The Farber Collection
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Abel Barroso

Adriano Buergo

Aimée García

Alexandre Arrechea

Alexis Esquivel

Ana Albertina Delgado

Ana Mendieta

Ángel Delgado

Armando Mariño

Arturo Cuenca

Belkis Ayón

Carlos Alfonzo

Carlos Cárdenas

Carlos Estévez

Carlos Garaicoa

Celia - Yunior

Consuelo Castañeda

Douglas Pérez

Duvier del Dago

Eduardo Hernández

Eduardo Ponjuán-René Francisco

Esterio Segura

Fernando Rodríguez

Flavio Garciandía

Glenda León

Glexis Novoa

Gory (Rogelio López Marín)

Guillermo Ramírez Malberti

Gustavo Acosta

Humberto Castro

Iván Cañas

José Bedia

José Franco

José Manuel Fors

Juan Pablo Ballester

Kcho (Alexis Leyva Machado)

Lázaro Saavedra

Los Carpinteros

Luis Cruz Azaceta

Manuel Mendive

Manuel Piña

María Magdalena Campos-Pons

Pedro Álvarez

Raúl Martínez

Reynerio Tamayo

Reynier Leyva Novo

Roberto Fabelo

Rocío García

Rubén Torres Llorca

Sandra Ceballos

Sandra Ramos

Segundo Planes

Tania Bruguera

Toirac & Marrero

Tomás Esson

Tomás Sánchez

Tonel (Antonio Eligio Fernández)

Umberto Peña

Yoan Capote

About Abel Barroso

b. 1971, resides in Cuba

Between Havana and New York there is much more than a mere synchronicity in time zones, or the existence of a “Cuban Wall Street” with banks and trade centers built in Old Havana. The connection did not end with the Cuban emigration en masse that settled in New York in the 19th century—among whose luminaries were Father Varela, who served as a parish priest to Irish workers, and José Martí, who in fifteen years of exile witnessed the confident yet alarming (to Cuban nationalists) growth of the United States. In the 20th century, emigration to New York continued unabated during the governments of Cuban presidents Machado and Batista, and even Fidel Castro walked with empty pockets through Central Park, before his 1959 encounter with Malcolm X at the Theresa Hotel in Harlem.

This bond with Gotham runs deeper than the Coney Island Park in Cuba’s Marianao Beach, built in the early 20th century; deeper than Conrado Massaguer’s stylish caricatures in Social magazine; stronger than the iron city depicted in the paintings of Carlos Enríquez, José Manuel Acosta, Enrique Riverón, and Mirta Cerra; and further than the impact of Art Deco and the Chrysler Building on Cuban architects, or the abstract expressionism of Julio Girona, or the Buena Vista Social Club shaking up Carnegie Hall—just as the percussionist Chano Pozo had done four decades earlier, side by side with Dizzy Gillespie. Because of this long exchange of ideas, symbols, and human beings, Habaneros also felt the stinging pain of September 11, 2001.

To express the tragedy of New York, Abel Barroso felt compelled to impose upon himself a meticulous thought process and a radical change in technique. At the time of September 11, he was leading the emerging venture of “Café Internet” or Mango-Tech, a mock-cutting-edge technology firm a la cubana, under whose brand he produced numerous computers, PDAs, printers, robots, calculators, and the public bus/flatbed truck hybrids known in Cuba as “camels”—all carved in wood and animated by medieval mechanisms. Engaged since his Superior Institute of Art student days in the deconstruction of engraving—its reproductive fate, its production and basic materials—Barroso took the medium beyond its random (chemical) limits and brought it into the realm of sculpture. It was an attack “from the inside,” in which he joined forces with other artist-printers such as Belkis Ayón, Sandra Ramos, and Ibrahim Miranda, promoters of the groundbreaking exhibition event, La Huella Múltiple (The Multiple Imprint).

Se acabó la Guerra Fría… reveals the gradual broadening of Barroso’s attention from the local scene to the international. In exhibitions such as Las donaciones llegaron ya (The Donations Have Already Arrived, 1995), or pieces like The Rush for the Freedom Land (1997), he had previously brought Cuban reality under the scalpel of an incisive humor. At the same time, he eroded the limits between plate and print, between engraving and relief, unique works of art and mass reproduction, fine craftsmanship and roughly fashioned handicrafts—all by means of meticulously carved and crafted wood works, which were then assembled as installations in exhibition spaces. In his solo exhibition, Video Arte del Tercer Mundo (Video Art of the Third World, 2000), TV sets carved from wood featured mass-media images of the Pope’s visit to Havana, the maquiladoras on the U.S.-Mexican border, the Gulf War, and the rapid pace of globalization.

For Se acabó la Guerra Fría…, which is a section from a larger, interrelated set, Barroso has resorted to the chronicles of the post 9-11 world offered by the mass media, as well as Michael Moore’s films and antiwar protests. His intention is to create the opposite effect: an anti-epic, set against sugar-coated visions of the Middle East war and utopian ideas about globalization. The events of 9-11; the invasion of Iraq; the interests of global energy corporations; the horrified fascination that terrorism inspires; childlike lists of “evil” countries; global financial flow; representations of the “other;” and increasingly radical religions are all sociopolitical coordinates that the artist, in his dedication of this piece, terms “the game of terror.”

Such factors emphasize the importance of Barroso’s approach, and the playful, ironic mechanisms that he sets in motion. The idea is to steer clear of both shrill propaganda and melodramatic victimization. Barroso’s appropriation of the do-it-yourself kit, assembled at home by unskilled hands, originated in a Cuban cultural memory that predates the Revolution—and in a fortuitous fact explained by the artist. “I think this piece is really the result of several years of creation,” he recently stated, “a work process where the piece really has to be assembled and disassembled to travel and be exhibited in other locations. The idea of assembling, disassembling, and packing up the composite pieces was a starting point for reflection, and then for putting it into practice in a piece of where these actions would be a primary characteristic” (Mena, 2006).

In Se acabó la Guerra Fría…, the itinerant nature of works of art and the widespread interest in cultural products are implicitly transformed by the piece’s subject and its openness to the participation of its audience. As Barroso explains, “I was interested in flirting with the limits of creation, through pieces that can be assembled by the public and by private collectors—investigating where my work ends and where the work of someone else begins, using the pieces that I provide (Mena, 2006).” The user not only has to re-create the piece with the help of an instruction manual and an image-filled CD-ROM (lampooning home fitness programs), but becomes involved—in the guise of a game—in the construction of an ideological landscape, a universe that starts to make sense screw by screw, wooden fragment by wooden fragment, all of them hand-carved by the artist himself. The carrying case, containing the dismantled pieces of the World Trade Center pierced by the kidnapped plane, would be sent to exhibitors and purchasers (generally in the First World, as the geopolitics of the art market dictate) through a “shipping and handling” method implied in the artwork’s design. It embodies, in a sarcastic vein, not only the circulation of raw material and manufactured goods through international commerce, but also the worldwide distribution of cultural images and stereotypes.

References: Lutyens, Dominic, “Art in Cuba” in Art Review, New York, June-July 2006, pp. 60-69. ArteCubano, 1/2006, illust. p. 73.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

About Adriano Buergo

b. Havana 1964, resides Miami, Florida

Adriano Buergo is among those Cuban artists ambidextrous enough to integrate his art into the dynamics and aesthetic itinerary of a collective such as Puré [which he co-founded] and at the same time successfully create an individual body of work, both in the context of the so-called “Prodigious Decade” or “Cuban Renaissance”: the mythic 1980s.

The 1990 drawing Roto (Broken) belongs to the saga “Roto expone” (Broken Holds, an Exhibition), an installation that lent its name to Buergo’s show at Havana’s Castillo de la Fuerza in 1989. In the catalogue notes, Cuban art critic Gerardo Mosquera stated that the Roto installation was the “most important” work in the show, as “an odyssey in ten chapters” starring “a Cuban electric fan, fitted with the motor of an old American air-conditioning unit, tied together with ropes, from Adriano’s own home.”

For most Cubans, putting together a fan with parts scavenged from other appliances—including motors from air-conditioning units or Soviet washing machines—was far from an unusual or Surrealistic bricolage. It was just an everyday occurrence, part of the “popular mechanics” of survival. Bricolage was also a frequent modus operandi in the Cuban art of this decade, with installation art, “bad painting,” and “bad form” serving as its launch pad and naturalization certificate.

Coming from humble beginnings (like many artists in his generation), Buergo did not invent bricolage, but simply extracted it from its everyday environment, using an inclusive, intertextual, postmodern approach. In this way, he proceeded to cross-breed everyday cultural elements with a technical and theoretical density acquired in his years at specialized, tuition-free schools of the arts, San Alejandro and the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA).

Buergo invoked such technical, academic virtuosity, such verisimilitude in the representation of objects, and such exquisite interplay of light and shadow that, in the case of Roto, the work could be easily mistaken for Baroque Tenebrism had the artist not placed his light source so precisely. If it were a candle instead of a kerosene lamp, one might think that Buergo was re-creating a still life in the best tradition of 18th-century European painters, à la Chardin. But the composition—the use of the shot-reverse shot—is more reminiscent of a counterpoint or dialogue between two beings, and thus the portrait genre. But the lamp, in focusing its light on the fan, partially masks it in obscurity and anonymity.

The artist endowed these two figures with a life story, as in an ethnographic investigation. According to Mosquera, “Roto suffers, dreams about his glorious past, sprouts wings and flies away to the consumerist society. But there he feels out of place, frozen, and he comes back home, where he is lovingly received by the kerosene lamp, the ‘chismosa’ [‘gossip,’ a type of makeshift kerosene lamp]. Difficult loves, as García Márquez would say, because she comes to life during power failures and Roto needs electricity. What’s more, his air current extinguishes his lover’s tenuous, feminine light.”

Clearly, Roto is a work that overflows with meaning once it’s contextualized. It is part of a visual narrative that, as a diegesis, relates to comic books and their use by artists of Buergo’s generation. Infused with an irony that borders on parody, it also evokes, to a certain extent, a sentimentalist, innocent perception, disengaged from the harsh realities of life.

Utopia, transformative will, disillusionment, exodus, rootlessness, and reunion: all are experiences common to the lives of artists from Buergo’s generation who, like him, ended up emigrating—some without the possibility of return, an option that Roto did have. As a result, this work and its creator became a parable about situations in which many Cubans, artists or not, found themselves.

Buergo’s dexterousness was already apparent in previous works such as Naturaleza Muerta–Naturaleza Viva (Still Death–Still Life, 1988), a painting born of the irreverence and scatological humor flaunted by Puré—an art collective created in 1986 by Buergo and classmates Lázaro Saavedra, Ciro Quintana, Ana Albertina Delgado, and Ermy Taño. As Mosquera wrote in the previously quoted catalogue, “Buergo is the painter of Cuban filth,” and his attitude was that of a participating critic—a position perhaps symbolized by his description of “a cross composed of a loaf of bread and a turd, painted by the artist,” which corresponds to Naturaleza Muerta–Naturaleza Viva.

True, this piece depicts a crucifix. But it also brings to mind the Holy Spirit, the third personage of the Holy Trinity, represented by the dove in Christian iconography. In this work, Buergo uses vernacular religious imagery—at that time considered “in bad taste” or kitsch, but enthroned in many Cuban homes—to allude to the terrible taste and poor quality of “our daily bread,” the one implored for in the Lord’s Prayer, as it manifested, in reality, in Cuba.

There is no coprophilia in this image. Nor is there an invitation to ingest food or digestive waste. What we see here is an irreverent symbiosis—a visual analogy and parable—intertwined with a strategy of re-signifying icons and dogmas, undertaken in the 1980s by some of the then-young Cuban artists.

                                                                                              —Israel Castellanos León

 

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About Aimée García

b. Matanzas, Cuba, 1972. Resides in Havana.

Aimeé García belongs to a lineage of women artists who, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, began to articulate a distinctive vision of their place in society. This was a trend in Cuban art of the period, emerging, without manifestos, in the work of such artists as Marta María Pérez Bravo, María Magdalena Campos-Pons, and Ana Albertina Delgado. Through highly personal styles and iconographies, these artists introduced the subject of femaleness into the discourse of contemporary Cuban art, offering a perspective that differed widely from the predominant thinking about women at that time. This thematic thread was picked up by younger women artists, García among them.

García's art offers a distinct perspective, using self-portraiture as a recurrent, near-ubiquitous device. In the 1990s, the artist’s own image is an icon that appears again and again in her pieces, always placed in completely decontextualized settings. García practices a sort of “historic revisionism” in which she playfully “disguises” herself in a Renaissance style, and her work reflects a broader effort to recuperate a “traditional” aesthetic paradigm, which was a constant undercurrent in Cuban art during this time. This was not a device used exclusively by García; many women artists of those years turned to self-portraiture with similar intentions.

García uses her own likeness to visually narrate situations related to her condition as a woman and an artist. Unlike other artists, however, García chooses to “live” in a different era. Her protagonist—herself—is transported to a long-gone age, and depicted with romantic touches. Using a hyperrealistic approach, García revives the compositional solutions of Renaissance portraits, from foreground placement of the subject to the characteristic depth of the background landscape receding into the distance. There is a certain histrionic quality to these paintings: the protagonists pose in a studied, carefully chosen, Mannerist fashion, not unlike American artist Cindy Sherman’s staged photographs. They radiate a fragility bordering on sadness, a feeling suggested by (among other strategies) the subject’s gaze being lowered or vaguely focused on distant space, always avoiding the viewer’s eyes.

In the two works shown here, García refers explicitly to two of her own defining attributes as a woman and an artist—a kind of yin/yang intrinsic to her being. Each piece seems to express a part of the dichotomy: Untitled (1994) emphasizes her femininity, whereas Untitled (1995) refers more explicitly to her profession as an artist. She includes objects as elements in each piece, although in these particular cases they are limited to the frames. In Untitled (1994), she uses ribbons, which define her as a woman; in the other, mirrors, which represent her creative vocation. The symbolic content of the objects is very much a device common to Renaissance paintings, where the proverbial palette in a figure’s hand indicated a painter. Untitled (1994), the work that identifies her as a woman, shows her naked, offering herself sensually to the male eye. In Untitled (1995), the one related to her profession, she represents herself fully clothed, lost in thought.

Although she started out as a painter, García later started experimenting with other media: photography, the use of objects as the central focus of works, and “feminine” techniques like embroidering (even on metal). In her work of later years we can also see a more conceptual intention, and in place of her own iconic likeness, she starts using other symbolic elements to represent the “domestic” world of Cuban women.

Despite her visual recreation of historical styles, García’s works transmit a timeless lyricism, not confined to a precise chronological period. Her art is visually pleasing, but it forces us to dig below the surface, in pursuit of a mystery beyond the subject’s pose. The very act of choosing the portrait genre, explored for centuries, offers an implicit challenge with respect to originality and novelty. García achieves full success in both endeavors, securing for her an indisputable place in Cuban art history and displaying a technical virtuosity that is integral to her art.

                                                                                                                   —Irina Leyva

About Alexandre Arrechea

b. 1970 Trinidad, Cuba

Alexandre Arrechea made his name as part of Los Carpinteros. Which is to say he made his name disappear along with those of his fellow Carpinteros, Marco Antonio Castillo Valdés and Dagoberto Rodríguez Sánchez. The three artists began working behind their collective moniker back in 1994, and they became phenomenally, and anonymously, successful. The New York Museum of Modern Art, which acquired several of their drawings for the museum's permanent collection, starting in the late 1990s, describes Los Carpinteros as follows: "Through collective authorship, the group members engage in labor that is itself opposed to the ideology of individual artistic genius."

So when Arrechea decided to leave Los Carpinteros in July 2003, the question was: How do you set out on your own after you've spent a decade opposing the ideology of individual artistic genius? Answer: it isn't easy, but if you work hard enough things will start to fall into place. Arrechea's first solo project was El Jardin de la Desconfianza (The Garden of Mistrust), an epic installation in Los Angeles that required two years (2003-2005) from conception to completion. The central piece of the work was a whitewashed aluminum tree whose branches were outfitted with video cameras—"surveillance cameras," as Arrechea saw it—which recorded spectators and broadcast them on the Internet.

"Mechanisms of vigilance and control" that's how Arrrechea describes the major focus of his solo work up to and including La habitación de todos (The Room of All, 2009), his project for the 10th Havana Biennial. The timeliness of this piece is astounding. It's a sculpture of a house that expands or contracts according to, respectively, the rise or fall of the Dow Jones Industrial Index. "Each point of rise or fall of the Dow Jones Industrial will reflect in greater or lesser spaciousness of the rooms of the house," Arrechea explained in an e-mail shortly before the Biennial got under way. While his work typically resonates with contemporary meaning, it can also be amusing. Or alarming. Or both at once. Like the giant wooden hand grenade he made with Los Carpinteros. Or his photograph of a black man struggling to carry a load of white bricks that hide his face and obscure his identity.

A good example of just how far he will go in search of relevance is Mississippi Bucket, a 32-by-28-foot sculpture he installed in a New Orleans public square in 2008. "This piece is a large-scale bucket carved in the shape of the Mississippi River made out of local driftwood from the river itself," Arrechea explains. "It is a metaphorical reminder that what happened in New Orleans [the levee breaking and Hurricane Katrina] affected the world and relates to all of us."

Alexandre Arrechea was born in 1970 in Trinidad, Cuba, and graduated from Havana's Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA) in 1994. At the time of our interview he was shuttling between New York—where he is planning an ambitious public art project involving video projections on buildings—and Madrid, where he lives with his wife, Cuban art historian Madeline Arrechea, and their two small children, Dalia and Arturo. During the Havana Biennial, Alexandre was showing his paintings (yes, he paints) in a Vedado apartment situated about ten blocks from another apartment where he and his family eat and sleep when they're in town.

As busy as he was during the Biennial, Arrechea seemed to be in fine spirits every time we ran into him, always quick to flash a warm smile. In contrast to the icy topicality of his best conceptual work, Arrechea has the sunny disposition of someone who has worked hard to make things fall into place, and who is now fortunate enough to watch them do just that. —Courtesy Havana Cultura

Alexandre Arrechea received the Farber Foundation Cuban Artist of the Year award in 2015.

About Alexis Esquivel

b. 1968, resides in Cuba

Cuban art produced after the landmark 1993 exhibition, Las metáforas del templo (Metaphors of the Temple) was not only defined by an increasingly sophisticated artistic métier and a greater density of metaphor; it also expanded its scope to include subjects that had, in previous decades, been taboo.

Exhibitions such as Queloides (Keloids) I (1997) and II (1999), ’98 cien años después (’98 One Hundred Years Later, 1998-2000), Ni músicos ni deportistas (Neither Musicians nor Athletes, 1997), and El ocultamiento de las almas (The Hiding of the Souls, 1997) anticipated the current analysis about social inequalities and racist practices inherent in the ideologies of day-to-day life. These exhibitions reflected on the canon of history and on the socioeconomic tensions that emerged during the “Special Period.” Unlike the anti-academic avant-garde of the 1930s, this current of thought did not strive to vindicate an Afro-Cuban art, and it was not interested in mythologizing, as Wifredo Lam did in the 1940s. It neither coined a particular visual style nor attempted to represent marginalized segments of the population.

