Struggling, isolated and often overlooked ... - Edward M Gomez

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Struggling, isolated and often overlooked ... - Edward M Gomez

CaribbeanCri de CoeurFrom left: Carlos Garaicoa, Untitled (TheInternational), 2006, pin and threads on lambdaphotograph; Wifredo Lam, The Jungle, 1943,gouache on paper mounted on canvas.Carlos GaraiC oa/l ombard-Freid ProjeC ts; t he m useum oF m odern a rt/s C ala/ a rt r esourC eStruggling, isolated and often overlooked,Cuba’s contemporary artists stake theirclaim in a globalized world.By Edward M. Gomez


Caribbean Cri de CoeurCuba is in convulsions. only a few months after hurricanes Gustavand ike swept through the Caribbean, drenching Havana and devastating crops and villageson the eastern side of the island, the always-cash-strapped socialist state is still laboringto get back on its feet. The recovery effort, marked by the government’s newest rationingand price-control program for food, has come at a time when most Cubans’ formidable,everyday struggle for survival was already about as tough as anyone could imagine it to be.Clockwise from left: Kcho, Untitled, from the Columnas Infinitas series, 2003, mixed media on canvas; Franklin Alvarez Fortún,Floating, 2003, watercolor on paper; Franklin Alvarez Fortún, Punching Bag IX, 2008, oil paint on canvas and punching bag;The capital city of Havana is filled with artists who want their work to be recognized by the wider world.Pana meriC an a rtProjeC tsWith its government-controlled, centralizedeconomy, Cuba is by no means thehome of a consumer culture, and nothingcomes easily. In Havana, for example,there is almost no advertising visible anywhere,even for state-owned companies.Even political propaganda posters, which avisitor might expect to be plentiful, seem topop up only randomly. Small neighborhoodstores are sparse and offer only the mostbasic goods such as soap, toothpaste, shampooor shoes, and prices for many productsare high. The national telephone system is atarget of jokes, and finding a public phonethat functions is a crapshoot. Standing inline⎯at a bank, post office or ice cream stand⎯is an exercise in a kindof patience that, perhaps in theory, should help build a sense of revolutionaryfortitude but mostly just wears people down.Nevertheless, in the face of such hardships Cuba’s artists have continuedto find the energy and resources to create a rich and diverse range ofwork, much of which is as engaging and imaginative as the best contemporaryart to be found in other, more affluent places.Jacqueline Brito Jorge and her sister, Yamilys Brito Jorge, are bothartists—a painter and a printmaker, respectively. Both teach at the InstitutoSuperior de Arte, Cuba’s prestigious national art school, which wasestablished in 1961 on the site of the former Havana Country Club afterFidel Castro’s revolutionary forces took over the government. Now in their72 art&antiques deC ember 2008


