by Simons Chase
What Makes Cuban Art Exceptional
There is an ethical asymmetry in the art that has emerged out of Cuba in the last several generations. The yin of that asymmetry is yoked to generations of Cubans’ writhing under communism’s lash, and the yang is the immense creativity unleashed by that monolithic paradigm’s fantastical ability to produce endless scarcity in the face of abundance.
Scarcity is the parent of so much of humanity’s greatest achievements, and while the price for that scarcity has been a gauntlet of human tragedy, we are hopeful that a deep well of refreshment and healing in Cuba brings the pioneer spirit to bear, and the story’s core shifts to the consoling certainties of life with a future – together with a force that continues to excavate Cuba’s hidden artistic depths. After all, Cuba was the focal point of two monolithic paradigms embraced in a nuclear-tipped jousting match over the future of humanity, and to date the loss of life over that epic struggle has been minimal compared to the alternative. Cuban art cuts open for forensic examination the concept that the blessings we hunger for the most can only be given by ourselves, from within.
Some Aspects of Cuban Art
Cuba’s art scene is an exceptionally diverse cultural blend of African, South American, European and North American elements, reflecting Cuba’s diverse demographic mix. Cuban artists embraced European modernism, and the early part of the 20th century saw a growth in Cuban Vanguardist movements, which were characterized by the mixing of modern artistic genres. Some 20th-century Cuban artists include Amelia Peláez (1896–1968), best known for a series of mural projects, and painter Wifredo Lam (1902–1982), who created a highly personal version of modern primitivism. The Cuban born painter Federico Beltran Masses (1885-1949), was known as a colorist whose seductive portrayals of women sometimes made overt references to the tropical settings of his childhood.
Better known internationally is the work of photographer Alberto Korda, whose photographs following the early days of the Cuban Revolution included a picture of Che Guevara which was to become one of the most recognizable images of the 20th century.
There is a flourishing street art movement influenced by Latin American artists José Guadalupe Posada and the muralist Diego Rivera.
This painting by Victor Manual Garcia (he dropped his last name upon moving to Paris in 1925) makes me think of women as a source of fertility, belonging and the custodian of male sexuality. Victor Manuel is considered to be the father of the Golden Age in Cuban painting. La Gitana Tropical (The Tropical Gypsy) is regarded among Cuban art experts as one of the defining pieces of art from the Vanguard era. Manuel combined his knowledge of European methods with primitive styling and Cuban culture.
After the Cuban Revolution of 1959, some artists felt compelled to leave Cuba and produce their art, while others stayed behind, either happy or merely content to be creating art in Cuba, which had become sponsored by the communist government. There was an implied censorship, since artists wouldn’t want to make art that could threaten retaliation from the fervent revolutionaries.
The introduction of conceptual art in the 1960a and 1970s shifted the emphasis away from craftsmanship to ideas. This often meant the elimination of objects in art production; only ideas were stated or discussed. It required an enhanced level of participation by the patron – interactive participation or a set of instructions to follow. Conceptual art, Minimalism, Earth art, and Performance art mingled together to expand the art’s definition.
It wasn’t until the 1980s Cuban art began to reflect true uninfluenced expression. The “rebirth” of expression in Cuban art was greatly affected by the emergence of a new generation of Cubans whose connection to the revolution had waned. In 1981, the Cuban art scene experienced the introduction of “Volumen Uno,” a series of one man exhibitions featuring contemporary Cuban artists. Three years later, the introduction of the “Havana Biennial” expanded the liberation of art and free speech.
By the late 1970s, many graduates of Cuba’s art schools, such as “the Facultad de Artes Plasticas of the Instituto Superior de Arte” (founded in 1976), worked as schoolteachers, introducing their methods and ideas to young Cubans across the island. Their influence provided a platform for the graduates to teach students about freedom of expression in medium, message, and style of art. It was this new level of experimentation and expression that impacted art in 1980s.
In Cuba, these new developments were naturally synthesized through the Afro-Cuban sensibility and emerged as The New Art, an art movement widely recognized as distinctly Cuban. Young artists born after the revolution rebelled against modernism and embraced conceptual art, among other genres. Many would carry on folkloric traditions and Santeria motifs in their individual expressions while infusing their message with humor and mockery. The art took a qualitative leap by creating international art structured on African views, not from the outside like surrealism but from the inside, alive with the cultural-spiritual complexities of their own circumstances.
Volumen Uno wrenched open the doors for The New Art. Participants, many of whom were still in school, created a typical generational backlash of the previous generation including Alberto Jorge Carol, Nelson Dominguez, and César Leal, who went on the attack against the upstarts. Volumen Uno – made up of Jose Bedia, Lucy Lippard, Ana Mendieta, Richardo Brey, Leandro Soto, Juan Francisco Elso, Flavio Garciandia, Gustavo Perez Monzon, Rubin Torres Llorea, Gory (Rogelio Lopez Marin), and Tomas Sanchez – presented a “fresh eclectic mix filtered through informalism, pop, minimalism, conceptualism, performance, graffiti and Arte Povera reconfigured and reactivated … to be critically, ethically, and organically Cuban.”