In the works of Alexis Esquivel and several other artists (as well as curators and critics), attention is focused on vital conflicts that are not publicly discussed, and on questioning the cultural stereotypes about black men and women that circulate in both Cuban national history and the tourist industry. While acknowledging the positive impact of the legal and practical measures taken by the Cuban government against racial discrimination, these artists also take the pulse of the streets—Cuban rap music, for example—and their demythologizing attitude, similar to that of African-American artists like Robert Colescott, Kara Walker, and Kerry James Marshall, continues the discussion of negritude conducted by black Cuban intellectuals since the 19th century.

Esquivel creates canvases, performances, and sculptures infused with parody, in which he subverts the division between history and popular beliefs. He erodes the imaginary pedestals of national heroes, from the indigenous chief Hatuey to José Martí and Che Guevara. In previous pieces like Black Power, Cuatro maneras de alisar el cabello (Four Ways of Relaxing Hair), and Pianissimo Concerto, Esquivel had referred to personalities and phenomena linked to the “black problem” both in Cuba and in the United States. But in Autopsia (Autopsy), he includes photographic evidence of an historical event: the racial slaughter that took place in Cuba in 1912. Under the Morúa Law, which excluded racial parties from the political arena, the Independent Colored Party (PIC), led by Evaristo Estenoz and Pedro Ivonet, was declared illegal. The ensuing protest was violently repressed by the army of President Gómez. More than 4,000 black Cubans, including PIC leaders, were detained and killed.

The image of Estenoz’s autopsy was offered as “real” proof of his death at the hands of the army. This evidence, which lends its name to the piece, is printed on a basketball backboard—a symbol of sports, one of the most visible ways for Cuba’s black population to achieve recognition. The basket, or net, is made of red and black Lycra, a ubiquitous material in the wardrobe of lower-class women and jineteras (female prostitutes, or “sex jockeys”). In Santería, the colors red and black evoke Eleggua, the orisha (deity) who opens and closes pathways and doors, and who is traditionally placed behind the front door of the house. Here, the basket is sewn shut, blocking any possibility of playing the game.

Autopsia has been created as a seamless collage, in which the historical image interacts with present-day cultural signs. Esquivel is interested in eroding the presumed objectivity of photography—a technology of reproduction linked, since the 19th century, to the classification of both non-European populations and criminals. Placed in a new interpretive context, the autopsy performed on the lifeless body of Evaristo Estenoz—leader of a frustrated racial emancipation movement in republican Cuba—extends to the social body of the Cuban nation.

References: Cited catalogue, p. 50. Ribeaux, Ariel, “Ni Músicos ni Deportistas” (Neither Musicians Nor Athletes), ArteCubano 3/2000, pp. 52-59.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

See also: Abelardo Mena Chicuri, "Unforgettable: Obama, Raúl, and Alexis Esquivel's Chronicle of Hope,” Cuban Art News, December 18, 2014.

About Ana Albertina Delgado

b. 1963, resides in Miami, Florida

Ana Albertina Delgado became known in Cuba in the mid-1980s as a member of art collective Grupo Puré (together with Adriano Buergo, Ermy Taño, and Lázaro Saveedra). Later, her work grew closer to that of other female artists like Marta María Pérez, Consuelo Castañeda and María Magdalena Campos, who began tackling women’s issues from a perspective previously unseen in the isolated island’s context. These artists started pushing aside the usual sugary images of domesticity and idealized maternity to reveal visions of a starker, more shocking nature: a more explicit sexuality, and a questioning of women’s place in society.

From the beginning, Delgado leaned toward an intimate, poetic style, a reverie world of metaphors highlighting her most essential concerns, dreams, and frustrations. Her works abound in references to her inner world from an autobiographical, self-referential standpoint.

Delgado’s first pieces were delicate drawings in pencil or ink, drawn on various types of paper. Her choice of materials was far from arbitrary, dictated by mundane reasons of simple availability. Many of those drawings were made on Kraft paper, others on recycled wrapping paper. Their intricacy evokes the automatic paintings of Surrealism. Populated by characters of her own invention, these pieces reveal an extremely personal iconography, with fictitious elements interspersed with autobiographical. Despite their indubitably personal, distinctive nature, to a certain point these works could be understood as being indebted in their subject matter to artists such as Frida Kahlo. Formally, however, they have very little in common with the Mexican artist’s work; while Kahlo favored a realistic and aggressive painting style, Delgado’s is much subtler and more subjective, with more allusive imagery.

In the early 1990s, Delgado’s works began to change, with a new tendency to reflect concerns or experiences of a sensual nature, from a markedly and explicitly feminine point of view. The fantastic component in these works grew stronger. Delgado cast herself into imaginary worlds or in the place of characters created from these illusions.

An example of this trend is Delgado’s 1992 Coristas (Chorus Girls) series. In a sort of progression, we see chorus girls in scenarios that range from explicitly sexual to idyllic representations of what appears to be the dream of a different life. In the first drawing in the series, Muchacha de rodillas (Girl on Her Knees), the chorus girl is portrayed kneeling, naked, crouched in a vulnerable and clearly sexual position.

The second drawing suggests an exploration of sensuality between two girls. Another drawing represents a very intimate scene, with the protagonist painting her fingernails –one of the symbolic chores of stereotypical femininity par excellence. The last drawing in the series showcases a distressing image: in the foreground, the character is tearing at her own skin while dreaming of an idyllic place, projected on a corner of the composition. This work serves as prelude to others in which Delgado proposes a kind of visual metamorphosis, an imagined transformation in which she abandons her present circumstances, attempting a return to childhood.

In the mid-2000s, Delgado started focusing on the specific correlation between women as sexual beings and the role of motherhood. It was a dichotomy she explored extensively in the rest of the decade, in such works as Escrito en su piel (Written on Her Skin), 2007, which illustrates this duality. Later works delved into the obstacles faced by women in satisfying their domestic and professional needs. Their formal aspects reflect obvious changes, such as the use of a much brighter palette that pairs contrasting colors like blues and oranges.

Of Delgado's entire body of work, her pieces painted on paper are the most seductive. The medium gives her a freedom revealed by her treatment of the human figure. These pieces are distinguished by a unique subtlety, especially in the fine, soft traces that delineate her figures. Her personal style is undoubtedly best expressed in her sensitive treatment of her themes, as well as the exquisite perfection of her lines.

By reflecting her most intimate feelings from a feminine, intimate perspective, Delgado started a distinct trend in Cuban contemporary art, taken up by other artists over the subsequent decades. Artists such as Aimée García and Elsa Mora followed in her footsteps with similarly introspective works, tackling similar themes.

—Irina Leyva-Pérez

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About Ana Mendieta

1948-1985, resided in the United States

Ana Mendieta’s arrival in Cuba in January of 1980—eighteen years after her departure during “Operation Pedro Pan”—was preceded by a political event: a meeting held in 1978 by the Cuban government and a group representing the so-called “community of Cuban emigrants abroad.” As a consequence of that unprecedented dialogue, U.S. and Cuban regulations were changed to permit Cubans living in the United States to travel to the island.

Mendieta attended the 1978 meeting as part of a youth group gathered around the Antonio Maceo Brigade and Areíto magazine. She returned to Cuba on numerous occasions, and her presence served as a catalyst at a crucial moment in defining the direction of Cuban art: the emergence of the Volumen I generation in the early 1980s. “She had a special interaction with José Bedia, Ricardo Brey, and Juan Francisco Elso... Ana’s work, although coming from the new performance and feminist art of the 1970s, shared the same perspective with those young artists, with the introduction of elements of Afro-Cuban religiosity. She, whose work was already so clearly defined, was an artistic influence for them, and at the same time she received a strong cultural influence” (Mosquera, 2003, 267). It was an encounter as fruitful as it was energetic. Coming from apparently different cultural backgrounds, the artists from the island and a Cuban from the diaspora rose above all demagogic definitions of national identity as well as quaint, “Made in Hollywood” cultural formulations. Stereotypical images of maracas, drums, palm trees, colorful roosters, and Latin lovers were replaced by a fluid conception that internalized the (African) religious components of popular culture and resignified them through contemporary art.

Beyond the Esculturas rupestres (Rupestrian Sculptures) that she carved at Escaleras de Jaruco and Varadero Beach in 1981, the presence of this petite woman left a personal imprint as well. Her renewed links with the island made Mendieta a promoter of the cultural “thawing” between Cuba and the United States. Thanks to her enthusiasm, critics and artists such as Rudolf Baranik, Lucy Lippard, and Carl André visited the island, exchange programs between Cuban artists and American universities were created, and works by Keith Haring, Barbara Kruger, Hans Haacke, Faith Ringold, Carl André, May Stevens, and Mel Edwards, among others, were donated to the collections of Cuban cultural institutions.

Mendieta assigned a healing role, both at the personal and symbolic level, to the ephemeral interventions that she staged and photographed: silhouettes traced on the ground, ancestral marks made on sand or trees, and manipulations of the elemental energies of water and fire. The obsessive search for a ritual union with nature, achieved through a true austerity of means, attempted to compensate for the psychological damage sustained in her personal biography: the trauma of the rootlessness created by her exile when she was little more than a teenager. In the United States, Mendieta herself had been a Cuban island, isolated in the sea of an alien culture.

To lie down and imprint her ghostly presence on the ground implied, above all, her reunion with a country from whose center she had been extirpated by History; a mutual embrace with a Cuban nation that still segregated with equal distrust exiles and Catholics, Santeros and homosexuals, freethinkers and utopians, branding them all as practitioners of “improper behavior.” For Cuban art, which was just getting over the traumas caused by cultural bureaucratization (the five-year “Gray Period”), Mendieta’s performance work was unprecedented and indispensable. It has resonated deeply with artists of later generations, such as Marta María Pérez, Magdalena Campos-Pons, Tania Bruguera, Sandra Ramos, DUPP, and the Enema group.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

About Ángel Delgado

b. 1965, resides in Mexico

The date: May 4, 1990. The event: the opening of the group exhibition, El Objeto Esculturado (The Sculptured Object), at the Center for the Development of the Visual Arts in Havana. The artist Ángel Delgado slowly unfolds a copy of the newspaper Granma, squats down in front of the blasé audience, and defecates on the printed pages. Named La esperanza es lo último que se está perdiendo (Hope Is The Last Thing To Go), his performance prompts the exhibition’s closing and the firing of the center’s director. Delgado was found guilty of public scandal and sentenced to prison. For six months, he would become inmate 1242900. The process art of the 1980s had examined the merging of art and life from a theoretical perspective; Delgado’s act now threw him into a context he’d known of only by word of mouth, from rumors, or through Saturday night movies.

Delgado’s involuntary status as an “artist in residence” catalyzed his creativity. “There, together with his comrades in captivity, he learned to draw on handkerchiefs using colored pencils and cold cream, and to carve images from bars of laundry soap. And this has provided his themes and subjects, and the overall inspiration for his art” (Hernández, 2002). Delgado also discovered that art was useful: his soap carvings and handkerchief drawings could be exchanged for the items necessary for a prisoner’s survival. Meanwhile, in a rabid expression of privacy, he made one hundred drawings on office paper with pen and crayon: “sacred, hieroglyphic writing, a bundle of stories half-graphic, half-text, an iconography, a cache of memories” (Mosquera, 1996, 24).

As someone who created art while imprisoned, Delgado entered, by implication, a peculiar sociocultural canon: prison art and literature. In Cuba, texts such as José Martí’s essay, El presidio politico en Cuba (Political Prisons in Cuba); Carlos Montenegro’s novel, Hombres sin mujer (Men Without Women); Pablo de la Torriente Brau’s memoir, Presidio modelo (Model Prison); Ernesto de Blanck’s drawings in El Principe prison; and the anonymous graffiti on the walls of the Isle of Pines prison are among the previous contributions to a body of work—unexplored by the island’s scholars—in which the discourses of submission and rebellion, of bodily urgencies and individual solitude, meet and intersect.

Within this unacknowledged tradition, the unavoidable autobiographical focus tilts Delgado’s oeuvre toward the non-fiction, testimonial genre. But its conceptual density keeps it from reduction to mere anecdotal melodrama. The approach is similar to that used by Uruguayan-American artist Luís Camnitzer. Traumatic events are channeled and purged through the appropriation of everyday objects—soap, bed sheets, drawn-on handkerchiefs—transformed into the material and metaphors of freedom. Delgado reworks the shape, texture, and smell of the soap, turning it into a different kind of signifier. Applying it directly to his drawings, he transmutes it into a symbol of the malleability of the individual in the face of his social environment. It is a position similar to that expressed by the artist Carlos Cárdenas in Suicida o moldeable (Suicide or Malleable, 1989).

Delgado turns the handkerchief—a personal object of prison “tough guys”—into a narrative codex, an obsessive diary in which each piece of fabric becomes a frame, as in a comic strip. But the narrative is strictly visual, because silence reigns over everything: silence, and the contained gesture. Objects such as bunk beds, barred windows, and barbed wire fences are charged with implying a human presence. Whenever figures do appear, they’re either sketchy outlines or remain mute, without exchanging a single word. The drawing is spare, precise; it adapts, rigorously, to the contours of the fabric.

On one of the handkerchiefs, Delgado has drawn the faceless images of three men. Eyes, noses, and mouths have been excluded; only bare outlines define them. Their tongues, however, seem to move tirelessly. Entangled with each other, they form the only bridges among the anonymous faces. Delgado’s drawings translate common phrases into images; darse lengua (to give tongue) or “Frenching” would be the most fitting term here. Yet the image implies not a carnal link between these individuals, but conspiratorial conversation, gossip, the intense transmission of information—in short, the sport of profoundly bored men.

The second handkerchief seems to appropriate a universal photographic format: the mug shot. In the lower area of the cloth is a string of numbers: 1242900, Delgado’s prison ID. But there’s no face or silhouette; these have vanished. The portrait that indisputably identifies the individual has been replaced by an amorphous, dirty, indeterminate blob. It could be a sweat stain, a footprint, a smear of semen or tears. Or a stark and sober shroud, in which the individual disappears behind the assigned number, a barcode for a biography that struggles against losing its voice.

References: Block, Holly, ed., Art Cuba: The New Generation (Harry N. Abrams, 2001), p. 67.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

About Armando Mariño

b. 1968, resides in USA

Beginning with his solo exhibition, Des-colon-izando el entorno (De-colon-izing the Environment, Wifredo Lam Center, 1996), Mariño’s art has revealed a unique take on the practice of parody and pastiche. Pedro Álvarez extracted the ireme, or Abakuá imp, from the costumbrista paintings of 19th-century artist Víctor Landaluze, making this figure a “star” among current cultural symbols; but Mariño created his own character, a well-built black man clothed only in short pants. This figure represents not only the artist’s own racially mixed identity, but the concept known in cultural studies circles as “the other:” a cultural opposite, beyond the bounds of Western art and civilization. (That concept, of course, includes Cuban and other Third World artists.)

Instead of walking the streets of Havana, Mariño’s black man explores the canon of Western pictorial art, examining these works as socially accepted markers of status and prestige, consecrated by museums, academies, and art critics. Through installations, sculptures, drawings, and paintings inspired by the tableau vivant and narrative academic painting, Mariño creates a fictional space—à la Woody Allen in The Purple Rose of Cairo—in which his character comes and goes without any difficulty, while relating in an “incorrect” manner to works in the Western artistic canon. It is a sarcastic approach to art as a space of power and exclusion.

Using each painting as an independent frame, in the style of a comic strip or graphic novel, Mariño places his character in a series of odd situations, in which the figure adopts irreverent, almost bizarre attitudes. He uses Marcel Duchamp’s urinal—a temple of the analytical tradition of modern art—to satisfy a physiological necessity, or fills it with basketballs swiped from a Jeff Koons work. He climbs into Marat’s bathtub to demand the rights of liberty, equality, and fraternity, or prepares to take flight like Icarus. (Whether he stays aloft or falls is left to the imagination of the viewer.)

“‘By cannibalizing images, styles, techniques, references, and inherited material’—explained the artist—‘I have tried to make visible the stereotypes and erroneous concepts that underlie certain narratives and discourses practiced by the Western world, and their relationship to the excluded ‘other’” (Mariño, 2006). With substantial doses of humor that mask a sincere reverence, Mariño does not propose a Taliban-style demolition of the paradigms of Western art, but a questioning of their assumed universality.

La Patera (The Raft) signaled a change in the artist’s direction, a transit point to different territories of expression. In this pastel—a sketch for an installation exhibited in the Eighth Havana Biennial in 2003—the character of the black man has disappeared, and so has the international stage of his adventures. The artist’s gaze now seems to return to the island in a tangential way. The word patera is used in Spain, where Mariño lives, to identify the narrow rafts of balseros who, coming from North Africa, perilously cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach the coast of Andalusia or the Canary Islands.

But Mariño is not alluding to this uninterrupted D-Day from south to north, with its social and political implications for the European community. Atop the numerous legs—all male—is the body of a vintage Oldsmobile car, old American technology kept alive in Cuba by the twin forces of love and recycling. These big American jalopies (called almendrones in popular slang) not only work locally as taxicabs, but also transport many people from the eastern provinces to Havana. Is the impossible conjunction of mechanical structure and human bodies a commentary on the unceasing, improvisatory creativity of Cubans, actively enthusiastic but disorganized due to constant material shortages? The body of the American car, symbol of both social prestige and the absence of Cuban technological renewal, will have to depend on the slow and disorganized movement of those feet, in a frustrated version of true progress: acceleration is impossible. Mariño’s image leaves room for ambiguity as it joins the many works of art that, since the Italian Futurist movement of the early 20th century, have made the automobile a paean to modern times.

References: Brochure, Armando Mariño, VIII Bienal de La Habana, Madrid, Spain, 2003, illust. Catalogue, Eighth Havana Biennial, Wifredo Lam Center, Havana, 2003, illust. p. 152. Herzberg, Julia P. “Octava Bienal de La Habana,” ArtNexus, No. 52, Miami, United States, 2004.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

About Arturo Cuenca

b. 1955, resides in the United States

From its origins in the photographic image taken by Korda (Alberto Díaz) in 1960, to its mass reproduction by Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli in 1967, its recycling by such contemporary artists as Erró and Vik Muñiz, and its use in popular protests, the iconography of Che Guevara has taken shape in different media: paintings, posters, serigraphs, stickers, graffiti, pins, lighters, and bandanas. All of these intertwine the hagiography of the guerrilla leader with the commercialization of his image. A significant portion of this visual stockpile has been created Cuba, the stage and launching pad for the Argentinean rebel’s international profile. Either voluntarily or through commissions from the government, many Cuban painters, designers, and photographers have undertaken the portrayal of man and myth.

