Cuban artists who dare to tiptoe the tightrope between freedom of expression and critiquing their government risk censorship or even jail time. They have to strike the perfect balance between creativity and political and social commentary, all while gambling that a rigid cultural ministry doesn't crack down on their projects.
So Havana's artistic husband-and-wife team of José Toirac and Meira Marrero deserve every bit of international acclaim they've received for a body of work that subverts Cuba's political history. Their pieces often include imagery of historic events and people found in the national archives that are re-created with a satirical twist.
The couple have not totally escaped censorship by the Cuban government, of course, so some of their most controversial works will be on view at Pan American Art Projects in Wynwood beginning at 6 p.m. to launch the Second Saturday Art Walk season opener. Although they have exhibited across the States at museums, universities, and institutions since 1998, their latest show, "Vanitas," marks their first major solo in a U.S. gallery and will include paintings, sculptures, installations, and videos.
The provocative, conceptually freighted exhibit takes its name from a series of paintings of Cuba's former first ladies. Toirac and Marrero had first proposed the piece when another work, titled 1896-2006, was censored from a planned display at the prestigious Museum of Fine Arts in Havana. That piece would have included a commentary on Fidel and Raúl Castro, and museum honchos said that because both brothers were "eternal figures," the work was prohibited.
"We conceived of showing portraits of all of the first ladies we previously had in Cuba," Toirac recollects. "We titled that proposal 'Vanitas' because the primary information we used to source the work was first published by Vanidades magazine in 1952, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the republic."
But the museum didn't accept their second proposal either, in part because the Communist government doesn't recognize the concept of a "first lady." Also, although everyone knows Fidel is married, his wife's handlers are under strict orders to keep her in mothballs.
Finally, the couple's third proposal was accepted. Titled "Orbis: Tribute to Walker Evans," it paid homage to the American photographer whose lens captured Havana in the 1930s. The persistent pair ended up showing gold-leaf altarpieces of Evans' photographs on recycled remnants of old doors.
Toirac was born in Guantánamo, Cuba, in 1966 and graduated from the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana in 1990. Born in Havana in 1969, Marrero earned a degree in art history from the University of Havana in 1992.
"We met in 1992 when we casually became involved in organizing an exhibit, which didn't materialize because it was the first time we had collaborated together as artists," Toirac says. "Since then and each time with greater frequency, we work together as a team."
At Pan American, the dozen works on display explore the transient nature of vanity and its effect on life. The works span from 1992 to today and represent different stages of the artists' careers.
One of the works that commands attention is Opus (2005), a five-minute video isolated in a room off the main gallery. The piece subverts Fidel's Communist rhetoric by projecting a series of dissociated white numbers on a black screen with audio edited from a speech he gave in 2003 at La Plaza de la Revolución. Spectators hear just the numbers cited in the windy discourse instead of the whole speech. The piece reflects the dictator's fixation with quantification while suggesting how his political system reduces citizens to numbers.
In another work, Cara y Cruz (Heads and Tails), the artists depict assassinations that took place before and after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Created in 1996, the wall-engulfing installation comprises 16 paintings, eight of which feature young revolutionaries executed for opposing Fulgencio Batista, the Cuban dictator from 1952 to 1959. The other eight canvases depict people shot immediately after the Cuban Revolution. Presented together in the shape of a large flag with red and black borders, the composition brings to mind the militant banner of Castro's July 26th Movement.
"The iconography is essentially the same, so you wouldn't be able to distinguish who was killed and who was executed and, ultimately, what is the difference between one and the other," explains Pan American's curator, Irina Leyva, who organized the exhibit.
"The idea is to present together victims and their murderers, since in finality, death is death," Toirac adds. "That's why it's impossible in terms of iconography to identify the good or bad... and the only distinguishing factor becomes the color of the wall."
The thread tying the diverse works together is the notion of how fame, beauty, power, political alliances, and wealth are all temporary and subject to the harsh realities of history. "The human psyche is accustomed to understand reality by complementing one thing with its opposite," Toirac says. "It's simpler to understand the good when you compare it to the bad."
For her part, Marrero, the art historian who ferrets out the source materials from documents and images excavated from national records and archives, says that fading chronicles she exhumes are the key to the concept at Pan American.
"'Vanitas' implies a reminder of the natural cycles of birth and death," Marrero says. "In the end, all those things are associated with vanity, as the entire exhibit is a symbolic bodegón of ideas on the subject."
Perhaps the piece that best captures the spirit of the exhibit is a tiny work crafted from 18-karat gold that distills the Cuban revolution's failures into a laughably minuscule form. Titled Toda la Gloria del Mundo Cabe en un Grano de Maíz (All the World's Glory Fits Into a Corn Kernel) (2013), the piece takes its name from a famous José Martí phrase appropriated by Fidel to extol his revolution and assure Cuba's people that their future would be peaceful, prosperous, and secure.
"In the end," Leyva says, "those illusions were all about vanitas, and that concept comes out strongly in this exhibit."