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'Habana now'
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In the U.S., Cuban art, like all things Cuban, becomes immediately reduced to a political issue. For the Cuban artist in exile, this must be irritating.

As one Cuban artist in the U.S. has put it, “Whenever people look at our art they always ask about the political connotations.” Paradoxically, in Cuba, the political, social and economic limitations and restrictions imposed by the Cuban bureaucracy and the U.S. blockade have helped artists produce a critical art that makes much of the art of the U.S. mainstream seem trivial and self-indulgent. Proving perhaps that struggle is more conducive to creativity than a market freedom where anything goes and nothing matters.

This exhibition has been thoughtfully and respectfully curated. It sets out to show the work of artists residing in Cuba in an informative context, while treading lightly through the minefield of the ideological debate. The works are accompanied by a wall display of a timeline history of Cuba and its peoples, from the Taino Indians through the arrival of Columbus, the centuries of Spanish rule, the Spanish-American war, the decades of U.S. domination and the 1959 revolution and its aftermath.

This, however, is not an historic survey of Cuban art, but rather a selection of one or two recent works, each from a number of artists who participated in Cuba’s artistic and intellectual renaissance in the 1980s: those now in their 50s who anticipated it; those who initiated it, now in their 40s; and those who followed, now in their 30s.

The three significant generations are hung chronologically and are framed between Alberto Korda’s photographs of the revolution (he took the iconic picture of Che Guevara that is also shown here), at the beginning of the exhibition, and a collaborative video and photo installation of Havana now by Anabel Bouza Cabrera, and Clayton Howze Haskell situated in the final exhibition room.

In addition to the works by professional artists from Cuba, and in the spirit of the Havana Biennial exhibitions, included are paintings by two self-taught artists, Juan Carlos Anzardo and A.P. Bornot, who in the U.S. would be called “outsider”, while in Cuba are more respectfully referred to as “spontaneous.”

Finally, in the spirit of exchange, the curator has included a Cuban exile, resident of Savannah, Julio Garcia, who was born in Cuba, grew up in the U.S. and attended SCAD. Unlike the other artists here, his drawings are pure, cool, abstractions, in which process is central.

The four older artists here belong to the generation that broke with the dogmatic socialist realism of the 1970s: the engravings of Arturo Montoto, with their small still-life objects – an egg, a brush, a slice of melon - always isolated in an empty interior of crumbling and decaying surface; Pedro Pablo Oliva’s mixed media, magic-realist narrative on paper; and Roberto Fabelo’s altered pages of an anatomy book where hybrid profiles of humans with animal masks obscures the anatomical illustrations of the inner ear; and, finally, the painting of Nelson Dominguez, that seems more commercial, as if directed to a market for the tropical exotic.

And then comes the big rupture. In January, 1981, a group of young artists in Havana installed a collective exhibition that disrupted the Cuban establishment. This was the coming-of-age event of the first generation to have been born and brought up within the revolution, and to have benefitted from the free art school education available to all levels of society. The work was intellectual, critical, ambiguous and sought fresh approaches to the social role of the arts that would be uncorrupted by market forces from outside, or by propagandist agitation from within.

Despite the scandal it caused among the old guard, the Minister of Culture recognized its importance and supported the new development. Consuelo Castañeda is the only member of the original group to be represented here with two silk-screen prints. “Image and its History” is a double image of fragments of Greek pottery inserted into an art history text. And “History Reconstructs the Image / The Image Reconstructs History” is composed of two versions of Hokusai’s famous image of the Wave, embedded in text - one is being eaten away by the text and in the other, the erosion is reversed. The writing of the history of art is a constant reinvention in which the image gets lost in the explanations.

There is a famous story from the early 1980s in which Consuelo Castañeda, along with another artist, Humberto Castro, dressed up as giant penises and squirted milk on the audience and distinguished panel at the headquarters of the Artists and Writers Union. And sexual humor to criticize and scandalize those in power has always been the main subject of Tomas Esson’s work.

On view here are a group of his small ink drawings with the collective title of “Bandera” (flag) that takes an irreverent approach to the sacred symbols of nationalism. The star of the Cuban flag and the stars of the U.S. flag are represented as penises and vaginas engaged in a continuous macho exchange.

The essentializing reductions of national identity is the subject of Sandra Ramos’ print, “Mi diaria vocacion de suicida” (my daily suicidal vocation), in which the artist represents herself laid out on the bed of an etching press being fed through the rollers and emerging as a Cuban flag.

The Havana Biennial came into existence in 1984 to show art from Latin America and the Third World and has since been a showcase for the new Cuban art. Migration was the theme of the Fifth Biennial in 1994, where Kcho (Alexis Leyva) made his international debut at the age of 25 with an installation flotilla of hundreds of boats made from candy wrappers, beer cans, tennis shoes, egg crates, etc., in fact whatever he could find on the streets.

The homemade boat in which so many Cubans have risked their lives in attempting to leave the island has continued to be Kcho’s central subject since. Here, he is showing two lithographs. In one, a boat flies like Icarus with homemade wings; in the other, a tower monument is being built from boats and parts of boats piled up on chairs.

The map of a nation, like its flag, can often be symbolic of its identity. The shape of the island of Cuba resembles a strange elongated creature. Ibrahim Miranda has taken existing maps of Cuba showing statistics of economics, agriculture, natural resources and demographics, and altered them by superimposing block print images. In most, the island assumes the shape of a bird or large insect with trailing wings; in some there is a row of footprints containing repetitions of the eye; in others, there are triple images of basins, or cooking pots, more eyes and severed heads floating in the surrounding ocean.

The entire exhibition is interesting, but I would recommend it even if there were only the vast wall covered with these maps that occupies one room of the gallery. They are so full of arcane meaning that, although I do not possess the knowledge necessary to decode them, I am convinced they contain symbols from Santeria, the Cuban version of the African Yoruba religion. The combination of the applied mystical symbols and the materialist information from the maps creates new meaning that works intensely on the senses as well as the mind and, somehow, seems to reaffirm art’s role as a mediator between human society and the cosmos.

International collectors have in the last decade turned to Cuban art because unlike art in the U.S. or in Europe, it has not been domesticated by the needs of the market. Most of the work on show in this exhibition has been created in the last few years and much of the evidence here shows that artists in Cuba are still resisting the lures of market demands and producing works that retain their critical and experimental edge.


Cuba: Habana now is at The Opus Gallery 18 West Hull St. through October 20.