Arturo Cuenca’s Che brings a personal accent to this thematic lineage in Cuban art. Considered one of the main leaders of the “new Cuban art” of the 1980s, Cuenca moved from conceptually based hyperrealism to manipulated photography—converting it into the object/subject of intense investigations of perception, the role of the viewer, and the nature of intellectual knowledge. Immersed in the application of philosophical theories to artistic creation, Cuenca has been a public polemicist, and the creator of a “sensuous” post-Conceptualism. He has proposed the re-establishing of the aesthetic as a governing ideology, which, shedding its usual character, would inspire a new socio-cultural environment.

In Ciencia e ideologia: Che, Cuenca implicates the heroic image in a critique of the photographic medium and the manipulative nature of propaganda. His anti-eulogistic attitude is not based on personal attitudes alone: in 1987, the year the piece was begun, Cuba commemorated the twentieth anniversary of Che’s death in Bolivia, incorporating it into the “error rectification” process of the 1980s. Intended to correct technocratic “deviations” in the economy, the new measures emphasized the importance of conscience, austerity, and voluntary work. Texts written by Che and essays about his theories were published. His image was reproduced in orthodox fashion in the mass media, billboards, and other street propaganda. But the habitual slogan Seremos como el Che (We will be like Che) was taken up by intellectuals and artists as a call to critical irreverence towards the Revolution.

An immense steel structure, erected as a billboard on the roof of a building on Havana’s 23rd Street near the Almendares River Bridge, displayed Che’s stern face next to a phrase: El revolucionario debe ser un trabajador infatigable (A revolutionary must be an indefatigable worker). Cuenca chose to photograph the reverse of the billboard, so that the face of the hero becomes anonymous, identifiable only through the contours of its silhouette. In selecting the “reverse” as his point of view, Cuenca intended not only to disrupt the act of communication, but to move beyond the stereotyped icon. The work takes the viewer “behind the façade,” placing him in a critical attitude toward the stage machinery that supports the myth, literally as well as metaphorically—at the same time demanding a dismantling of the para-religious rituals that nourish ideological and social propaganda.

On the inverted image of this intricate backstage grid, Cuenca adds his own handwritten phrase: El revolucionario no es retrato, es paisaje (A revolutionary is not a portrait, but a landscape). The insertion of his own text as an imagined incursion into the space of the urban sign magnifies one of his most frequent techniques: the fusion of text and image in such a way that the viewer perceives them simultaneously. The text alludes to the blurring of the limits between the hero and the people, and to the transformation of the cult of the individual into an explosion of collective creation. This was the moment in Cuban history when a group of artists painted the word Meditar (Meditate) under the monument to José Martí in Revolution Square. Over the skies of Havana, Cuenca inscribed his own contribution.

References: Camnitzer, Luis, New Art from Cuba, 1994; reprint, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003, p. 207, illust. p. 206.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

About Belkis Ayón

1967-1999, resided in Cuba

While studying at the San Alejandro art school in Havana, Belkis Ayón discovered the writings of Lydia Cabrera and Enrique Sosa about the secret society of the Abakuá. Originating in Calabar, Nigeria, the Abakuá is one of four religious-cultural groups of African origin that have been present in Cuba since colonial times. This secret society does not accept women, homosexuals, or visual representations of any kind. Since the beginning of the 20th century, it has been linked to antisocial and criminal activity (Fuente, 2001). Santería music, songs, musical instruments, and dances had been catalogued as the folkloric patrimony of the nation; the Abakuá, however, did not enjoy such official recognition.

Ayón’s approach to Abakuá culture was not simply an isolated gesture made in an artistic context. Cuba’s official atheistic-scientific discourse segregated all religious practices of Afro-Cuban origin as “vestiges from the past,” but contemporary Cuban artists rediscovered them as deep and vital wellsprings of the nation. Works by Bedia, Elso, and Rodríguez Brey deconstructed the Eurocentric perspective from which Cuban artists and scholars had observed Afro-Cuban cultures since the 1800s. Other artists incorporated the kitsch, pun-filled visuals and scattershot incoherence of the urban environment, the everyday humor, popular scatology, current events, and political rhetoric—all texts within arm’s reach, but invisible to Cuban art during the previous decades.

Ayón’s prints do not presume to establish the imagery of a religion, nor are they a believer’s tribute. With a strictly contemporary vision, she takes the myths of the Abakuá as her artistic foundation. In the absence of an iconographic system, she threads together fictions, filling the gaps left by the silence with which Abakuá culture has guarded its beliefs. Her creative license is essentially no different from European artists’ re-creation of myths since the Renaissance. In her case, the raw material is the legend of Sikán, a story of African origin transplanted to the Americas.

In the 1990s, Ayón consolidated her mastery of classical printing techniques and the visual universe that it spawned. Producing large-format, limited-edition prints from a conceptual-art perspective, she joined artists Ibrahim Miranda, Abel Barroso, and Sandra Ramos as a leader of La Huella Múltiple (The Multiple Imprint). For a medium usually reserved for the reproduction of decorative scenes, it was a radical project. Ayón reached creative maturity in her exploration of collography. This printing process became her “natural” medium, and she exploited it to its fullest potential. In her collographs, the plate is essentially a collage assembled through successive layers of ink. Ayón achieves her effects through a variety of textures and subtle tones of black, white, and gray. This austere, intentionally limited approach lends the work an air of self-contained mystery.

The artist’s evocation of Byzantine icons and Japanese prints contribute to the sense of an original universe. The utter flatness of the cut-out figures, the elimination of all unnecessary detail, the balance between black and white spaces, the beautifully organized composition, the deft use of different sizes and formats, and the suggestively charged backgrounds all coalesce to unveil “mythic spaces, charged with energies that inhabit a time beyond a now and a later…” (Wood, 1999, 3). Within the context of this evocative universe, Ayón included compositions taken from Catholic iconography and popular photography, such as La cena (The Last Supper, 1991) or La familia (The Family, 1995). But she never intended to make literal narratives of specific scenes or mythologies.

Ayón appropriated the Abakuá rituals with profound respect, taking no part in the parodies found elsewhere in Cuban art. Faced with a norm based on “the discriminatory treatment of everything feminine, which is an organic, structural component of the African cultures that reached these lands” (Castro, 1996, 4), Ayón inserted an authorial subversion or distortion: a “female voice,” absolutely forbidden in Abakuá tradition. From a practical perspective, references to the artist were included in her representations of the female figure: she was her own model. She also identified herself with Sikán, whose ostracism by the Abakuá—for having revealed the secret of the fish Tánze—was the basis of its exclusion of women. Inspired by the Sikán myth, Ayón’s large, almond-shaped eyes entered the forbidden territory assuming a variety of identities. Gradually, the artist’s work reflected the intense crisis of her personal life: “when Belkis emphasizes Sikán’s conflict, it seems that she wants to put the emphasis on her own conflict” (Mateo, 2000, 5). That conflict ended with her tragic death at age 32.

Ayón’s oeuvre does not place her among poetic realists such as Leonora Carrington, nor is it akin to picturesque versions of magical realism. Ayón was able to discover her own world—nurtured by the live traditions of an insular culture, with the wide-eyed attitude of someone doing it for the first time.

                                                                                       —Abelardo G. Mena Chicuri 

About Carlos Alfonzo

b. 1950 Havana - d. 1991 Miami

Carlos José Alfonzo Espina studied at the University of Havana. He emigrated to the United States in 1980 and quickly developed a following there. His work was represented in the Outside Cuba exhibition and the Cuba-USA: The First Generation traveling exhibition. Alfonzo was also the subject of several solo exhibitions at institutions such as the Miami Art Museum, the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in North Carolina, and the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach, and his work is in the permanent collection of the Miami-Dade Public Library. His work was featured in the book Triumph of the Spirit: Carlos Alfonzo, A Survey 1975-1991, published by the Miami Art Museum. He is one of the artists profiled in the documentary film Three Artist Profiles (Maria Lino, 1988). Alfonzo died of AIDS-related complications in 1991 (see New York Times obituary).

About Carlos Cárdenas

b. 1962, resides in the United States

Carlos Cárdenas is one of the most active artists working within the “demythifying” or critical trend that distinguished Cuban art in the 1990s. His entry into the contemporary art spotlight came with the 1988 exhibition Artista de Calidad (Quality Artist) at Galería Línea in Havana. From his initial work with collages, Cárdenas moved on to small canvases, where he applied a principle of composition similar to John Heartfield’s photomontage work: an antithesis between text slogans culled from the Cuban press and scenes where one or more characters perform, or are affected by, the actions stated in the texts.

The result was a corrosive, high-octane humor that uncovered the unforeseen ambiguities of advertising language and exposed the stereotypical character of social communication. “Cárdenas has taken as a point of departure a carnivalesque grotesquerie and scatology which deconstructs political slogans. His imaginings, which possess a keen graphic sense, are usually structured on significant contrasts between soft shapes and hard geometrical shapes” (Mosquera, 1999, 23).

The humorous approach worked on parallel levels. On one side, Cárdenas—along with such artists such as Tonel, Tomás Esson, and Segundo Planes—introduced into “refined” art those ribald jokes and stories that Cubans create and circulate day after day, as a defensive, mocking mechanism against themselves, the authorities, and the perpetual shortage of supplies. This “choteo,” or joking, had been dissected by Jorge Mañach in the early 1900s, the first years of the Republic. In the 1980s, it found outlets in publications such as the weekly tabloid DDT and in newsreels from the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC). But it had not penetrated the sanctum of serious art. Cárdenas adopted, without bias or prejudice, the conventions of comic books and illustrations—resources that formalist critics had associated with minor genres. This taste for the makeshift, the imperfect, even the bizarre, became a cultural sensibility that ran through exhibitions of naïve folk artists and mixtures of amateur and professional artists that were curated by Orlando Hernández and Gerardo Mosquera.

The revival, in the late 1980s, of the building program known as microbrigadas populares (popular microbrigades) suggested to Cárdenas several elements such as bricks, hardhats, and welding masks—imagery that he incorporated to his pieces. In Construir el Cielo (Constructing Heaven, 1989), Cárdenas transforms the brick from building material into a metaphor for the anonymity of the human being within a collectivist utopia; and in the mural Maneras de Seguir Adelante (Ways to Continue Forward, 1989), a robot-man, or Golem, made of bricks appears to lose his hands and feet as he lurches forward.

Cárdenas’ admonitory images on the dangers of spiritual bureaucratization are of a piece with Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s 1964 film, La muerte de un burócrata (Death of a Bureaucrat). An eyeless man, his body made of bricks, stands against a colorful background lifted from popular “street” architecture, confessing: Mi suerte está en mi corazón, mi casa soy yo (My luck is in my heart, I am my house). Another man, resembling the artist, tries to keep his feet on two roads that intertwine and tangle like tightropes. Cárdenas’ humor, unbearable for the prelates of ideological purity, blends the slogan Resistir, luchar, vencer (Resist, Fight, Win, 1990) with the salaciousness and scatology of the street. Or he subjects official thinking to an optical test in Lucha entre las ideas y la luz (Struggle between Ideas and Light, 1987). During his final days in Cuba, Cardenas focused on feces and its representation on canvas, transforming it into a visceral, polyphonic symphony—metaphorical poison for politically correct palates.

                                                                  —Abelardo Mena Chicuri

About Carlos Estévez

b. 1969, resides in the United States

Between the 1930s and the 1960s, the dynamics of visual art production in Cuba focused on the creation of images that would vindicate Cuban subjects through a reworking of avant-garde trends. Within the canon established in the art capitals of Paris and then New York, Cuban modernism appeared as a “secondary” adaptation of the “original” sources. But with the landmark 1981 exhibition Volumen I and the generations of artists that followed, contemporary Cuban art has overcome its “peripheral” condition and its inferiority complex, producing a modern art that does not limit itself to the easy recourse of the “national.” Cuban art now circulates unabashedly through the global contemporary art world. The active diaspora of artists from Cuba—as émigrés or via the nomadism institutionalized by international biennials, residences, workshops, and scholarships—has contributed to this process. Shaken out of an undemanding, comfortable pigeonholing into groups or trends, Cuban visual arts are nowadays an archipelago of many islands. Generic categories of “kitsch,” “postmodern,” or “rebellious” art, which in the past were useful in discussing similarities between artistic processes inside and outside Cuba, have since exploded under the pressure of strong personalities who defy any attempt at classification.

Carlos Estévez is certainly one of those personalities. Initially considered a disciple of the artist Elso Padilla because of his use of natural materials and a preference for iconic representations of humanity, Estévez has developed a coherent personal mythology, anthropological in flavor. His sources are not the 19th-century costumbrista chronicles of everyday Cuban life and customs, or the cynical parody of History’s rituals, or a commitment to defending minority cultures. Instead, it is a fusion of “anthropology, existentialist literature, syncretic cults, ontology, medieval codes, popular cultures, religion, the knowledge summarized in encyclopedias, the philosophy of Kant and Nietzsche, Asian spiritual beliefs, and Ernst Cassirer’s Neo-Kantism” (Pino, 1995, 33).

Estévez’s visions transcend everyday experience, as if the bankruptcy of future utopias had forced him to create a realm of beliefs and knowledge anchored in the solid bastions of universal history, culture, and myth. We are not, however, confronted with a neo-medievalist who appropriates icons and representations for decorative purposes, but rather an artist whose work is rich in substance, conceived as a bridge between philosophy and poetry. This aspect of his art gives rise not only to the ritual character of the pieces’ creation and development, but to their references to Christian art, Baroque sculpture, compass roses and navigational charts, sacred texts, and images of animals and the human body.

If, in the polychrome sculpture A través del universo (Across the Universe, 1992, Farber Collection), a Christlike figure prepares to fly off in search of freedom or knowledge, in La Verdadera Historia Universal (The True History of the World, 1995, MNBA) the linear concept of history is subverted by placing the viewer literally in front of a wooden puppet theatre where he can eliminate or add heroes, historical figures, and villains. Since the 1995 exhibition El destino es tuyo (Destiny is in Your Hands), Estévez’s drawings and canvases have combined images of animals, human anatomy, and mechanical blueprints within the fixed grids of cartography. He does this by means of transparencies that recall treatises of esotericism, alchemy, acupuncture, or da Vinci’s anatomical codices. “My main concern has been to create images that are at the same time thinking tools,” he has stated, “metaphors of man’s existential questions—for instance, his power, his weakness, his essence, and his mission in the universe” (Pino, 1995, 34).

One of these thoughtful illuminations is El mundo en que vivimos (The World We Live In), an image that was later reproduced on a five-meter high banner. The hand—appendage connected with work and prayer, but also with aggression and punishment—has been transmuted into a metaphor of the universe. The lines inscribed on the skin are the routes of an extensive geography that must be traversed with only the aid of a compass rose, guided by knowledge and common wisdom. In Ciudad Secreta (Secret City), the artist apparently describes an ancient island-city, surrounded by strong walls and medieval alleys. To help the traveler find his or her way, compass roses have been placed on the possible access doors, indicating the ways in and out of the walled citadel. But in this curious urban map we cannot find street names, nor do we glimpse the incessant toil of the multitudes. What Estévez describes with a beautiful analogy is simply the human heart, whose shape outlines and encloses the image. On it, all possible experiences are inscribed—drawings of animals and mechanical devices that have been integrated into the complexity of human nature, all executed in a subtle, intricate lines. The heart is the intimate realm of every person; for some it will slowly disclose itself in the course of their lives, and for some it will eternally remain secret. 

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

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About Carlos Garaicoa

b. 1967, resides in Cuba

Curator, with Esterio Segura, of the important 1993 exhibition Las metáforas del templo (Metaphors of the Temple), Carlos Garaicoa has created an exceptional body of work on the themes of architecture, ruins, and utopia. From his initial subject, the city of Havana, he has moved on to New York; Cuito Cuanavale, Angola; Valencia, Spain; Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States; and Venice, Italy. Garaicoa is among the best known Cuban artists internationally, and his work has achieved canonical status on the island.

Rívoli o el lugar donde mana la sangre (Rivoli, or The Place Where Blood Flows) was named after a piece of the same title made in 1993-95, transformed into a light-box photograph in 2002. The earlier work included a photograph of the location and an architectural rendering. In complementary visions, the photo offered a dispassionate close-up of the building—reduced to its façade and knee-deep in detritus—while the drawing depicted a pyramid built on the roof, and a rivulet of blood trailing down the building’s surface. A handwritten text announced the drawing’s title: Proyecto Cruel (Cruel Project). This was an idea for a future performance, in which buckets of blood were to be thrown over the ruins.

Throughout the Rivoli project, Garaicoa assumed the fictitious identity of an architect whose mission was to renovate and restore buildings on the point of collapse. The use of an imaginary creator and the photograph-drawing structure of the original piece also appear in his other projects of the time, such as Acerca de la construcción de la verdadera torre de Babel (On the Construction of the Real Tower of Babel, 1994-95), Primer sembrado de hongos alucinógenos en La Habana (First Cultivated Field of Psychedelic Mushrooms in Havana, 1997), and Proyecto acerca del triunfo (Project on Victory, 1994-99). The grandiloquent solutions laid out in those drawings were demonstrably ineffective, absurd, and incoherent in practical terms. Their laudable purpose could not be transmuted into concrete action; instead, it was reduced to good intentions. The ruins became a record of utopian impotence.

Rivoli… is perhaps one of the works in which Garaicoa takes his farcical projects of urban sanitation” (Valdés, 2000, 23) to extremes. Conveyed by a fictitious creator, the artist’s message reveals several meanings simultaneously. Buildings such as the old Rivoli jeweler’s shop, protagonists of Garaicoa’s “impossible” projects, had been built, for the most part, during the early 20th century—the first decades of the Cuban republic. By the 1990s, they were crumbling, inexorably, under the weight of time and social indifference. As Piranesi had once done with Rome, Garaicoa congealed the mutilated buildings in their tragic grandeur, turning them into symbols of social anomie and the loss of faith in the overarching narrative of social emancipation. His appropriation of design language was harshly critical of the modern architect as a cultural figure: infused by utopian ideologies since the Bauhaus era, but incapable of protecting the historical “skin” of the city. The ironic tension between the two elements—project drawing and photographic representation—prevented any lapse into nostalgia, as it does in the 2002 light-box work: a temptation that Wim Wenders was unable to avoid as he portrayed a Havana “pierced by shadows” in his 1998 film, Buena Vista Social Club.