Caribbean Cri de Coeurearly 30s, Jacqueline and Yamilys are commonlyknown as “the Brito sisters” and arehighly respected in the local arts community;each has participated in many groupand solo exhibitions, both in Cuba andabroad, including the United States.Often the sisters get together at Jacqueline’shome in the north central Vedado sectionof the capital, a leafy, residential districtwhose once-elegant houses and chic apartmentbuildings, like countless architecturalgems in the Old Havana zone, are crumbling.(Since 1982, Old Havana has been aUNESCO-designated World Heritage site.)“In the 1990s there was an opening up,” Jacquelinerecalls, “and contemporary Cubanart caught the attention of the art press inthe United States and Europe. It was a timeof Cuban artists who, we say, bounced on atrampoline⎯they went abroad to show andsell their work. They went back and fortheasily.” Then, after George W. Bush cameinto power in the U.S. and clamped downon cultural-exchange travel by artists, musiciansand academics between the two countries,the American media, at least, turnedtheir attention to other topics.With a few exceptions, the U.S. Departmentof State prohibits Americans fromtraveling to Cuba. However, in recentyears, the Bush administration has permittedtrade with the island in the form of shipmentsof U.S. agricultural products. Thoseexports have ruptured the blockade PresidentJohn F. Kennedy imposed on Cuba 46years ago, after Washington discovered theSoviet Union’s missiles on the island. Sincethen, Castro has blamed the blockade forisolating his country and causing its economicwoes. Most Cubans regard el bloqueo,as it is known in Spanish, as hypocriticalbecause the U.S. has imposed no similarpunishment on communist China.“Much of the work Cuban artists werecreating in the late 1980s and the 1990sdealt with the theme of escape,” says Jacqueline,citing the mixed-media installationsof Kcho (Alexis Leyva Machado),which used actual rowboats. The manyreferences to rafts and other seafaring vesselsin Kcho’s work allude to the legions ofhis countrymen who had tried to leave theisland by sea, usually bound for Florida.Nowadays, Jacqueline notes, Cuban artistsare addressing a wide range of subjects. Atpresent, personal-identity politics seem tobe out while more general, Cuba-relatedthemes, like those of survival, technologicalbackwardness and national cultural consciousness,appear to be in.In her own work, Jacqueline has exploredthe iconography of Catholic saints andAfro-Cuban deities, the symbolic meaningsof flowers and birds and the form ofthe royal palm, Cuba’s national tree. “Inmy mixed-media works, I use whatevermaterials I can find,” she says. Many ofher paintings include tiny mosaic tiles shefound in a cast-offs corner at the schoolwhere she works.Examining the sisters’ portfolios in anart-filled room in Jacqueline’s home, Yamilysnotes that history has long been oneof her main interests and a strong influenceon her work. It is evident in her useof old Cuban and Soviet postage stampsYamilys Brito Jorge, Ready for Combat, from The Half Orange series, 2007, xylographic-collagraphic monotype on paper;Yamilys Brito Jorge, Good Fortune, from The Half Orange series, 2007, xylographic-collagraphic monotype on paper.deC ember 2008 art&antiques 75


Caribbean Cri de Coeur“Much of the work Cuban artists were creatingdealt with the theme of escape.” —JACqueLineBriTo JorGeand postcards, which she collages onto herprints. These works combine woodcut techniquesand the making of impressions onpaper directly from the textured, patterned,leather covers of antique books.Jacqueline observes that most Cubans arekeenly aware of their country’s political isolation.They also feel, she adds, “that theirculture is locked in; they feel overlookedor forgotten by the rest of the world.” Atthe National Museum of Fine Arts in centralHavana, Dream World (1995), by theCuban artist and critic Tonel (Antonio EligioFernández), addresses that sentimenthumorously by turning it inside out. Thiswall-mounted work consists of hundreds ofpieces of wood, all cut in the shape of theisland of Cuba and placed together like puzzlepieces to form a flat map of the world.Its message: If little Cuba can’t be part ofthe wider world, wouldn’t it be great if therest of the world could resemble Cuba?In Havana, the painter Franklin AlvarezFortún subtly takes on the themes of feelingtrapped and struggling to survive in someof his newest works. A native of Camagüey,in eastern Cuba, Alvarez is an ISA graduatelike the Brito sisters. “I’m interested in howsocial changes and attitudes find expressionin or on the human body or throughits actions,” he says. He has made charcoalsketches of objects he would like to executethree-dimensionally, showing people divingheadfirst into dumpsters (a referenceto Cuba’s trash-picking urban poor). Onlytheir legs stick up and out of the metal containers,like the stalks of truncated plants.He has painted portraits of men on punchingbags, an allusion, perhaps, to the hardknocks many Cubans must learn to withstandthroughout their lives. In anotherseries of oil-on-canvas paintings and relatedwatercolors and drawings, male or femalefigures appear against bright, blue skies,their arms outstretched like birds in flight.“They’re caught in a moment of great suspense,”Alvarez explains. “They don’t knowwhat might happen next.”That is, of course, exactly the situationin which all Cubans now find themselves.For in the summer of 2006, an ailing FidelCastro turned over the day-to-day runningof the government to his younger brother,Raúl, who was then the head of the armedforces. In February Raúl assumed the legendaryFidel’s mantle, becoming Cuba’s president.Now, Washington policymakers, Cubawatchers and Cubans themselves are waitingto see if, under Raúl’s leadership, the countrymight take steps to democratize, “openup” or perhaps institute capitalist-flavored,Chinese-style economic reforms. In Havana,at least, in speaking with street vendors andworkers in the important tourism sector, avisitor notes that an anxious, wait-and-seemood of suspense is palpable.Abel Barroso, an artist in his late 30s,avoids overtly political subject matter butaddresses the politics of globalization withhumor in his handcrafted wooden sculptures.They are big, Flintstones-like copiesof mobile phones, Blackberry devicesand laptop computers. Many feature primitivecranks a viewer may turn by hand,allowing illustrated paper rolls to fillthe screens of these goofy gizmos withimages. “In Cuba, we don’t produce hightechnologyproducts,” Barroso observes.“We’re completely low-tech and dependenton technology imported from abroad.We don’t take part in the gadget fads ofconsumer societies because we can’t.”Surprisingly⎯ or perhaps, not sosurprisingly⎯Barroso’s work has foundan avid public following in one of the mosthigh-tech of countries, Japan. A representativeof Promoarte Latin-American ArtGallery in Tokyo discovered his creationsseveral years ago at the Havana Biennialand offered him a solo show; Barroso justpresented his second show at the Japanesegallery last month.Clockwise from bottomleft: Works by JacquelineBrito Jorge includeUntitled, from theMirages series, 2007, oiland crystals on canvas;Dialogue Between theDesperate One and HisSoul, 2000, part of adiptych, oil on canvas,mounted on wood;Untitled, from theMirages series, 2007, oiland crystals on canvas;Untitled, from the Wherethe Bodies of Doubt Restseries, 2001, part of adiptych, oil on canvas.deC ember 2008 art&antiques 77


