenty jars of baby food per month for Estevez's year-old son. No soap, detergent, or toothpaste since last year.

Like the allotments of cigarettes and rum that are limited, so too has been the full realization of Estevez's projects. For the most part they remain simply as drawings. The statue in the doorway was an exception, but it took him two years to complete. With materials so difficult to find he didn't want to make any mistakes.

Estevez resignedly pointed out that in a city that provided unlimited access to supplies A cities like Paris or Madrid or Miami A an artist's development could take place twice as fast as in Havana. But that doesn't necessarily mean his goal is to leave Cuba. "It's a very difficult and painful decision," he mused. "I think about having a house with smooth walls. But I don't know, for me staying here is like defending your spirit.


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