References: José Ignacio Roca, curator, Carlos Garaicoa: la ruina, la utopia (Carlos Garaicoa: The Ruins, The Utopia), 2000, illust. p. 23.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

About Celia - Yunior

About Our Work

We consider it a problem of velocity between the necessities of any and all human beings and the structures that are established to administer them; actualization escapes by being assumed as exception to the rule or as infraction of this rule. It is for this reason that we are interested in the forms of administration of life in society and how the individual reformulates these devices to their favor, once their interest become contradictory. In our works we touch on concise, practical examples in which one finds symptoms of this break, although we are also interested in generating a sensorial register of the historic moment in which it develops. We are observers of those who surround us, of their solutions and of what these solutions imply on a symbolic and emotional level in a specific context.

The audiovisual, the video installation, and other forms of documentation serve us to register documentary- and process-based works. In these we look to be conscious of our possibilities of mobility when confronted with institutional structures. For this reason we utilize art not only as a language but also as a method of observation which is subjectivized and trained by an understanding of art history. In some cases we part from the idea of staged performance, carrying out actions in which we participate as unknowns without having announced ourselves as artists (works: Civil Status, Password VHS, Bojeo, The Good Contacts Clinic, One’s Own…). In others we document using video and installation critical areas of reality due to its density of contradiction (works: October 2008, Havana 15 Seconds, Reserve, Everyone Always Says This to Me, In the Middle of What…).

Since the year 2004 we have worked as a duo (Celia González-Yunior Aguiar). In each work we both participate in the entire work process, from the conception of the idea to its final production. This micro society has served us as entertainment to confront other socialization spaces. For that reason, on occasions, we have collaborated with other artists interested in diverse ways in the social context. We cross visions with them, allowing it posture and interests to visit us. For us, it is vital to invest time in conversation not only about art but about what preoccupies us as social individuals, and this is why it is important to talk to those with whom we share intentions and a system of work.

Colonias Epífitas / Epiphytes Colonies

An epiphyte is a plant that grows on another plant, taking nourishment from air and water rather than from the host plant.

This piece is a research documented through photos. It is a collection of data from a representative group of mansions and their original owners. The owners were part of the higher layers of the economic and political powers of the island during the republican period (1902-1959). Nowadays these mansions belong to the actual administration, who have made the aesthetic of a past power their own. This is reminiscent of epiphytes plants, which use other plants as hosts, without imposing on the host’s resources. The outcomes of this work are 28 images, scanned from the notebook we used during the process, in which we recorded and matched past and present information about the inhabitants of those places.

--Celia and Yunior

Celia & Yunior received the Farber Foundation Young Cuban Artist of the Year award in 2015.

About Consuelo Castañeda

b. 1958, resides in the United States

Described by Joseph Kosuth as a post-postmodern artist, Consuelo Castañeda undoubtedly left her mark on the Cuban art of the 1980s, the so-called “prodigious decade.” Castañeda is gifted with a highly analytical mind, which she put to use in her artistic works during this decade as well as in the revamping of teaching plans for the visual arts in the Superior Institute of Art (ISA). In this period she produced pieces such as Lichtenstein y los Griegos (Lichtenstein and the Greeks, 1985, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Havana), Botticelli, Hokusai y los Tiburones (Botticelli, Hokusai, and the Sharks), and ¿Quién le presta los brazos a la Venus de Milo? (Who Can Lend Arms to the Venus de Milo?), in which she appropriated—in the manner of a postmodern remix—canonical images from the history of art, reusing them, along with other allusions and elements, to fashion new narratives of great formal sophistication.

Castañeda explained her conceptual foundation as follows: “In Cuba, all the artists learn from reproductions. We have seen very few original works of art. Consequently, many pieces have the formal finish of a reproduction” (Camnitzer, 2003, 270). In the original-versus-copy, mainstream-versus-periphery debate, Castañeda’s opinion implied an ironic attitude. Though they knew the works of Western art only through catalogues and by “hearsay,” Cuban artists of the 1980s recognized themselves within an aesthetic tradition that proved elusive and ethereal. Wielded from a Third World country, the postmodern appropriative attitude proposed eroding all historically accepted canons and recycling them for innovative expressive purposes. Expanding beyond the realm of art, this critical and functionalist stance emerged as an open concept of Cubanidad—the Cuban ethos—as a work in progress, capable of absorbing any contemporary expression and adapting it to its own ends.

Una historia en 70 páginas (A History in 70 Pages) marks a turning point in the artist’s work. This photo-mosaic was motivated by personal circumstances: Castañeda’s mother—whose modesty kept the piece from being exhibited publicly—was turning 70. In Cuba the elderly stay with their families, facing the challenges of everyday life with perseverance and skill, but art in the island has been reluctant to reflect this stage of life and its vital circumstances. Castañeda’s work joined the rare artistic approaches to senescence, the third age, that have appeared in Cuban art, becoming an exception among the work of her contemporaries. While her colleagues (generally male) were intent on critique and social renovation before the clamorous walls of History, Castañeda humbly showed a body scarred by time and the personal micro-history.

Trained as a painter, Castañeda adopted a distant, almost anti-photographic attitude. She discarded the expressive resources of chiaroscuro, the halftones, the relationship between figure and background—considered indispensable and sacrosanct to the craft of photography—and instead used an objectivist approach akin to the contemporary German photography of Bernd and Hilla Becker, Candida Höfer, and Thomas Struth. Far from posing, the old lady does not offer her entire nudity to the viewer’s gaze. Instead, it has been fragmented in the seventy frames—each corresponding to a year lived—that integrate the assemblage.

Using this serial organization typical of Minimalist art, Castañeda organizes a temporal-perceptive journey, in which our scrutinizing eyes travel slowly around the body. But the details registered on the photographic paper do not remind us of the images of femininity transmitted by the sculptures of Greek goddesses or the haute-couture catwalk. We see flaccid flesh, toneless muscles, shoulders stooped by effort, eyes wounded by everyday battles. With minimal, essential resources and not a trace of operatic melodrama, Castañeda pays full homage to the cornerstone of her family, offering at the same time a truthful chronicle of life, its failures and small virtues. 

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

About Douglas Pérez

b. 1972, Cienfuegos, Cuba

Around the mid-1990s, the art catalogues of the Italian Trans-Avant-Garde—led by art critic Bonito Oliva—and German “sauvage” painting introduced new frames of reference for painters in Cuba. Those publications circulated hand-to-hand among artists, teachers, and students of art in educational centers such as the Instituto Superior de Arte, San Alejandro Art School, and the School of Art Education (based in the site of the old Columbia military barracks). Through these publications, techniques such as quotation and pastiche—marked by the Postmodern theories soaked up by the art community—arrived on the island.

The “Cuban” remaking of styles, genres, and figures of universal art spread like wildfire. Artists turned it into ammunition: highly charged satire directed against art as an institution, the cult of originality, and the contradictions between official ideologies and social realities.

This subversion of meanings was reinforced by the impact of the so-called Special Period. After the end of Soviet economic subsidies, hunger became a daily ritual presence, and numerous intellectuals and others migrated, many by raft. Fukuyama’s “end of history” became for Cubans a sort of nautical chart of the unknown. The island lost its moorings in the real socialism of Eastern Europe, and was flung adrift like a raft on the raging waters of the Gulf Stream, without a compass.

This radical departure from a future hitherto guaranteed by the manuals of official Marxism brought about a widespread questioning of the present, and past, of Cuban society and culture. Artists started to focus on genres, periods, and creators of the island’s visual history since the 1500s.

Pérez took particular interest in nineteenth-century paintings and engravings, an interest shared by fellow artists such as Pedro Álvarez, Alexis Esquivel, and Elio Rodríguez. He allowed himself to be seduced by picturesque prints engraved by travelers like the French Frédéric Mialhe. He set about updating characters such as the black slave, the mulatto girl, and the foreman, taken from the lithographed “comics” of Basque painter Víctor Patricio Landaluze. And he pored over the motifs in the Libro de los Ingenios (Book of Sugar Mills), a 28-lithograph album created between 1855-1857 by French artist Eduardo Laplante under the sponsorship of sugar industrialist Justo Germán Cantero.

These visual pre-texts were Pérez’s  “local” raw materials. Utilizing them in the manner of novelists such as E. L. Doctorow and Gore Vidal—whose narrative fictions dwell in the “shadow” zones of historic characters and events—Pérez “wrote” on the canvas intricate layers interweaving characters from the Cuban past, such as the slave, the mulatto girl, and the foreman, with European images. They were modeled using the métier of academic painting, and their background was the productive and social spaces of Cuban history: the sugar mill, the slave barracks, the colonial plazas, the batey (sugar workers’ town).

It was a twist on the genre of history painting. Ahead of “academic” historians, and with greater freedom, Pérez painted an “unauthorized,” irreverent vision of his national history, where the ghosts of the colonial past interacted smoothly with the myths of present “socialism.” He was driven to merge a critical detachment from the past with an attack against the current stereotypes in the construction of a “white” Cuban identity.

Anthropophagy… is a piece from this period, a painting with a mural-like ambition. The artist drew inspiration from nineteenth-century engravings whose “educative” function was to teach owners how to punish their slaves in an exemplary manner through images that showed the necessary discipline and equipment: “El cuerazo” (lashing),“Cepo de gorguera” (stocks), “Bocabajo” (whipping a slave tied facedown) were some of the methods employed.

The “bocabajo” is the torture represented in Anthropophagy…, a painting done in realistic strokes but destined to comment on the conflicts and challenges of the artist living and working in a Third World country. Tied on a ladder, the artist, faceless, disfigured, holds his brushes in his hands while being subjected to a lashing whose effects are shown in the style of the comics. His bleeding mouth exhales an ethereal island of Cuba, flanked by two African warrior deities, Oggun and Shango, painted in the style of Japanese manga. The title poses a cultural challenge: to achieve—from the island, from the parochial—a jump over an inequality implicit in the world of contemporary art.

Ariadne belongs to a later group of paintings, in which the background gradually replaced the characters until what emerged were fantastical, almost futuristic landscapes: anti-utopian stages mingling influences from Blade Runner, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and the still undervalued Cuban Eclectic style of architecture.

For the concept of this drawing, Pérez used a panoramic photograph of Prado Street taken in the 1920s, in which the high silhouette of the Sevilla Biltmore Hotel, built in 1908 and later expanded, dominates the skyline. While one area of the watercolor seems to follow the photograph faithfully, in others it has the feeling of an architectural project, with lines that seem to describe non-existent edifices. Over both areas, outlined with gold thread, looms a fictitious vaulted roof that encompasses the whole street. Although it looks like a futuristic version of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, its design was actually inspired by the numerous sugar mills—now shut down—to which this street, as well as the whole of Havana, owe their architectural splendor.

                                                          —Abelardo G. Mena Chicuri

About Duvier del Dago

b. 1976 Zulueta, Villa Clara

During his formative years at the Graduate Institute of Art (ISA), Duvier del Dago established himself as a draughtsman. His work in this medium, and in video, came to be decisive in the inception of the projects done with Omar Moreno as the artistic team Omarito & Duvier (1987-2001). This collaborative effort reflected the creative sensibilities of Galería DUPP (Desde Una Pragmática Pedagógica/From a Pragmatic Pedagogy), an unorthodox art education project headed by artist and teacher René Francisco Rodríguez.

Duvier del Dago’s artistic discourse tells stories about current topics. They include diverse vignettes about desires, obsessions, and dreams, as well as inquiries into the human condition, the meaning of existence, and the relationship between human beings and their sociopolitical, cultural, and media environments. This is reflected in—among other works—the series Castillos en el aire (Castles in the Air), Teoría y práctica (Theory and Practice), and Secreto de estado (State Secret).

The images drawn by Duvier del Dago in his pieces transgress the limits of paper and acquire volume in space. Each of his drawings has a body woven in threads, permitting the enjoyment of an ambiguous, diffuse corporality in his “sculptures”—video installations or ephemeral sculptures—accompanied by the interplay of video and lights. His work demolishes orthodox ideas about drawing with an artistic expression that abandons its two-dimensional media and achieves full three-dimensionality.

After many minute calculations made on graph paper, and multiple sketches, the artist finally weaves his piece in situ at the exhibition site. The threads are tightened and knotted together according to the original concept, until the body of the image appears, suspended in mid-air. These woven configurations have become his signature; emerging in 2004, they began receiving wide recognition after the public and critical success of his video installation Holograma (Hologram), exhibited at the IV Contemporary Cuban Art Salon (2005).

The mise-en-scène of his newer works replicates the appearance of 3D, and space becomes a conceptual dimension in which ideas become corporeal and tangible. Each ensemble (consisting of woven drawing, lights, and video) neutralizes previous gestures with its pellucid rationality, introducing new figures defined by their symbolic power. Among them are cars; fashionable women; figures that represent the viewer, or the man on the street, or perhaps even members of the artist’s family; strands of DNA; a yacht; a balcony. They are elements that serve the artist in his suggestive reconstruction of events, by which he “subverts historic memory using the fields of his psychological, familial and everyday memories” (Daris Vázquez, "La historia es de quien la cuenta" (History Belongs to the Teller), in the catalogue Duvier del Dago, Obra reciente 2007- 2008).

In Holiday (2010), Duvier del Dago appropriates and re-creates Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, a monument conceived by Soviet sculptor Vera Mukhina for the Soviet pavilion in the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, the exposition in which Picasso exhibited his Guernica. For Cubans, the sculpted duo—an icon of the Socialist Realist style created under Stalin—was irrevocably identified with Soviet ideological propaganda. For four decades, it was incessantly projected on Cuban movie screens as the logo for all films produced by the Mosfilm studio. Hence the duo’s resonance in the island’s collective imagination.

Duvier drew his inspiration from a real event: in 2003, the original sculpture was removed from its iconic place in Moscow for a restoration that lasted until 2009. In a humorous vein, the Cuban artist conceived a likely fiction: the sculpture had moved to Cuba, a communist sanctuary in the Caribbean.

Unlike the massive original sculpture, in which the two characters move forward, impelled towards a promised future, in Duvier’s work the illuminated figures, set in the midst of a dark room, seem to move in opposite directions, confronting, as part of the artist’s game, their ironic, imaginary voyage to Havana as told in the accompanying cartoon.

Duvier del Dago takes a symbol of political power and makes it travel in parody through landmarks of the Cuban capital. Holiday is a satirical approach to the subject of the Soviet presence in Cuba and its traces in Cuban culture and collective consciousness. Like other contemporary Cuban artists drawn to this topic, Duvier joins the trend of critically re-examining Socialist Realism, which had never succeeded in taking root on the island.

                                                                                       —Caridad Blanco de la Cruz



                                                                                                                                                                         

About Eduardo Hernández

b. 1966, resides in Cuba

The acknowledgement and tracing of homoerotic themes in contemporary Cuban art is a relatively new process (Santana, 2000). The few investigations into this marginalized but inalienable facet of Cuban national culture have focused on literature or Afro-Cuban religions. This is due to a lack of pressure by publicly recognized social groups committed to unveiling the “other” history of Cuban art, as well as the slow progress of cultural studies.

The queer images produced during the last few years do not strive overtly for a vindication of homosexual rights. Nor do they call for sexual diversity in mass-media representations of the family. Rather than the activism exemplified by North American groups like ACT UP, these works reflect a different range of tactics: resisting and deconstructing heterosexual body norms; utilizing an aestheticized, art-historicized presentation of traditional myths to accomplish these tasks; and denouncing the violence imposed on masculinity by phallocratic and patriarchal ideologies. (A lesbian perspective on textual deconstruction appears frequently in Cuban literary narratives; in the visual arts, however, it is practically nonexistent.)

Since 1992, Eduardo Hernández Santos has been the Cuban artist to focus most intensively in this field. Hernández graduated from the Superior Institute of Art (ISA) as a printmaker; his beginnings as a photographer were influenced by the work of artist maudit Robert Mapplethorpe, who appropriated numerous images from Italian Mannerism and 19th-century academicism. Hernández quickly developed his own style, nurtured by a singular sensibility and a profound knowledge of art history. From the unique, studio-produced photographic image, his work evolved toward collage and the interaction between photography and mixed media.

The collage Lo que es… was exhibited in La Huella Múltiple (The Multiple Imprint, 1999) thanks to artist-curator Belkis Ayón, who praised it warmly. It belongs to a set of pieces made since 1994. The long horizontal format recalls the 19th-century panoramas and landscapes that avidly sought to document cities in a multiplicity of detail, or to record the irruption of new technologies in rural spaces. This piece, however, meticulously constructs an ambiguous urban space using images cut from art books: Florentine domes and palazzos, German baroque buildings, Flemish engravings, and Dürer’s rhinoceros, mingled with nudes shot by Hernández himself. There are references to Havana architecture, including the Capitol, the 18th-century cathedral, and La Fuente de la India, the Fountain of the Indian Woman, a well-known landmark. Usually intended to disrupt the unity of the pictorial space, the multiple pieces of this collage surprisingly blend together in a visual continuum that corresponds to no identifiable city. This is not Alejo Carpentier’s “City of Columns,” nor Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s nocturnal Vedado, nor Severo Sarduy’s baroque evocations. Judging from the stylistic references, these could be fragments of a neoclassical metropolis such as the area of Havana close to Central Park, or some views of Rome, or even Buenos Aires.

But Hernández does not concern himself with any kind of geographical identification. We have arrived at a dream city, where desire feverishly prowls the streets. It is a place still unconquered by the cholera-ridden, AIDS-plagued hordes, gripped by mistrust and a clinical coldness. The sodomizing of Dürer’s rhinoceros, Christ descending from the Cross surrounded by male nudes, the images of bodies tortured or transformed into the Three Graces, Saint Sebastians, and other icons of beauty are the marks of a city where “there is no public regulation, no control over intimacy. The generic body, unconcerned by established limits, lays as a joyous victim of pleasure and pain, desire and fear” (Santana, 2002).

Along with René Peña, Marta María Pérez, Magdalena Campos-Pons, Cirenaica Morera, Elsa Mora Fors, Abigaíl González, and Alain Pino, Eduardo Hernández creates a post-photographic body of work whose concepts stray from the authoritative canon that was still in place in the 1980s: the so-called photography “of the Revolution.”

Also known in Cuba as “epic” photography, the images shot in the 1960s by Corrales, Korda, Agraz, Noval, Ernesto Fernández, Romero, and Salas documented the birth of a new historical protagonist—the proletarian and peasant body, armed and uniformed—as well as an urban space made hierarchical: the revolutionary square, the place where the masses identified with the leaders of the Revolution. Photographs from that era featured broad panoramic views, or used what Henri Cartier Bresson termed “the decisive moment” to highlight “typical” anonymous faces or parts of the body related to military or productive functions. The titles were generic and avoided personal identification. For a nation on a perpetual wartime footing, publication of those photographs in such newspapers as Revolución, Granma, and Cuba Internacional invited the reader to identify with the image as if looking in a mirror.