Caribbean Cri de CoeurBarroso’s overseas success underscoresthe difficulties most Cuban artists have inpursuing commercially viable careers athome. There is almost no art market tospeak of in Cuba; in Havana, the numberof state-controlled commercial galleries canbe counted on one hand. Most artists surviveon cash sales of their works to foreignbuyers and, to a much smaller degree, to afew local collectors. Those who can do soset up bank accounts in euros in Europe,into which foreign customers may directlydeposit payments. Others have relativesor friends in the U.S. who manage theirart-sales incomes in dollars. Professionalartists in Cuba tend to be members of anational union of writers and artists andcan buy art supplies from a state-operatedstore. Most depend on overseas relatives,friends or friends of friends to bring themspecial materials.Acknowledging both the irregularityand the value of this quirky supply chain,the distinguished Cuban art historian andlongtime former director of the HavanaBiennial, Llilian Llanes, says, “Our artistsare clever and creative; the fact is, theyhave to be.” Also the former director ofthe Wifredo Lam Center, an exhibitionspace in the Old Havana district namedafter an important Cuban modern artist,Llanes is a living encyclopedia of her country’srecent art-making history. “It’s a timeof considerable diversity in the visual artshere now,” she says. “No one style or themedominates. Artists want to reach out andbe recognized, but inevitably they feel theweight of their isolation. No wonder theirwork often reflects this theme. With this inmind, the Havana Biennial, which attractsvisitors from abroad, is a vital showcase forcontemporary Cuban artists.” (The HavanaBiennial is an international art expositionfeaturing work by artists from Cuba, LatinAmerica, Europe and other parts of theworld. The 10th edition opens on March27 and runs through the end of April.)In fact, for an island people who onlyachieved independence from Spain in1902, art and music have long been usedto express⎯and to help shape⎯a senseof national identity and collective aspiration.From colonial times until the impositionof the blockade in 1962, Cuban artistsand intellectuals enjoyed a dialoguewith Europe and with the U.S. mainland;throughout the 19th century, for example,successive French directors of Cuba’sfirst art school carried the torch of Neoclassicism.Later, early Cuban modernists,like the painter Armando García Menocal,brought Impressionist touches to landscapesthat proudly celebrated their homeland.In the early decades of the 20th century,Cuban artists such as Lam, AmeliaPeláez, Eduardo Abela and Carlos Enríqueztraveled to Europe, where they assimilatedCubist, Surrealist and other vanguardtendencies, and showed their workin Paris, Madrid and other cities. Meanwhile,in Cuba, popular magazines such asBohemia, Carteles and Social brought thelook of modernist graphic design to theircovers, page layouts and advertisements.j ason m andella/e l m useo del b arrio“Artists want to be recognized, but theyfeel the weight of their isolation.”—LLiLiAn LLAneSArtists who had studied and workedacross the Atlantic, along with others whohad followed the era’s art developments athome, contributed to the so-called Schoolof Havana of the 1940s, which blendedall these influences and looked to Afro-Cuban and other indigenous sources forinspiration. Reflecting the influence ofthe Mexican muralists⎯Diego Rivera,José Clemente Orozco and David AlfaroSiqueiros⎯these Cuban modernists alsoexpressed social commitment in their portrayalsof local people and places.Many Cuban artists moved towardabstraction in the late 1940s and ’50s,with such creations as René Portocarrero’stexture-rich, oil-on-canvas paintings ofmythological figures and cityscapes, whosedense compositions, recalling stained glass,bridge the gap between the figurative andthe abstract. In subsequent decades, Cubanartists kept up, in their own ways, withFrom left: Luis Cruz Abaceta,Oppression III, 1987, lithograph;Sandra ramos Lorenzo, Island,2006, acrylic, charcoal, collageand linotype on paper.deC ember 2008 art&antiques 79