This age of artist was dedicated to people who were willing to take risks in their art and truly express themselves, rather than to express only things sympathetic to Cuba’s political ideology . Art of the 1980s was characterized by the use of the shape of Cuba itself as inspiration for art. One piece, Immediately Geographic by artist Florencio Gelabert Soto, is a sculpture in the shape of Cuba’s geography, broken into many pieces. One interpretation could reflect the still unequal treatment towards artists and a representation of repression. A movement that mirrored this artistic piece was underway in which the shape of Cuba became a token in the artwork in a phase known as “tokenization.” This artwork often combined the shape of the island with other attributes of the nation including the flag. By combining the various symbols of Cuba, artists were proudly proclaiming their identity. Yet some art critics and historians will argue that this was partially due to the isolated nature of the island, and that use of the island images in artwork represented isolation. Nevertheless, Cuba’s tension was on the surface.
Any discussion of Cuban art must address the large number of Cubans who fled the island nation after Castro’s 1959 revolution. One example is Carmen Herrera. She was born in Havana, Cuba in 1915. Her father was the founding editor of the newspaper El Mundo, where her mother was a reporter. She moved frequently between France and Cuba throughout the 1930s and 1940s; having started studying architecture at the Universidad de La Habana, Havana (1938–39), she trained at the Art Students League, New York (1942–43), before exhibiting five times at the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (1949–53). Carmen finally made her first sale at 89. And now, at 101, both Carmen and her native country, Cuba, seem to be getting the attention of the world. The Cuban artist’s work can be seen at the Tate in London, MoMA in New York, and she has an exhibition coming to the Whitney Whitney Museum of American Art starting in September 2016.
By the middle of the 1980s another group of artists sought a more explicit political responsibility to “revive the mess,” “revive the confusion”, as Aldito Menendez incorporated into his 1988 installation. Accompanying Menéndez’s installation was a note: “As you can see, this work is almost blank. I could only start it due to the lack of materials. Please help me.” Here is the Cuban humor, the choteo, “perhaps the most quintessentially Cuban expression.”
Laughter became the antidote of an anarchistic energy for and from the revolution; “one moment an aggressive undertow, then a jester’s provocation, pressuring the tensions”, wrote Rachel Weiss in To and from Utopia in the New Cuban Art. “The choteo is allergic to authority and prestige, the enemy of order in all its manifestations…civil disenchantment, the incredulous and mocking inner nature of the Cuban rises to the surface.” The choteo, doing away with exactitude, tends to depict the extreme limits of an example. This sardonic Cuban humor has become as ubiquitous in Cuban art as the bright Caribbean colors of its palette. Eduardo Ponjuan, Glexis Novoa (of the ABTV group), Carlos Rodriguez Cardenas, and Rene Francisco are key examples of this sensibility, mixing it with kitsch and harkening back in time while identifying with current Cuban attitudes, liberating art on the eve of the Cuban ‘special period’ after the Soviet Union’s collapse led to Cuba’s rapid economic decline.
According to European and North American Art critics, Naïve art is typified by its childlike freshness and amateurish qualities, such as lack of accurate perspective, little or no modeling, and bold coloration. Artists, such as José Rodríguez Fuster, who work in this style are generally acknowledged as favoring a more “primitive” or “folk” style of art. The term naïve itself can be pejorative, meaning artists who are self-taught or who tend to ignore the basic rules of art. In spite of their disregard for academic conventions, naïve artists are often quite sophisticated in their forms of artistic expression.
The colors used in Cuban naïve art are especially vivid, with artists using the vibrant hues of their tropical home to present an idealized view of rural life, with spiritual references to Catholicism and Santeria’s Orichas (deities), legends, and other aspects of Afro-Cuban culture, past and present. This naïve style of art portrays the typical Cuban worldview of the enjoyment of life despite its hardships.
In 1990 the Cuban government began programs to stimulate tourism as a means of offsetting the complete loss of Soviet support. In 1992 Cuba’s communist party amended its constitution to allow foreign investment, and the US dollar was permitted to circulate legally starting in 1993. In 1994 a cabinet-level department was created, the Ministry of Tourism, to further enhance tourism, which today is one of Cuba’s largest source of income and foreign exchange.
The initial reaction of the artists – as well as the general population – was withdrawal: “Withdrawal from the public to the private…from the collective to the individual…from the epic to the mundane…from satire to metaphor…Withdrawal from controversy…withdrawal from confrontation,” according to Rachel Weiss in To and from Utopia in the New Cuban Art. But it was the withdrawal from conceptual to figurative art that defined the impact in painting. Due in large measure to the interest of tourists, Cuban art gained higher visibility and returned to a more figurative mode of expression. Art also worked as a space where Cubans debated some of the social problems that were magnified by the “Special Period”, as illustrated by the Queloides art project, which deals with issues of race and discrimination.
Queloides is an ongoing cultural and curatorial project in Cuban art that seeks to highlight the persistence of racist stereotypes and ideas of racial difference in Cuban society and culture. Initiated in 1997 by artist Alexis Esquivel and by art critic Omar Pascual Castillo, who organized the exhibit Queloides I Parte, the project was later led by the late art critic Ariel Ribeaux Diago, who organized two important additional exhibits: Ni músicos ni deportistas (“Neither musicians nor athletes,” 1997), for which he wrote an award-winning essay, and Queloides (1999). Queloides or keloids are raised scars that, many in Cuban believe, appear most frequently on the black skin. The title makes reference to the scars of racism, on the one hand, and to persistent popular beliefs that there are “natural” differences between whites and blacks.
“Every Cuban is an artist and every home is an art gallery,” wrote Rachel Weiss in To and from Utopia in the New Cuban Art.
This article is a partial adaptation of a Wikipedia entry.