But this photographic narrative did not enter the intimacy of domestic spaces—also contested territory between old and new ideologies—nor did it focus on the city as a node of social contradictions. It closed its doors to the expressive use of semantic ambiguities, and reinforced the idea of a straightforward photographic “truth.” What was called the “view of the defeated”—members of the bourgeoisie, professionals, technical specialists, as well as practitioners of “improper conduct” such as hippies, transvestites, homosexuals, and the lumpenproletariat—remained out of camera range. In Cuba, the police mug shot and the amateur snapshot are still uncharted territories where those presences, ignored in the collective inspiration of that long-ago moment, may someday be traced.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

About Eduardo Ponjuán-René Francisco

Eduardo Ponjuán González (b. 1956, resides in Cuba)
René Francisco Rodríguez (b. 1960, resides in Cuba)

In 1988, in the relaxed setting of a bar in Havana, two students at the Superior Institute of Art in Havana (ISA) decided to form a creative duo, based on an already well-established friendship and a similarity of ideas about art and culture. And so the Ponjuán-René Francisco collaboration, whose active artistic life would span a decade, was born.

In Cuba, the concept of collaborative work was already in the air. Books on contemporary art theory and criticism were carried to the island by friendly hands, to be photocopied and distributed among art students and teachers: works by Umberto Eco, Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, and Benjamin Buchloh; October magazine, Gregory Battcock’s The Idea as Art, and others. And let’s not forget Gerardo Mosquera’s Exploraciones en la Plástica Cubana (Explorations of Cuban Visual Arts, 1983) and El Diseño se Definió en Octubre (Design Was Defined in October, 1989), or Cultura y Marxismo: Problemas y Polémicas (Culture and Marxism: Problems and Polemics, 1986) by Desiderio Navarro, editor of the magazine Criterios.

Conceptualist critiques against the cult of individual style, the negation of “authenticity” in materials or process, the rejection of art as passive or merely decorative: these theoretical currents stimulated the emergence of artistic groups whose duration and purposes varied dramatically. In Cuba, artmaking collaboratives were an expression of a cultural logic still in full swing as the 1990s began. If theory provided the conceptual foundation, in the pages of Art in America and Art News Cuban artists discovered such “foreign” artmaking teams as Komar and Melamid and Group Material, as well as American activist groups like Grand Fury and General Idea.

With Artista Melodramático (Melodramatic Artist, 1989), Ponjuán and René Francisco placed their work on the borderline of what was considered “paintable” and “tolerable” for Cuban society at that moment. Making references to public personalities and social events, to professional artmaking and its risks, and to the contradictions between political and aesthetic ideologies, their work strived to communicate directly with the Cuban public. At the same time, they wanted to confound the impulse that would reduce their symbolism to the usual dull chatter of political pamphlets. Through the inventive use of pictorial and sculptural materials, and the appropriation of kitsch elements from both everyday images and art history—ironically directed toward art itself, and toward systems of ideological representation—the duo’s work revealed itself in multiple layers of meaning that interacted dynamically with each other, making a single, unequivocal interpretation impossible.

Outside Cuba Inside was created in 1993 during a prolonged visit to Mexico by the artists. Laid out like a billboard, the triptych makes no attempt to tell a story. Instead, it is a visual inquiry or thesis to be decoded by the viewer. On one side is a Soviet peasant woman copied from a painting by Malevich; on the other, the muscular image of Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter sits before a rippling American flag. Created in 1943 for the Saturday Evening Post, Rockwell’s image was a popular icon of American women and their contribution to the war effort. In the duo’s earlier Productivismo (Productivism, 1992), the paint had been applied with a mason’s tool, in a parody of the picture’s title and its connotations. Here, the surface texture of the two side images was achieved by applying oil paint with a spatula, again conceptually converting the labor of artmaking into one more layer of meaning.

Between the two images, a digital sign creates a double spatial dislocation—“inside” and “outside,” above and below the word “Cuba.” The structure of the triptych makes no attempt to link the texts and the female figures; it’s up to the viewer to match the meanings. Do the nostalgic representations of “Soviet” and “American” visions imply two alternative roads for Cuba’s future? Or do they refer instead to a current dilemma that the Cuban artist faces: having to abandon all utopian attitudes and start producing for the art market and its decrees?

References: Scott Fox, Lorna, “Different Lies,” p. 4, illust. p. 14, cited catalogue.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

About Esterio Segura

b. 1970, resides in Cuba

When Cuban film director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea decided to include Esterio Segura’s paintings as a plot device in his 1994 film, Strawberry and Chocolate, the young artist had already participated in the influential exhibition Las metáforas del templo (Metaphors of the Temple, 1993), as both exhibiting artist and, with Carlos Garaicoa, co-curator. Segura graduated with a degree in Sculpture from the Superior Institute of Art (ISA) in 1994. Faced with a discouraging social climate and the frenzied departure of much of the previous generation, Cuban art freed itself from the utopian impulses of the end of the 1980s and embarked on a new era, characterized by aesthetic ambiguity, the deployment of fine craftsmanship as a Trojan horse, and a more refined approach to popular culture as a source of motifs and materials.

Segura’s work embodies a promiscuous exchange between the symbols of religion and politics, a parodic questioning of national history as selective myth, and the recycling of elements taken from art history—all encompassed by a powerful, carnivalesque impulse that threatens to fuse all hierarchies and protocols. Santo de paseo por el trópico (Saint Touring the Tropics, 1991) is not a preliminary study for the final sculpture of the same name created that year, but one of many drawings that Segura completed as parallels to the sculpture project. His mastery of spectacle, his sensual rendering of the body, and the subtlety of his descriptive line evoke the rites of traditional aesthetic contemplation, in this case indebted to the imagery of the counter-Reformation, to Caravaggio, and to the Baroque sculptors of the Spanish Golden Age.

As depicted here, Segura’s proposed project rejects the narrative rhetoric of official projects intended for the public square, and absorbs the anti-transcendentalist practices of a great deal of contemporary art. This St. Sebastian, European in conception and caught unaware by the ferocious hacking of Cuban machetes—tools transmuted into weapons of war against Spanish domination—is the pained expression of a culture of living resistance.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

About Fernando Rodríguez

b. 1970, resides in Cuba

Rodríguez’s sculptures, drawings, canvases, and short digital films deconstruct—with a healthy serving of Cuban humor—the labels of primitivism, local color, and popular identity frequently imposed on Latin American and Cuban art.

Sueño Nupcial (Nuptial Dream) depicts the wedding of Cuban leader Fidel Castro and La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre (Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre), the patron saint of Cuba. The stage for this alliance is not heaven or earth, but the imagination of Francisco de la Cal, a farmer from the Ciénaga de Zapata marshlands who has suffered from incurable blindness since 1963. De la Cal had been a naïve painter and sculptor, but his handicap kept him from fully expressing his inexhaustible imagination; so, after meeting Fernando Rodríguez in 1991, he made the younger artist an unexpected proposition: to translate his dreams into images. Rodríguez became the medium who transformed ideas into reality, the hand destined to give expression to the unbridled fantasies of the rough-hewn country guajiro, de la Cal.

For de la Cal, the wedding couple in Sueño Nupcial represents the highest powers of Cuba. As a fervent Catholic, the peasant venerates Our Lady of Charity, who had been proclaimed patron saint of Cuba by Pope Benedict XV in 1916, and had long been worshipped by sailors and travelers. As a partisan of the Revolution, de la Cal remembers with fervor and enthusiasm its first years, before his blindness. For this reason, images of revolutionary heroes such as Che Guevara and Castro recur in his work.

The dream is related in episodes, or comic-strip frames. Each shows a ceremony to be performed by the bride and groom according to the country traditions familiar to de la Cal. In every scene, he appears as a witness—wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses—and, in the lower portion of the frame, lying asleep dreaming. As a country farmer, de la Cal never received professional art training; so Rodríguez conceived each scene in the flat perspective favored by many naïve artists, and carved the characters using crude tools as a folk artist is expected to do.

But Francisco de la Cal does not have a birth certificate or an identification card. He is the man who never existed—a fictional character, like those created by Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. This distancing mechanism, so full of humor, generates multiple tensions: between the artist Rodríguez and his role as de la Cal’s “translator,” as well as between the utopian evocations of the Revolution’s early years as recalled by the marshland farmer and the realities of contemporary Cuba. Rodriguez opens a gap between spoken language—the medium by which de la Cal transmits his ideas—and its incarnation as images. He comments ironically on the “originality” of folk art, promoted as an example of the “authentic roots” of the Cuban nation.

A wealth of biographical and contextual references are woven into the expressive texture of this wedding saga. The Virgin appears here in her role as patron saint of seafarers; the men in a boat to whom she waves, in salutation or farewell, are the three sailors who found her image floating in 1687, and who have been represented aboard a boat ever since. In 1994, when the piece was made, they could be seen as abandoning the island during the mass exodus of rafters to Miami. The graffiti inscribed on the worn walls of the famed café La Bodeguita del Medio in Old Havana (depicted in the third panel) are the actual signatures of Alexander Arrechea, Carlos Garaicoa, Esterio Segura, and other colleagues of Rodríguez’s at the Superior Institute of Art (ISA).

The dream union between Our Lady and Fidel unveils a real phenomenon: in the years of the “Special Period,” when, to paraphrase Karl Marx, “everything solid melted into the air,” there was a noticeable upsurge in Catholic devotion. Together with the Afro-Cuban orishas, Christ occupied, in the minds of the Cuban people, the space that had been reserved exclusively for Marx, Engels, and Lenin.

In the period between the exhibitions De una experiencia colectiva (On a Collective Experience, Iturralde Gallery, Los Angeles, United States, 1999) and Puramente formal (Purely Formal, Havana Gallery, 2002), Rodríguez’s work evolved with the conscious need to achieve a formal synthesis and expansion of content. The Francisco de la Cal character did not disappear, but underwent a change of image, emerging as a logotype of the human being. The rural landscape that haunted the dreams of the blind farmer gave way to other scenarios: real objects such as chairs, tables, and the wall of the museum or gallery. Rodríguez’s work is now built from new materials, and assumes a minimalist design in its assemblage, stemming from concepts of accumulation and sequence as organizing principles.

In Unir/Separar (Join/Separate), the artist takes an everyday object, the zipper, and transforms it into a metaphor for connection and isolation. The small, anonymous sculptures have been arranged like fastening teeth, forming a graceful line. Initial sketches for this sculpture followed a more conservative approach: the figures were affixed to a ribbon, and the fastener size was proportionate to theirs. In the final version, Rodríguez’s solution is both more synthetic and striking. The little wooden figures are affixed directly to the wall; the fastener has been carved in exaggerated proportions to signify its executive role. The piece seems to include the viewer, suggesting that he should manipulate the fastener, exerting a “divine” role over human destiny.

In this work, Rodríguez has progressed from the specific local chronicles of Cuban life to explore the universal conflict of collectivity versus individualism and the tension between the mass and personal freedom. The road traveled between Sueño Nupcial and Unir/Separar illustrates current tendencies in Cuban art, and its search for more universal messages destined for an audience beyond the country’s borders.

References: Catalogue, Fifth Havana Biennial, 1994, p. 301. Catalogue, Cuba, Utopian Territories, Vancouver, pp. 42-44. Camnitzer, Luis, New Art from Cuba, 1994; reprint, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003, central page, color.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

About Flavio Garciandía

b. 1954, resides in Mexico

Far from being merely an aesthetic revolt, the successive waves of new Cuban art after the 1981 Volumen I exhibition transformed—not without conflict—the institutional and theoretical paradigms about the function of art and its place in Cuban society. Their still-unexplored contribution to the Cuban creative economy increased after 1990: Cuban art became an exportable commodity, growing almost as popular in the United States as the legendary tobacco discovered by Christopher Columbus.

This assault on institutional art extended to the academies—a strategy that guaranteed the continuation of these new cultural attitudes. The Visual Arts Faculty at the Superior Institute of Art (ISA), founded in 1976, became the eye of the hurricane.

Flavio Garciandía was an indispensable figure in the ISA. His encyclopedic knowledge of art, his straightforward criticism of students’ work, the energy he invested in redesigning the curriculum, and the example of his own art, endowed him with a profound, if spontaneous, air of authority among students and colleagues alike. Beginning with his photorealist period, Garciandía’s intense body of work reveals the concerns, poetics, and dynamics of Cuban art in general, in such icons as Todo lo que necesitas es amor (All You Need is Love, 1975, MNBA); Catálogo de Formas Malas (Catalog of Bad Forms, 1982); his 1984 series based on proverbs; and the installations at Castillo de la Real Fuerza in Havana (1989).

Garciandía’s art implies the symbolic reconstruction of Cuba as a fusion of intercultural spaces, without the ethnic-historical ghettoization proclaimed by North American multiculturalism in response to the crisis of the white European canon. Among his more lasting contributions to Cuban art are his emphasis on the visual elements of urban culture, and the unfinished, work-in-progress character of “identity” (as opposed to the stereotyped images of rural Cuban life); the creative recycling of kitsch, rather than its death, imposed by official decree; the use of postmodern language as an antidote to the conceptual fatalism implied by mainstream/periphery dichotomy; and the empowerment of a scavenging, cannibalistic spirit—feeding freely on foreign avant-gardes for one’s own purposes—among Cuban artists.

The name of the Venetian traveler in the title links this work, El segundo viaje de Marco Polo (The Second Voyage of Marco Polo) with El síndrome de Marco Polo (The Marco Polo Syndrome), a piece that Garciandía created in 1986. The reference is a pretext for reflection on the concepts of the local and the universal, on intercultural relationships, and on the “digestive” or cannibalistic capacity of Third World artistic communities—subjected, through the weakness of their cultural industries (not lack of creativity), to subjugation and validation in the art markets of the First World.

In its debut exhibition, El Segundo Viaje… was surrounded by live plants and flowerpots of “Chinese” design: a tropical jungle, a cocktail of visual references extracted from political icons, Cuba’s urban subcultures, and the European and North American art canon, all frenetically mixed at a high temperature. This carnivalesque motif introduces a point of view firmly situated in Cuba, from which all other cultural traditions are observed at a distance. The style of Jackson Pollock—emblem of Western artistic freedom during the Cold War—has been recycled, with humor, into a warm, vibrant background. The hammers and sickles, symbols of communism, have been transformed into anthropomorphic creatures. That expressive tool of ornamental kitsch, glitter—known in Cuba as “snow dust”—delineates, against the light, the aggressive outlines of the Miami-style decorative plants, arranged side by side with Malevich’s Suprematist abstractions. El Segundo Viaje… offers an original take on the trophies brought home by the traveler after a voyage around the world. In this case, the souvenirs come from different artistic movements—from sources of visual culture both “high” and “low,” from the East as well as the West, processed according to the will, utopian and ironic, of a Cuban artist.

References: Cited catalogue.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

About Glenda León

Glenda León

b. 1976, Havana

Glenda León is a visual artist who asks us to hear what she sees, or see what she hears, or think about what we hear and see when we look at one of her works. In a relatively short period of time (she was born in Havana in 1976) León has managed to gain recognition around the world for her particular ability to cast sound in a visual medium. Her video and conceptual work is featured in museums (the Centre George Pompidou in Paris, the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Havana, Cuba, and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts) and galleries in Cuba, Germany, Spain and the United States.

As with many artists working in Cuba, Glenda León was susceptible to the Cuban passion for music and the performing arts. At 14 her parents enrolled her at the Centro Prodanza de Cuba and for nine years she studied classical ballet under the direction of Laura Alonso, the only daughter of Cuba's legendary prima ballerina Alicia Alonso. She proved her talent for dancing and for choreography, but somewhere along the way she decided she had other things to prove. She studied art history at Havana's Facultad de Artes y Letras and she began working as a visual artist, but she did so without ever really leaving her interest in music behind.

Glenda Léon often works with the raw materials and by-products of music. She examines them and transforms them to reveal their metaphoric power in an age when the way we make, produce and consume music is in constant flux. Léon's recent (January-February 2012) exhibition at the MagnanMetz Gallery in New York her first solo show in the United States– was called "Listening to Silence" and featured sculptures made of 45 rpm records and photographic prints of various objects (leaves, raindrops, dice) superimposed to form "notes" on ruled sheet music.

In a work that was first shown in Havana as part of her Objetos Mágicos Encontrados series (2005), a two-legged piano leans forward like a circus pony taking a bow after a performance, its lid raised to reveal a burst of yellow wildflowers.

Some of Léon's conceptual work incorporates a personal dimension, literally. Her "Peinado para Momento Silencioso / Hairdo for a Silent Moment" series features sheet music formed from strands of her hair. Chewing gum (chewed by the artist) has been used to make an image of a tree and a map of the world. And one of her works seems to draw directly upon her experience of her native city. "Tu Ropa es Mi Ropa" (2006) is a digital photo print on canvas showing clothes drying on the kinds of laundry lines that stretch across Havana streets. With the difference that, in Glenda Leon's imagining of the scene, the clothes hang against a blue sky like birds on a wire, no people or buildings in sight, receding to infinity.

"I spent a lot of time worrying about the absurdities of life in Cuba, or trying to make sense out of situations that seemed a bit absurd," Léon tells Havana Cultura.

But then she went to live in Germany, studying at the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne from 2005 to 2007. "When I came back to Havana I saw things completely differently. I saw that absurdity could have a positive side."

--Courtesy Havana Cultura

About Glexis Novoa

b. 1964, resides in the United States

Cuban art in the 1980s made an unprecedented contribution to the relationship between culture and society in the “popular democracies” [known in the West as Communist nations]. While the cultural bureaucracies in the U.S.S.R. had imposed an “art for the people” opposed to experimentation, Cuba developed an art of incisive social content and contemporary aesthetics. Its creators were the children of the proletariat and the peasants, educated in the state system. Conscious of being “the people,” these artists rejected the paternalistic imagery of Socialist Realism. They claimed as their audience a critical viewership with a high level of education fostered by the state. The artists’ themes were the social contradictions of Cuban culture, the distance between the ideal and reality, and the bureaucratization of thinking.

The irreverent attitude of this new Cuban art made its mark on recent cultural history. During the 1960s, the authorities clamored for an art “within the Revolution,” but in 1971 they imposed pro-Soviet paradigms in the fields of art, aesthetics, and economics (Alonso, 1995). A group within the 1980s generation proposed a more consciously critical art: not “within the Revolution” but “from the Revolution,” with no permission required. Diverse social currents converged as the catalyst for this unprecedented stance: the so-called “rectification of negative tendencies,” the ideological revival of Che Guevara, Gorbachev’s perestroika, the return of Cuban soldiers from Angola, “Case Number One” (the 1989 drug trial of General Arnaldo Ochoa and other military officers), and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Without the pressures of a then-nonexistent market, art became a space for discussing social issues that was absent from the mass media. Apropos of a song by troubadour Carlos Varela, musical spokesman of the time, the artists who pursued this new direction were called Los Hijos de Guillermo Tell: The Children of William Tell (Mosquera, 1990).