Caribbean Cri de CoeurFrom left: Abel Barroso,Globalization Bridge, 2006,mixed media and photoprojection on a wall; robertoFabelo, Volcano, 2008,old metal pots and pans.international trends. They have broughtthe sharp edges and bold colors of Pop artinto their designs for movie and politicalpropaganda posters; the clarity of photorealismto their depictions of local scenes;and the ironic, recontextualizing stanceof post modernism to their mixed-mediaconceptualist works. Many of these workshave appeared to question—obliquely,cautiously⎯the success of the socialist revolutionby calling attention to Cuba’s isolation,poverty and search for recognition.Cuba’s artistic quest for identity canbe tracked in the works on view at theNational Museum of Fine Arts, which rangefrom colonial-era landscapes and paintingsof historical scenes to the abstractionassimilatingcanvases of such modernistsas Peláez and Lam and the creations ofcontemporary artists like René FranciscoRodríguez and Eduardo Ponjuán González.Working together, Francisco and Ponjuánmade Productivism (1995), a large paintingin the Soviet-era socialist-realist styleshowing a farmer holding the handle of apitchfork. Where the farm tool’s prongsshould be, the artists attached real, large,three-dimensional paintbrush bristles,thereby replacing the socialist message of“Work hard, produce more crops!” withthe implied exhortation, “Work hard, makemore art!” Similarly, an untitled 1991 workby Alejandro Aguilera spells out “Revolution”in 28-inch-high letters made fromrecycled found materials, subverting thesingle most potent word in Cuba’s politicallexicon by turning it into decoration.That punchy, provocative way of makingartworks that are at once clever, resonantand well-crafted can also be seen inRoberto Fabelo’s strangely beautiful Volcano(2008). Recently shown at GaleríaHabana, a commercial venue in Vedado,Fabelo’s sculpture consists of a floor-to-ceilingpile of old pots and pans. It evokes trashdumps and the desperation of those whohave so little but need so much, who live inthe rubble of a wounded society. Fabelo’sgarbage-as-art monument also hints, symbolically,at the long-pent-up and potentiallyvolatile mixture of frustration, impatience,disappointment and rage that mightvery well be festering under the surface ofCuban society, just waiting to erupt.In The Weight of the Island, a poempublished a few years ago, the poet NelsonSimón González wrote, “How do I bearthe weight of the island, which is chargedwith carrying my country like someonewho bears a heavy cross? ... I don’t knowwhere I’m headed.” Cuba’s contemporaryartists, who have often made the shapeof their island home a key motif, mayhave an answer for the poet. In the faceof ongoing, daunting hardship, the mostengaging Cuban contemporary art taps adeep, enduring reservoir of perseveranceand pride that still nourishes a strugglingnation’s soul.It evokes trash dumps and thedesperation of those who have so littlebut need so much, who live in therubble of a wounded society.From left: Abel Barroso, GlobalizationBridge, 2006, mixed media and photoprojection on wall;80 art&antiques deC ember 2008

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