By the late 1980s, Glexis Novoa had created a body of work ranging from prints to performances, and had participated in several artists’ groups. His art fit easily into the burgeoning movement. Like a Trojan horse, De la Etapa Práctica (On the Practical Stage) was calibrated against the empty rhetoric of political language, its rituals and aesthetics. It parodies the visual rhetoric used in mass demonstrations, where effigies of martyrs of the Revolution or historical figures, flags, and slogans are positioned before the audience on high wooden platforms. Novoa absorbs this style of communication and regurgitates it as a personal language, already internalized. The piece mixes visual codes from Japanese manga, advertising, Nazi propaganda from the Nuremberg rallies, and the aesthetics of Soviet Socialist Realism. The letter-icons have been designed by the artist himself, but the cryptic, indeterminate character of this pseudo-alphabet makes all communication impossible. In a parody of the abstract movement, the paint has been applied in the spontaneous style of Abstract Expressionism, attesting to the “artificial” character of the pictorial space.

References: Seppala, Marketta, ed., No Man is an Island: Young Cuban Art, May 1990, Pori Museum, Finland. Camnitzer, Luis, New Art from Cuba, 1994; reprint, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003, illust. p. 235.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

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About Gory (Rogelio López Marín)

b. Havana 1953

The 1981 exhibition Volume One marked the takeoff of the “Cuban Renaissance” in visual arts (Camnitzer). Among the artists participating in that exhibition was Rogelio López Marin (Gory), one of the main practitioners of hyper-photorealist painting on the island. Since he did not have time to finish the painting he was working on, for Volume One Gory submitted a photograph of the unfinished canvas, turning his contribution into a conceptual work. Having worked as a photographer for Revolución y Cultura magazine (1975-1991)—at that time renowned for its visual impact—and having won awards for his photo essays (Morell, 2006), from that point forward Gory laid down his brushes to plunge into the world of photography.

John Lennon dates from this germinal period. When the musician was killed in 1981, the shock extended not only to the music world, but to his admirers in Cuba. Many years would have to pass before Fidel Castro would dedicate a statue in honor of the English musician, and on the island the Beatles’ legacy existed alongside the ban imposed on them. Gory paid tribute to Lennon with a small shrine, in the fashion of Latin American altars, piling up before it musical instruments, flowers, and candles, in the style of the photomontage used on the notorious Sgt. Pepper’s record album cover.

The images have been saturated with color, imitating vintage hand-colored photographs, which is why he delighted in “painting” the sky an “unrealistic” blue. At this time, Gory’s image intervention was done by hand. Later, he would embark on the digital manipulations and tinkering that distinguish his current work.

Humorously, the Cuban artist placed his peculiar “monument” at Parque Lenin, a popular park for family and cultural leisure on the outskirts of Havana, which had been open since the early 1980s. It was Gory’s way of “proposing” a change of name for the park. This is one of the conceptual aspects of this piece, a subtle allusion implicit in the tribute to Lennon, who had become a symbol of freedom of expression.

Originally conceived as an illustration, in the end the piece was not included in a book. It is a sui generis piece, in the sense that from the beginning it was conceived as a self-contained image, unlike the “classic” series Gory would develop later: the award-winning one at the Landscape Salon 1982, for instance, and the polyptych It is only water in a stranger’s tear (1986).

The subsequent photo series returned to Gory’s fundamental motif: an encrypted vision of his surroundings. When he was able to start traveling, the range of these works broadened, and Gory became a watchful observer of new environments. During a lengthy hiatus in 1991-2001, his focus shifted back to painting. When he took up the camera again in 2001 with The City, a series inspired by New York, his work showed technical as well as conceptual changes. From this point on Gory started exploring the possibilities of the digital camera and different printing techniques. These experiments made him consider new perspectives, including new ways of manipulating images. As for the conceptual side, he stopped trying to conceal the images’ meanings, instead taking pleasure in their purely esthetic beauty. With The City, he managed a perfect transition between the earlier series and the new ones, capturing scenarios that look manipulated but are actually straightforward snapshots taken in New York.

Gory’s photographic body of work is indebted to his paintings, establishing between the two media a feedback, a “give and take” from the canvas to the camera and vice versa. His perspicacious eye can discover the most surreal situations in everyday reality, and by capturing them through his lens makes us gaze with fresh eyes.

                                                                                                —Irina Leyva

About Guillermo Ramírez Malberti

b. 1965, Havana

Guillermo Ramírez Malberti studied sculpture at the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA) in Havana, graduating in 1988. In 1992, he graduated from the Instituto Superior de Diseño (ISDi), with a specialty in Industrial Ceramics Design. That same year, he also did postgraduate studies at ISA in Set Design. He has worked as art director or production designer on several films directed by Juan Carlos Cremata: Nada+ (Nothing More, 2001), Viva Cuba (2005) y El premio flaco (The Thin Prize, 2009).

Bienal Snapshot: Guillermo Ramírez Malberti’s Identidad

Guillermo Ramírez Malberti’s exhibition Identity: Watercolors, Bronzes, Installations opened on May 22. . . .  Within the varied panorama of exhibitions in the 12th Havana Biennial—known as "The Biennial of the Thaw" for the normalization of Cuba-US relations—Malberti’s presentation was distinguished by two essential elements: its autobiographical reflection about historical memory, and an exquisite expertise in the execution of the works. Malberti is one of those artists who are not dazzled by the post-conceptualism in current Cuban art, and his work reflects a knowing and accomplished hand.

According to critic and curator Maeva Peraza, who has written about Malberti, the artist “can be situated in the precincts of social chronicle. But he doesn’t attempt to establish un retrato costumbrista, a folklorish portrait, nor a sweetened vision of daily life on the island. Instead, he proposes a realism that is above all committed to social engagement. His self-referential pretext doesn’t merely discover an intimate universe. The image he projects is like that of any Cuban, responding to the environment around him.”

Peraza describes Malberti as “a gifted artist of multiple skills,” adding that “we are not faced with a painter or sculptor who limits himself to the techniques of one artistic current or another, but one who creates a body of work that gains its validity from its conceptual and anthropological perspective. In this, Malberti’s public art interventions stand out, along with his continued work in environmental art and his commitment to reclaiming a certain commonality, a cubanidad that is easily understood by the general public.”

As his raw materials in Identidad, Malberti uses autobiography and family memory. The artist has selected images from his private archive: family ceremonies, childhood snapshots, photos of his parents (well-known Cuban TV actors), and turns them into documentation of a historical process with which Cuban life was identified for half a century. Integrados o gusanos, “integrated or worms," was the way Cuban society distinguished the Revolution’s supporters and detractors. There was no middle ground. For the integrados, social mobility was possible; for others, only exile or silence. [. . . ]

In the second gallery, drawings give way to a bronze installation: "Como te cuento mi cuento II,” “As I tell my story II," 2014. This work, Peraza says, “opens a path of intimacy, in which the artist evokes social states and important moments in Cuban history through his own genealogy. The acid irony of this piece reveals how an individual’s evolution and self-awareness ends in alienation.”

The first version of Como te cuento mi cuento dates from 1994—a sculptural installation charged with freshness and irreverence, down to the choice of material: simple clay, painted with great abandon. The work pursues a parallel between history and family life, between the private and the public, with the artist attempting to find a meeting point between the chronicles of society and intimate family history.

To create that installation, Malberti turned to the Museum of the Revolution. Located in Avenida de las Misiones, near the sea, the eclectic-style building by Belgian architect Paul Belau was the Presidential Palace from 1921 to 1959; by 1970 it had been turned into the museum. In Como te cuento mi cuento, Malberti parodies the museographic strategies used in an institution that, through the display of weapons, costumes, everyday objects, photos, and documents, constructs the most orthodox narrative of Cuba’s political history.

Of the 2014 version, Peraza wrote: “After twenty years, Malberti’s world view and way of conceiving the past underwent a change. The new version of Como te cuento mi cuento suggests other senses and visual routes. The piece is now cast in bronze, giving a certain stateliness and solemnity to the images. The presentation is still charged with history, but the familial warmth is missing. In its place, a distancing coldness has taken hold. The humor of the previous iteration has been replaced by a grave and shocking rituality. The final result of this journey is doubt—the rupture of the discourses that comprise the individual DNA.” [...]

— By Abelardo Mena Chicuri, excerpted from “Bienal Snapshot: Guillermo Ramírez Malberti’s Identidad,” Cuban Art News (July 28, 2015).

About Gustavo Acosta

Gustavo Acosta has been identified as an artist of “individualistic” tendencies (Camnitzer, 1992, 264) by virtue of his aesthetic position, which defines painting and its conventions as basic foundations for discourse. This stance is similar to that of other painters of Acosta’s generation, such as Carlos Alberto García, Eduardo Rubén, and José Franco. As a participant in the 1982 Landscape Salon in Havana, Acosta approached—under the influence of American conceptual artist Roger Welch—unexplored areas of the Cuban cultural landscape in drawings that referenced photography. In his 1983 exhibition, Expreso Matanzas-Cienfuegos (Matanzas-Cienfuegos Express), he depicted images taken from old photographs and tourist postcards: train stations, abandoned trains, and rural way stations, painted in gestural strokes that seemed to drop a veil of nostalgia or forgetfulness between the viewer and the image. In 1984, he was awarded the Artistic Drawing Prize in the First Havana Biennial for this work.

Around 1989, Acosta’s interest turned toward the Italian metaphysical painting of such artists as Giorgio Morandi and Giorgio de Chirico, and toward the evocative works of Giovanni Battista Piranesi. In contrast to the 18th-century Italian aquatint master, who revered archaeological ruins, Acosta creates—without use of photographic references—architectural spaces that hint at mechanisms of social control: empty squares, solitary rostrums and flags, the Colosseum, or buildings similar in style to the Casa del Fascio in Como, Italy, designed for Mussolini by modernist architect Giuseppe Terragni. In these settings there is no visible trace of human presence. A dense impasto, generously applied, contributes to the gloomy, menacing atmosphere superimposed on an intricate, cell-like structure. “In the dramatic, theatrical painting of Gustavo Acosta, the color black shares its ominous dominion almost equally with other elements. Its effect on the viewer cannot be isolated from the effects produced by the titanic proportions of the architecture, the austere eclecticism of their columns, staircases, streetlamps, and flags, the inhuman emptiness of the settings, and their vast and immeasurable spaces” (Hernández, 1991, 4).

Titled Los Caminos de Roma (The Roads to Rome), this series of paintings was featured in Acosta’s solo exhibition of the same name, held at Castillo de la Real Fuerza in 1989. Two years later, it was expanded in Las Sugestiones del Límite (Suggestions of the Limit), Acosta’s last exhibition in Havana before his departure for Mexico. Urbi et Orbi was exhibited in that show. Its subject is the Tallapiedra power plant near the port of Havana, a neoclassical building designed in 1905 by the French engineer Georges Carpentier, father of celebrated Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier.

A photograph of the plant, which Acosta had manipulated for a possible LP album cover, served as a visual theme that was later repeated in several paintings. In Urbi et Orbi, the artist sketches the station with spare strokes. He excludes the neighboring railroad, elevated several feet above ground level, as well as other, more modern structures next to the plant. The building looms in solitude, almost derelict, surrounded by deep, dark shapes and projecting no light. The noisy chimneys, which usually spout black smoke, are quiet, as if the building were immersed in a motionless, fixed time, from which there is no return.

In 1990, the former Soviet Union and its political system fell apart. The fuel supplies that the Eastern Bloc had been sending to the Caribbean island were reduced to a minimum. For Cuba, this marked the beginning of the so-called “Special Period.” During years of scarcity, without the spare parts to fix frequent breakdowns, the Tallapiedra power plant became the popular symbol of an obsolete technology—incapable of illuminating the city nights or the dreams of several generations of Cubans.

References: Sánchez, Osvaldo, Los Caminos de Roma (catalogue), Havana, 1989. Hernández, Orlando, Ruinas (invisibles) de Gustavo Acosta (Gustavo Acosta’s (Invisible) Ruins), catalogue of the exhibition Las sugestiones del límite (Suggestions of the Limit), Havana Gallery, Havana, 1991.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

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About Humberto Castro

b. 1957, resides in the United States

Humberto Castro’s art takes place within the framework of violence. Initially inspired by the mass extermination of the aboriginal population of Cuba, his work later absorbed more contemporary connotations, such as the civil war in El Salvador during the Reagan era. “I am a mirror,” the artist declared, “and I want to reflect violence in my work in a filtered manner. My interest is to prove that the Expressionism of our time is much more charged with humanity’s internal emotions that its previous versions” (Camnitzer, 2003, 267). A draftsman as well as an engraver and a performance artist, Castro strongly affected the artistic conscience of the time with La Caída de Icaro (The Fall of Icarus, 1984, MNBA, Havana), a baroque installation in which the reference to the ancient Greek myth was used as a visual metaphor for the impossible dreams of human ambition.

Castro’s art drew inspiration from the New Figuration of the trans-avant-garde of the 1980s, at the same time integrating itself into the cultural processes of Cuban art. “This hyper-sensitivity to violence connects him with a great tradition, in which the names of Antonia Eiriz, Umberto Peña, and Acosta León seem indispensable” (Matamoros, 2001, 250). Mis ideas determinan tus limitaciones (My Ideas Determine Your Limitations, 1989) is a splendid example of Castro’s characteristic style. Acid, dissonant colors and an emphatically flat picture plane occupy an oversized canvas to establish an inquisitive rapport with the viewer. Naked angels of the Apocalypse hide their eyes behind sunglasses, alluding to social opportunism and simulation. They support or raise the headless sculpture positioned at the center, bringing to mind those statues that, in parks, squares, and official buildings, preach to the common citizen the ideologies of historical and public personalities offered as models of behavior.

                                                        —Abelardo Mena Chicuri

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About Iván Cañas

b. 1946, Havana. Resides in Miami, Florida.

Iván Darío Cañas Boix is a Cuban-born photographer whose work is found in permanent collections in Cuba, Mexico, the United States, France, Canada, Finland, and Germany. He has received a number of international awards, including the 1980 Prize for Photography at the Salón Nacional de las Artes Plásticas in Cuba. His work is included in various anthologies and catalogues of Latin American art, and is featured in two books: El Cubano se OfreceI (The Cuban is Offered) (Cuba: Ediciones Unión, 1982) and Trinidad (Germany: Editorial DIA, 1988). Cañas has lived in Miami, Florida, since 1992 and works as a photojournalist for Notimex (Mexican News Agency).

From Cuban Art News (January 14, 2014):

In January 2014, the Cuban American Phototheque Foundation in Miami opened Iván Cañas: A Retrospective, a career survey of the renowned photojournalist. To mark the occasion, Cuban Art News published an essay by photography scholar Grethel Morell Otero and curator Abelardo Mena on one of Cañas’s major projects: the long out-of-print photo book, El Cubano se ofrece (The Cuban is Offered). Read the essay here.

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About José Bedia

b. 1959, resides in the United States

As the son of a sailor who used to describe the wonders hidden beyond the horizon with the enthusiasm of a Marco Polo, Bedia has periodically taken on the subject of the island, and each time has attempted a complementary revelation. The periodic reiteration of the archipelago theme is linked to his decision to migrate, first to Mexico in 1991 and then to Florida in 1993, as part of the intense exodus of artists, intellectuals, and other Cubans whose expectations of a better life were sunk by the radical changes to the Cuban economy and culture during the “Special Period.” The wrenching rupture implicit in this decision and the conflictive readjustment to a new environment imposed a distance between Bedia and the island that was geographic as well as sentimental, and which forced him to treasure and compensate on canvas for a link that remains severed.

In pieces created at different moments—Visión de la isla desde lejos (A View of the Island from Afar, 1991), Isla Sola (Lone Island, 1997), Múltiples Perfiles de la Isla (Multiple Profiles of the Island, 1999), and La isla esperando una señal (The Island Waits for a Signal, 2002)—Bedia establishes a kind of insular diary that connects with the work of younger artists, such as Ibrahim Miranda, Sandra Ramos, Kcho, and Tania Bruguera, who emerged at a later time. Bedia’s concerns are not reducible to an examination of the island, its solitude, or its floatability in frozen time. In the exhibition Rodeado de Mar (Surrounded By The Sea, Contemporary Art Center of Virginia, 2000), Bedia’s gaze turned toward maritime history, and he became an ironic chronicler of the naval battle between the Spanish and American fleets during the war of 1898, as well as a commentator on the contemporary use of force in international relations.

Historical and artistic traditions have favored the designation of the Cuban island with feminine names. One has only to think of the indigenous Taino appellation, Cuba, or Columbus christening the island as Juana; the dazzling girl with Phrygian cap and flag who gives a friendly welcome to Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, or the naked girls in El nacimiento de las naciones americanas (The Birth of American Nations by Mario Carreño, 1940), to cite a few examples. Therefore, the gender inversion effected by Bedia in this piece strikes us as exceptional. Represented by the male “alter ego” evident in his works from the 1980s, the island assumes a “virile” character. Like a Neptune emerging from the waters while savoring a cigar, the insular giant scrutinizes the skies in search of the clairvoyant signal that indicates when it’s time to depart.

With the 1981 exhibition Volumen I, Cuban art began a profound re-evaluation of the stereotyped armor with which the culture shielded itself. The inquiring, conceptualist attitude of this generation thawed out the concepts of ajiaco (a proverbial cultural stew) and transculturation, both created by writer and anthropologist Fernando Ortiz, and promoted a dynamic vision of everyday culture. In their works, these artists rediscovered the vibrant zones of Cuban “street” culture, especially in the areas of Afro-Cuban religious practices, which had been catalogued in ethnological museums and Marxist manuals as “leftovers from the past.” Against stereotyped definitions of cultural identity, this generation posed a postcolonial point of view: rooted in action, it took its identity from action, not exhibition (Mosquera, 1987, 341).

Possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of non-Western cultures, Bedia was one of the driving forces behind this trend. In 1983, he was initiated into Palo Monte, a religion of Bantu origin brought to Cuba during the African diaspora. After his initiation, Bedia’s art lost its expository tone, and instead adopted a graphic figuration based on stylized symbols used by Native American and Afro-Cuban religions. What emerged as a narrative motif was a kind of alter ego or simplified outline of himself—an archetype of the human condition. With the spare use of color and no suggestion of three-dimensional volume, Bedia inserts the transcultural hero into scenes that attest to “the bipolar presence of two colliding worlds: Western/non-western, civilized/savage, postmodern/pre-modern, urban/rural” (Castillo, 2003, 21). As a complement to the image, Bedia places a brief text or caption, usually in the lower area of the piece, which serves as both cryptic adage and title.

By 1989, Bedia himself had become a true transcultural hero. His trips to a Native American reservation in South Dakota, his discovery of interior Mexico, his exhibitions and fellowships in the United States, the installations created for the Second Havana Biennial (1986), the Sao Paulo Biennial of 1987, and the exhibition Magiciens de la Terre (1989), forged an anthropophagic will that fuses and expresses, from a Palo Monte point of view, the distilled wisdom of religions around the world. Although Bedia expresses himself freely in the spatial language of his “expanded” sculptures, his drawings are the intimate laboratory where ideas are distilled. Madre de Guerra (Mother of War) is a revelation, or perhaps a warning, to be transmitted using the drawing as a communications device. The gigantic figure of the goddess, unperturbed and armed with knives—symbols of death and carnage—occupies the entire space of the posterboard. The axial symmetry suggests that the future clash will occur between two tendencies or worlds whose origins are indivisibly linked. Through its formal austerity and synthesis, and an absence of rhetorical flourishes, Bedia’s image becomes an admonition about conflict and individual and social disharmony.

A year before creating Doce cuchillos (Twelve Knives), Bedia had been awarded the Grand Prize from the Landscape Salon ’82 for a piece that juxtaposed an aerial view of the Amazon River with purported tools and other objects from indigenous tribes that inhabit that rainforest basin. Bedia’s interest in “primitive” cultures had driven him to take an almost anthropological approach to the structure and tone of these works. In them, the painting component fulfilled a cartographic or illustrative function, counterbalanced by tools, weapons, and ceramic fragments—not true anthropological artifacts, but all replicas made by Bedia himself, in the manner of an archeological cabinet. In 1983, the artist fulfilled a childhood dream: in the Ethnological Museum of Budapest, he costumed himself head to foot in the guise of a Native American. The dream of this Cuban boy, born with the Revolution, had not been nourished by the writings of German adventure novelist Karl May, but by the nostalgia of Hopalong Cassidy movies and Lone Ranger comics.

The exhibition Persistencia del Uso (Persistence of Use), the series to which this piece belongs, was a step in the maturation of his art. Its conceptual foundation was “the persistence in all cultures, since primitive times, of certain functions, and of the instruments with which they are executed” (Mosquera, 1984). Fascinated by the history of productive technologies still in use in the modern world, the artist set out to produce real tools, utilizing basic methods and materials accessible to everyone. His attitude was similar to that of the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, creator of the famed Kon-Tiki raft. Bedia executed the actual design of the objects as an empirical anthropological process, and revealed their ritual uses through museum installation of the pieces.

Doce cuchillos (Twelve Knives) is a piece that sums up this thesis. It is a second version of this work, completed shortly after the original. A black circle, drawn in a gestural manner, serves as a blackboard, on whose outer rim Bedia had originally placed real knives made from different materials; in this version, the knives are replaced by their own graphic images. The circular perimeter, a symbolic structure for many non-Western cultures, contains texts explaining the materials used for each implement, arranged in the manner of a clock: for instance, a bone, asphalt, and wood knife at three o’clock, and a copper, asphalt, and wood knife at eight o’clock. Asphalt, repeatedly used in the piece, was widely used in Cuba at that time as an adhesive and an impermeable sealant for homemade fish tanks. Bedia took this everyday material and introduced it into a piece that attempts to unveil the historical continuity of human creation through the tools of its own design. 

References: Catalogue, Kunst aus Kuba: Sammlung Ludwig/Art of Cuba: The Ludwig Collection, Palace Editions, 2002, p. 29. Mosquera, Gerardo, Persistencia del Uso (Persistence of Use), catalogue text, National Museum of Fine Arts, Havana, 1994. Camnitzer, Luis, New Art from Cuba, 1994; reprint, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003, illust. p. 42.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

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About José Franco

b. 1958, resides in Argentina

In 1910, the French painter Henri Rousseau (1844-1910), known as le Douanier (the customs broker), created one of his more memorable pieces: The Dream, now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. The creator of such paintings as The Football Players (1908, Philadelphia Museum of Art) and The Sleeping Gypsy (1897, MoMA), Rousseau had been celebrated in 1908 by Pablo Picasso and other artists in a boisterous banquet, where the anti-academic avant-garde discovered new allies in their struggle against “bourgeois” art.

A forerunner of the art known today as naïve or “outsider,” le Douanier was blessed with a boundless imagination that soared beyond the roofs of the Moulin Rouge (still Nicole Kidman-less) to depict exuberant tropical forests inhabited by timid lions, languid copper-skinned women, or merciless hurricanes that seemed to have escaped from the pages of Pierre Loti and Joseph Conrad. The humble artist presented his paintings as realistic landscapes that he had observed during his military days in Mexico. However, his visual sources were in truth the engraved illustrations of books on exotic lands, as well as countless Sunday visits to the zoo and botanical gardens of Paris. Like many painters of his day (and ours), he appropriated found images and transformed them in an exalted, poetic vein.

Eight decades later, a “tropical” artist, José Franco, chose Rousseau as his interlocutor. In the context of 1980s art, Franco, together with Eduardo Rubén and Carlos A. García, set out to recover the expressive values of painting. Franco’s abstract images enlarged the bark of plants or details of animal skins as a sort of camouflage. Projected spatially through the addition of three-dimensional elements and objects, they occupied an indeterminate frontier between art and design.

In Conversación…, the avant-garde art movements of Paris and Havana close an artistic and cultural communications circuit that had been opened in the 1700s by translations, visits, publications, and exhibitions, and that grew more intense during the 20th century. The choice of Rousseau as the appropriated object is linked to the reflexive attitude of Cuban art, ready to cannibalize images snatched from art history as useful objects for its own cultural processes. By means of Franco’s irreverent attitude toward the concept of authorship, Rousseau becomes a co-creator of the piece, and his signature appears in the lower left corner, as if a miraculous, temporary reincarnation had taken place, landing him on Cuban shores. Now his forest is re-elaborated from the Caribbean, where a camouflaged telephone—high technology—ensures communication between different eras and cultures.

References: Camnitzer, Luis, New Art from Cuba, 1994; reprint, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003, illust. p. 210.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

About José Manuel Fors

b. 1956, resides in Cuba and Spain

Although José Manuel Fors has been cast as a photographer, or “artist of the lens,” his creations belong to the genre of post-photography. By appropriating images from others, American artists such as Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince questioned the status of the art work as a “unique” phenomenon. For the Cuban artist, the “borrowed” image is an instrument for a personal reflection on time and individual identity.

After his participation in Volumen I, the groundbreaking 1981 exhibition that was labeled a “challenge” by the sociological and schematic criticism of the day (Tomás, 1981, 340), Fors’s initial forays into photography took place in 1982. In those works, he treated household items as objets trouvés, and documented interventions related to his 1981 installation, Hojarasca (Fallen Leaves). He did not meet with an entirely warm reception; in the early 1980s, Cuban aesthetic consciousness and artistic education still conceived of art and photography as unrelated entities. Art was exhibited in galleries; photography belonged to the world of journalism and collective ideologies, and was considered a direct record of the social environment.

But Fors’s exploration of the photographic field inserted itself into an “underground” current of 20th-century Cuban art: the questioning of photographic truth. Despite the hegemony of the “direct” photograph, historical precedents existed: the collages made by Enrique Riverón, Carlos Enriquez, and Marcelo Pogolotti in the 1930s; the photographic manipulations featured in the 1966 exhibition Fotomentira (Photolie); photo-based paintings of the 1960s by A. Eiriz and Raúl Martínez; the documentation of visual performances by Leandro Soto in 1980; and even the surrealist discourses by Gory (Rogelio López Marín). Fors’s poetics played an important role in the re-evaluation of this “tradition,” and in the later emergence of a new post-photographic approach.

In 1985, the artist’s principal source of inspiration surfaced: the photographic archives of his paternal grandfather, Alberto José Fors (1885-1965), a scientist considered the father of Cuban forestry. Fors enriched his grandfather’s astonishing collection with letters, postcards, and family heirlooms, all assiduously preserved and available for inclusion in his work as “ready-mades.” The artist’s creative process is similar to editing; he selects images from this trove and re-photographs them, then groups the reprints according to simple visual structures: grids, circles, intersecting lines. Though two-dimensional, these complex assemblages evolve toward sculpture and installation art.

Manos (Hands) is an exception among Fors’s evocative works: detailed visions of the body and its parts generally don’t appear in his art. The hands depicted in Manos are the artist’s own. Other artists might treat such a work as a self-portrait, but Fors does not seem interested in that level of personal identification. The hands occupy only part of each photographic fragment; the pieces have been arranged in series, almost like a mosaic. The squares have been positioned in the manner of a kaleidoscopic image shifting around a central axis; they appear to merge into each other and multiply. It is perhaps a human landscape, and at the same time, an intimate homage to human labor, artistry, and zeal.

References: Catalogue, Four Cuban Photographers, p. 24. Wride, Tim B., ed., catalogue, Shifting Tides: Cuban Photography after the Revolution, pp. 98-99. Díaz, Desireé, El Tiempo Restaurado (Time Restored), ArteCubano 2/2001, Havana, cover and p. 21.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

About Juan Pablo Ballester

b. 1966, resides in Spain

On July 26, 1953, a group of young people led by Fidel Castro attacked the Moncada Garrison, headquarters of an army regiment in Santiago de Cuba. Their purpose was to start a mass rebellion against Fulgencio Batista’s regime, which had overthrown Carlos Prío’s constitutional government the year before. The assault failed. Many of the rebels were arrested in the barracks and the city streets, and Batista ordered that ten of them should be executed for each dead soldier. After atrocious torture, the mangled bodies of the rebels were dressed in uniforms and made to hold guns, then scattered around the barracks grounds so the press would report that they had been killed in combat. But Cuban photographer Panchito Cano, accompanying the journalist Marta Rojas, had taken pictures of the injured attackers before their torture and murder. He smuggled the exposed film out of the district, evading military censorship and giving lie to the official story. The images’ publication in the press had an impact on public opinion. A year later, Castro’s self-defense speech in the Moncada trial started circulating secretly under the title “History Will Absolve Me.” This military failure was transformed into a political manifesto, and the events of July 26 became, historiographically, the foundational act of the Revolution of 1959.

Better known for his decisive participation in the collective Angulo-Ballester-Toirac-Villazón (or ABTV, per Camnitzer, 2003, 188), since 1992 Ballester has produced, on his own, images that reject the documentary style that dominated Cuban photographic ideologies after the Revolution. Drawing on such strategies as appropriation, collage, and manipulation; the use of the artist’s studio as symbolic space; the conversion of the artist’s body into a visual symbol; repudiation of the Cartier-Bresson “decisive moment;” and the use of photographs as a record of performances, Ballester and other Cuban artists developed an alternative set of photographic practices. They rejected the view of “reality” as modeled by compositional, expressive, and ideological clichés. Instead, they proposed an intimate vision that substitutes or deconstructs reality—a deliberate erosion stimulated, in part, by the social devaluation of graphic journalism and press photography in Cuba, which were supplanted by the repetitive use of stock photos and stereotypical images.

Ballester does not undertake a critique of modernity and its foundations of unity and originality, but instead deconstructs the social rites behind the images. His intention is to rupture the opacity of historical narratives that take photography as proof of verisimilitude and as a product for social consumption. For this purpose, he selected one of the images taken by Panchito Cano during the Moncada events, and reconstructed it using his own body, pose, makeup, location, special effects, and focus, à la Cindy Sherman.

But if Sherman exposed the construct of “the feminine” in mass media, the frozen performance of the Cuban artist pointed to the re-appropriation of an historical event, which we could only see through the mediation of images broadcast by the mass media. The sacrifice of the anonymous fighter has been submitted to the violence of the spectacle, a component of any contemporary historical discourse that aspires to legitimate its myths and its forgetfulness.

Now living in Catalonia, Spain, Ballester is currently working in an open project called Enlloc—a Catalan word that means “nowhere”—in which he tackles nationalistic demagogies.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

About Kcho (Alexis Leyva Machado)

b. 1970, resides in Cuba

The son of a carpenter and a visual arts teacher who rigorously taught him his first notions about drawing, Kcho obtained his degree in Painting and Drawing at the National School of Art (ENA), founded in 1961. In 1991, he was included in the influential exhibition Los Hijos de Guillermo Tell (The Sons of William Tell), among such prestigious artists of the 1980s generation as José Bedia, Flavio Garciandía, Gustavo Acosta, Glexis Novoa, Tomás Esson, and Marta María Pérez.

La Isla de mis sueños (Island of My Dreams) reflects Kcho’s expressive concerns early in his career. With obsessive descriptiveness, Dutch and French engravers of the 18th century recorded in navigational charts every detail of Cuba’s geographical features, noting each mountain and cove. The young artist took a much riskier route; rather than describing Cuba, he wanted to symbolize it. And so he fuses the country’s insular condition with the vicissitudes of his own time into a multilayered metaphor, in which the island has ceased to be terra firma and is transformed into a lifesaving device: a truck tire, similar to those used by Cuban rafters in their hazardous journeys toward the coast of Florida. But in 1990, it is not only the rafters who feel the precariousness of their own destinies. The Soviet Union has evaporated, and in the midst of the Caribbean Sea, heeled over with no lights, an entire nation struggles to survive, and waits.

The title of the work—almost nostalgic—has been laid out in calligraphy in the lower area of the print, and the viewer’s eye reads it while taking in the work itself. The effortless but firm line of Kcho’s drawing brings out the textures of the natural materials he uses, without bowing to the two-dimensionality of conventional drawing. For Kcho, a blank space is merely a workbench that surrounds and directs his three-dimensional concepts. More than just drawing, he sculpts on paper. As extrapolations of his phrase, “the drawing is the foundation of the idea,” these works stand on their own as autonomous drawings; at the same time, they are studies for possible sculptural works. They are the marks of a thought process, and of the possibility of the artist’s own utopia. Starting with Kcho, an appreciation for drawings as the artifacts of larger projects gained currency in contemporary Cuban art (and among its collectors).

Although some critics have likened Kcho’s work to the work of Juan Francisco Elso (one of the pioneers of Volumen I) or to Arte Povera, the artist’s low-tech approach fit in effortlessly with the post-conceptual explorations of 1990s art. Sculptors like Alejandro Aguilera and Alexis Somoza investigated the “ideological” connotations of classic sculpting materials, deconstructing the official depictions of patriotic symbols and historic figures. Kcho took the expanded field of sculpture a step further with his emphasis on nature in its “pure” state, and with the use of artisanal production techniques. “The works fashioned with branches and fibers taken from Cuban nature fall into the category of grand format sculpture, yet are light and transparent at the same time. The representation, as nonchalant as it is precarious, of a semiotics of the island, as well as of emblems of nationality, parodies the rhetoric used by the orthodox hierarchy to supposedly safeguard the values of the Cuban social project...” (Noceda, 2001, 31).

But the artist’s quest pointed toward deeper connotations in the Cuban sociocultural identity. Representation of the insular landscape had not undergone such a radical transformation since Wifredo Lam’s The Jungle (1943). Lam had turned Cuban nature into a myth, overcoming the limitations of a positivist, white-skinned criollism. Half a century later, with Kcho, the Cuban countryside was stripped of all sentimentality. In Island of My Dreams, the royal palm—the natural standard bearer of cubanidad, the Cuban essence, for the romantic poets of the 19th century—has become a vertical symbol of the island’s solitude.

By 2001, Kcho was already a champion in the “heavyweight division” of Cuban artists, with works exhibited in important museums and collections worldwide. His incessant production of sculptures, drawings, engravings, and even jewelry traverses a steady repertory of imagery: boats and rafts, oars and propellers, mobiles, infinite columns, docks, unorthodox assemblages. The artistic career of this Isle of Pines native seems to be driven exclusively by his inner need for expression, on principles that he apparently shares with Amelia Peláez, a modern Cuban artist from the past century: “She moved towards the future, but constantly looked for references in her own past; time and again, she would take up motifs or approaches she had not exhausted, and include them in the dominant direction of her work, which could then turn into an all-encompassing spiral, or veer off in a sort of momentary arabesque, only to return afterwards, enriched, to its primary course…” (Vázquez, 1996, 13).

The artifact represented in La conquista del espacio… is an icon of 20th-century avant-garde architecture: the Monument to the Third International. Designed between 1919 and 1920 by Soviet artist Vladimir Tatlin in homage to the Communist International, it was to be erected in Saint Petersburg, where it was intended to house an array of administrative offices. It was conceived as a steel structure taller than the Eiffel Tower, but the technological realities of Leninist Russia frustrated its construction, and in the end it became a symbol of the failure of architectural as well as social utopias.

The first “close encounter” between Kcho and Tatlin had occurred nine years before, when Kcho was working on A los ojos de la historia (In the Eyes of History), which was exhibited at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (MNBA) in Havana. A spiral tower assembled from twigs and plant fibers, it has an unstable, flimsy look, and is topped by . . . a rustic coffee strainer, Cuban country-style. “It’s a symbol of the socialist utopia that does not work,” said Kcho in Flash Art. “It was something like: let’s make coffee with that spiral. It has to be good for something!” (Budney, 1997, 6). This ironic take on the subject, absolutely purposeful, mirrored an extreme social imbalance. “Those were the years of nonstop migration of the most important visual artists in Cuba towards Mexico, Miami, and Spain . . . For many, the death of all utopias had been decreed” (Acosta, 2001, 7).

Nevertheless, the work of the Russian designer left a deep mark on Kcho’s sculptural conceptions (Llanes, 1995, 6), and he revisited it repeatedly as time went by. At the Valencia Biennial in 1995, he exhibited structures similar to A los ojos de la historia; by the end of that year, Tatlin’s towers had fused with Wifredo Lam’s Third World myths in Kcho’s exhibition, La Jungla (The Jungle) at the Museo Nacional. To make his sculptures, Kcho had recycled driftwood found near the seashore, as in Regatas (Regattas, 1994); now, he used the works of Tatlin and Lam as raw material for this process.

A peculiar remix of Tatlin’s tower, La conquista del espacio… caps off the thematic cycle initiated in A los ojos de la historia. The large-format paper has been turned into a notebook. In a stream-of-consciousness-like flow, the artist accentuates the unfinished character of the piece: he proposes technical solutions, details mechanisms, and annotates unconnected phrases, in the manner of the flying machine plans found in the codices of Leonardo da Vinci. In a technological miracle that would puzzle NASA experts, the failed Monument to the Third International has been transformed into a spaceship, an orbital vehicle capable of flying thanks to solar panels added by the artist. The betrayed utopia, as well as the massive architectural weight, are made to levitate despite the challenges of an incoherent technology. And thanks to the imaginative creativity of Kcho, assembler of impossible artifacts, the heady aroma of Cuban coffee will invade the vast immensity of astral space.

References: Cited catalogue, p. 51, item 123.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

About Lázaro Saavedra

b. 1964, resides in Cuba

Oval or rectangular in shape, industrially printed in garish color, the Sacred Heart was one of the most popular icons in a Catholic land that also revered African deities in the guise of Christian saints. It invariably depicted a young man with a gentle expression and eyes full of tenderness, offering a heart crowned in thorns.

Over time, the imagery of the Sacred Heart became an intimate part of Cuba’s contemporary cultural heritage, even when the long years of official atheism removed it from household walls. Then, when the “Special Period” arrived, and each meager meal seemed as if it might be the last, the images of Lenin disappeared and the churches filled with young parishioners. John Paul II and his Popemobile landed in Havana, and the Sacred Heart was raised in a visual Magnificat over Revolution Square, before the cameras of CNN.

It is not surprising, then, for Lázaro Saveedra to mark this image for personal interpretation. A conceptual artist a la cubana, a former member of the Puré (Purée) group, a participant in the Pilón and ENEMA projects, designer of Detector de ideologías (Ideology Detector, 1988) and Altar a San Joseph Beuys (Altar to Saint Joseph Beuys, 1989), Saavedra is one of those creators who in the 1980s transformed works of art into incisive and honest reflections on everyday Cuban reality.

In the 1980s, the visual arts assumed the function of a public space for social debate. Until then, the methodologies of art production taught in the academies had forced students to “rise above” their particular social contexts and adopt the lingua franca of “refined” art. Under teachers at the Superior Institute of Art (ISA) such as Flavio Garciandía, Consuelo Castañeda, Osvaldo Sánchez, and Lupe Álvarez, Saavedra learned the exact opposite process: to make art from his own socio-economic circumstances. His work is distinguished by its analytical nature; self-referential allusions to the creative process; the use of comics, texts, jokes about current events, and everyday objects; parodies of artistic styles and periods; and satire and self-criticism. These characteristics turn Saavedra’s art into a living chronicle of social consciousness, tracing the conflicts of the Cuban intelligentsia during the past twenty years.

Saavedra has frequently appropriated stereotypical representations of historical persons such as Karl Marx, as well as influential popular icons such as Elpidio Valdés (a character in Cuban comics). In El Sagrado Corazón, he reproduces the image of Jesus as it appears in popular prints, adding (with a wink to the viewer) a countercultural “hippie” accent with the full beard and overlong hair. The Cuban flag takes over the flaming heart while the skeletal hands and haggard face of this tropical Jesus reveal the extreme frugality of his life: it is the decade of the “Special Period.”

By applying the linguistic conventions of comics to a religious image, the distance between thought and speech is made clear. As his speech balloon attests, the prophet publicly aligns himself with the Soviet Union and Communism, but he is really thinking about the United States and a market economy. Saavedra treats this modified image of Christ as a literary character, using him to castigate the double morality, dissimulations, and social opportunism of his compatriots. He is not, however, lashing out with false puritanism. Behind the Christ that creates masks for public consumption hides the bleeding face of the artist himself.

References: Mosquera, Gerardo, “La Isla Infinita, Introducción al Nuevo Arte Cubano” (The Limitless Island: An Introduction to the New Cuban Art) in Arte contemporáneo de Cuba: Ironía y sobrevivencia en la Isla Utopía (Cuban Contemporary Art: Irony and Survival in the Island of Utopia), Arizona State University Art Museum, Delano Greenidge Editions, New York, 1999, pp. 31-37.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

About Los Carpinteros

Dagoberto Rodríguez Sánchez (b. 1969, resides in Cuba) and
Marco Antonio Castillo Valdés (b. 1971, resides in Cuba) and
Alexandre Arrechea (b.1970, resides in Cuba). (Arrechea left the group in 2003.)


In the 1990s, Dagoberto Rodríguez, Alexandre Arrechea, and Marco Castillo were christened “Los Carpinteros” (The Carpenters) for the paintings and sculptures they made using self-taught carpentry techniques. The wood came from nearby forests and abandoned houses. This was the time of the “Special Period,” when any materials—even those of illegal origin—were invaluable for the making of art. With absolute fluidity, they created and lived together in student residences. Their self-portrayal as “craftsmen” proved attractive to cultural institutions, and today Los Carpinteros are important international ambassadors of Cuban art.

Their travels, exhibitions, and sojourns abroad expanded the horizons of the team (now a duo), and encouraged them to adopt new materials and production techniques. Watercolors replaced oil painting, and, as they put it, “we focused on making furniture. In other words, we focused on the idea of furniture, metaphors for things, objects, thoughts, but everything expressed through furniture and design” (Lowinger, 1999, 38). They were inveterate readers of Popular Mechanics magazine; in their sketches a topsy-turvy world was born. A logic based on incoherence and contradiction transformed buildings, tools, household objects, furniture, swimming pools, and coffeemakers. Frequently aided by engineers and architects, Los Carpinteros produce an anti-design that cloaks the Cuban flair for improvisation and humor in extreme sophistication and refinement. Considered surrealists with liberal doses of Groucho Marx, they have argued: “...we are realistic, but in a ludic way” (Anselmi, 1998, 98).

Los Carpinteros’ ideas are nurtured by lateral thinking and caustic metaphors. In Embajada Rusa (Russian Embassy, 2003, Guggenheim Museum) and Someca (2002), a peculiar architectonic critique transforms buildings into chests of drawers. Mueble Gordo (Fat Furniture) depicts a different process. This piece of furniture was conceived in similar fashion as the rest of its species, but its profile has undergone a sudden deformation. The objects and people painted by Colombian artist Fernando Botero enjoy their own obesity from a perspective, at once satirical and tender, that flirts with the viewer. In Mueble Gordo, an unusual engorgement causes the chest’s supports to buckle outwards and its very nails to tremble. It is the work of a merciless hand that wants nothing less than to challenge the grammar through which we apprehend the world.

For Los Carpinteros, watercolor is an ideal medium. Since the Renaissance, it has been commonly considered a sort of laboratory or sketch medium—to be used before creating the finished piece in oil, the real star in the salon hierarchy. These historical connotations, as well as watercolor’s relative ease of execution, come together in the duo’s large-format drawings. Here, freshness and spontaneity—as if the works had just been dashed off moments ago—coexist in paradoxical tension with the meticulous depiction of the objects being portrayed. Rendered with the fastidious detail of a technical manual, these objects form a peculiar, post-human landscape, where things frequently exchange functions, transform themselves into hybrid items of dubious utility, or shed new light on ambiguous metaphors.

The subject of Cosmos is the cinder block, a veritable philosopher’s stone for popular construction in Cuba. Faced with the extinction of the clay brick, Cubans started making cinder blocks in their homes and workshops, using rudimentary technology. Symbolic of a low-tech, broadly democratic approach, the cinder block has appeared in the works of Tonel, for example in Bloqueo (Blockade, 1989), as well as in previous pieces by Los Carpinteros themselves. In Proyecto de acumulación de materiales (Project for the Accumulation of Materials, 1999, MoMA), as well as in Proyecto de Bloques (Block Project, 2001), the blocks look as though they’ve been lifted out of a snapshot. In Piscina-Bloque (Swimming Pool-Block, 2002, Farber Collection), the block design is transferred to a pool, forming a strangely hybrid object.

The cosmos as conceived by Los Carpinteros does not belong to the natural order described by Alexander von Humoldt, nor is it part of Carl Sagan’s poetic visions. In a veritable tour de force of visual artistry, the cinder blocks levitate in weightless space like stray pieces of a Lego set. They rotate to avoid collision with nearby blocks, but do not orbit as meteorites, planets, and starships would. Rather, they most likely seem to be the remains of a sudden explosion, a Big Bang captured by a high-speed camera. The drawing appears to describe an impossible process with the serene objectivity of an eyewitness. It is the apotheosis of anti-architecture, a tropical version of Monsú Desiderio’s visionary fantasy, Explosion in a Cathedral.

In his chronicle “The Great Blue River,” published in Holiday (1949), Ernest Hemingway described in “slow motion” the entrance to the harbor of Havana and the lighthouse at the Castillo de Los Tres Reyes del Morro, or Morro Castle. Admired by Cubans and visitors alike, this symbol of the city had had a profound impact on Hemingway. In the 1960s, the phrase “Cuba, lighthouse of Latin America” reflected the influence of the island on a rebellious continent. And in 1989, the artists Ponjuán-René Francisco again took up the lighthouse motif in their canvas Las ideas llegan más lejos que la luz (Ideas Travel Farther Than Light).

Working with the same theme, in 1997 Los Carpinteros (The Carpenters) created a lighthouse surrounded by water in a wooden basin. Three years later, they installed Ciudad Transportable (Portable City) in front of Havana Bay. Like balloon-frame houses, this ensemble of lightweight, aluminum-and-fabric buildings was designed for easy transport and set-up. A lighthouse was one of the structures chosen for this ideal city, intended to be erected in the shortest possible time. In their Mundos de faros transparentes (Worlds of Transparent Lighthouses, 2001), the accumulation of towers underlined a loss of geographical reference points, while the structures’ translucence contrasted sharply with their usual solidity.

For Los Carpinteros, the drawing has a function as ambiguous as the object it portrays. It records a creative process of a metaphoric nature, beyond any logic. “It seemed to represent a view of an object that already exists, even though only on paper.” (Hoptman, 2003, 34) In this sense, Los Carpinteros’ imaginative capacity knows no bounds. Their drawings for projects pile up and are exhibited as autonomous pieces until a moment or circumstance makes production feasible. Faro Tumbado includes measurements and notes for possible construction, as a sketch for a later sculpture. In this case, the dream did materialize: during the Ninth Havana Biennial in 2006, Los Carpinteros exhibited a colossal concrete and metal lighthouse in Havana Gallery, which was later acquired by the Tate Modern.

Isolated from any context, the tower in Faro Tumbado hovers diagonally over the picture plane. The realistic representation, as well as the subtle transparencies of watercolor, accentuate the weirdness of the situation. In Spanish, the title lends an ironic touch: “tumbado” could mean that the object has fallen due to an external force, or that it has simply lain down to sleep. The dual interpretations contribute to the ambiguity of this singular situation. Collapsed like an exhausted animal, its Fresnell lamps turning toward the floor, the stone tower that kept Cuban nights company for centuries no longer illuminates the way for seagoing craft. And a blind lighthouse points to a city that has disappeared from ocean maps.


References: Just in Time, Subastahabana auction catalogue, La Casona Gallery, Havana, 2004, illust. p. 65.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

About Luis Cruz Azaceta

b. Havana 1942. Lives and works in New Orleans and New York.

Since the 1980s, Cuban contemporary art has prompted changes in the ongoing cultural dialogue: about the cultural dimensions of cubanidad, the Cuban essence; the internationalization of Cuban art; and the nomadic condition, not only of numerous artists, but of art production itself. The parameters of this dialogue have driven Cuban “Art History” to reevaluate both the poetics and the creative phenomena that question, unavoidably, the cognitive maps of cubanidad, traced under the ever-present weight of the political.

This implies a certain understanding: that “precisely the subjective link that relates a Cuban who lives in the island with another who resides in Miami, and these two with a third who tries to survive in Madrid, goes beyond the tangible space they inhabit or see themselves kept from inhabiting, and even beyond their possible ideological differences. What unites them (even in their probable political disjunction) is their sense of belonging to something that cannot be seen, but rather felt. In such cases, the nation surpasses the palpable limits of the archipelago to become that lucid image that Ana López has proposed for understanding the dialectics of this phenomenon: the image of a Greater Cuba” (García Borrero, 2006, 4).

This proposal of analysis has been preceded by investigations in other fields, including the Cuban and Cuban-American literatures of the diaspora, and art exhibitions such as Historia de un viaje, Artistas Cubanos en Europa (History of a Journey, Cuban Artists in Europe, Valencia, 1997). But the work of Cruz Azaceta, Ana Mendieta, Félix González Torres, and other artists still awaits the inclusive academic vision that would expose the personal aspect of their creations as well as the dialogue that they established—even in absence—with the art currently being made in the island.

Exiled in the United States since 1960, Cruz Azaceta, as well as his art, is rooted in his condition as a Cuban New Yorker. Other Cuban artists working from the perspective of exile may take on Cuban themes and the anti-academic modernism of the 1930s and 1940s as a way to hold on to a country that they deem lost. But Cruz Azaceta absorbed the artistic practices of the new postmodernism—elaborated by such artists as Schnabel, Salle, Longo, Baselitz, and Immendorf—and creatively reworked them, making a contribution still insufficiently recognized by critics.

Cruz Azaceta’s attitude positions him close to the neo-figurative practices of some areas of Argentinean and Colombian art related to resistance and memory in the face of the social violence exerted by the anti-insurgent dictatorships. Each work intentionally turns into a lash on the moral conscience of humanity: "I paint what I see around me, and I look with an accusing eye on what Man has created... death, death is the absolute truth we possess... I paint to kill death, and also to kill cruelty, injustice, violence, ignorance, and hypocrisy” (Goodrow, 1998).

Consciously indebted to Bacon, Beckmann, Goya, Picasso, Orozco, and Kahlo, his visceral expressionism links Cruz Azaceta to other Cuban artists such as Antonia Eiriz, Ángel Acosta León, and Humberto Castro. Shocked by the number of Cubans that have disappeared in the Florida Straits aboard precarious sea craft, Cruz Azaceta imagines the rafter in La Casita 2 (The Little House 2) as a Robinson Crusoe without an island, who carries in his boat his cultural references as well as the motives of his escape: Polaroid pictures with images of food. Reflecting an approach similar to Kcho’s rafts, the event is not set as a melodramatic chronicle, but as subtle metaphor, achieved through contemporary expressive tools. The rafter’s face—which by its dimensions and plasticity stands out from the whole—is a peculiar self-portrait of the artist, an “I” that becomes plural (as in the works of Tonel or Sandra Ramos), and so has been repeated in each canvas as an icon of suffering. Driven to the sea by need or by the illusion of unsatisfied desire, the image of the seafarer is also a representation of human loneliness.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

About Manuel Mendive

b. 1944, resides in Cuba

The cultural background necessary to understand Manuel Mendive’s work concerns the enormous sociocultural impact of the African diaspora, which came to Latin America as a result of the slave trade, and was, from the 17th century, driven by the plantation economy. The religious worldviews brought by people from diverse African nations were quickly adapted to new social and environmental conditions. Through various strategies of symbolic resistance, these beliefs have made themselves felt in the collective imaginations of contemporary societies. This is the case with the Rule of Ocha, or Santería, a religion of Yoruba origin that took root and flourished in Cuba and Brazil.

Mendive’s art cannot be separated from his identity as a Santero. He is a loyal practitioner of a religion that, in 1990s Cuba, ceased to be regarded solely as a refuge for poor blacks and mulattoes and assumed a multiracial, multiclass character. In a secular, materialistic, modern society that views all religious extremism with suspicion, Mendive’s art has gained acceptance in the guise of folklore or exotic spectacle. The key to its interpretation, however, does not lie in the sensibility of the tourist, who eagerly snaps up souvenirs as proof of voyages round the world. Instead, it lies in the unity between the artist’s vision and his means of expression, in the intensity of his search and his ethical commitment.

After he graduated from the San Alejandro art school in 1963, Mendive’s artistic production was forged in the cultural polemic between the partisans of Socialist Realism and the supporters of a Cuban socialist “heresy” that wanted no part of it. Equally influential was the sociocultural tug-of-war between the tolerance and even encouragement of African cultural traditions and the simultaneous rejection of African religions as “backward” beliefs supposedly doomed by the (immediate) advent of the Cuban “new man,” with his atheistic and scientific cast of mind. Surrounded by the impressive creative achievements of such artists as Raúl Martínez, Servando Cabrera, Antonia Eiriz, and Ángel Acosta León, among others, Mendive remained faithful to his origins and family context. In stark contrast to the epic aspirations of the moment, he explored a magical dimension. “I lived in a marginal neighborhood, Luyanó, in Havana,” he recalled. “My family was very familiar with the ancient Yoruba religion” (Britto, 2001, 10). To Cuba’s social utopians, who conceived the U.S.S.R. as the ultimate model, Mendive offered an opposing worldview in which human beings and deities exist hand in hand without exception—first in carved, polychrome wood, later in paintings, performances and designs on dancers’ bodies.

Mendive is not a naïve artist, but a creator trained in Western art techniques who has chosen an iconography, a particular style, as the vehicle best suited to tell his stories. He cites as influences “the paintings of Giotto, who is my favorite master, and of Fra Angelico. They are my painters, the ones who have always helped me” (Britto, 2001, 11). Sculpture resurfaced as one of Mendive’s creative outlets in his 1987 exhibition, Para el ojo que mira (For the Gazing Eye), becoming more frequent in recent years. This is reflected in his use of bronze castings and cut sheet-metal, the integration of diverse materials such as shells, votive offerings, textiles, and the creation of self-contained installations and spatial projections.

In Los hijos del agua…, the artist returns to a theme previously explored in his bronze Mujer y pez (Woman and Fish, 2000): the seamless coexistence of people and animals, in accordance with the conceptual essence of Santería—animistic, polytheistic, and instilled with an intense affinity for nature. This is not the persistent reverence that the fisherman Santiago offers to the fish in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, but an artistic universe that vindicates the infusion of magical thinking into everyday life—where man, fish, and all beings that live in the sea share, with generosity, the sources of creation and the favor of the divine orishas.

References: Catalogue, Mendive: Shangó y la Vida, p. 88, listed as number 12.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

About Manuel Piña

b. 1958, resides in Cuba and Canada

The Volumen I generation came into the public spotlight after the Mariel experience in 1980, when intellectuals such as Carlos Alfonzo and Reinaldo Arenas emigrated. This migratory process and its connotations, however, did not resonate in the visual arts. At the time, the Cuban art world was absorbed in its own evolution toward a new, avant-garde paradigm more focused on formal concerns. Ana Mendieta’s frequent trips to Cuba contributed to this process, giving impetus to the notion of a Cuban artistic identity that was rooted in, and confined to, the island and its specific cultural development. The officially sanctioned polarization of Cuban society—into gusanos (worms) who departed and patriots who stayed—did not encourage artists to reflect on the Mariel event in all its complexity.

During the 1990s, however, Cuban art and the island reconciled. The fall of the U.S.S.R., erstwhile paradigm of the future, brought about the violent collapse of the economic and psychological ties to Eastern Europe. The ensuing economic crisis; the migration of many artists to Mexico; the legalization of the financial support sent by the diaspora; the revival of religion; the explosion of private initiative; and the day-by-day erosion of social prejudices made Cuba an island floating in suspended time.

Although smaller in comparison to the Mariel crisis, the balsero, or rafter, crisis of 1994 was internalized at a deeper cultural level. Artists such as Kcho, Sandra Ramos, Abel Barroso, and Tania Bruguera introduced the concept of Cuba as a raft, separated from terra firma by the insurmountable breach of the waters. Each generation disinters its own dead: José Lezama Lima’s well-known phrase, “because to be born here is an unnamable feast,” was succeeded by Virgilio Piñera’s line, “the damned circumstance / of that water everywhere.” Faith in utopia sank, giving way to its opposite; art criticism and demographic studies reflected emerging concepts of diaspora, insularity, and transnational community.

Aguas Baldías (Waters of the Waste Land) is one of fifteen images that Manuel Piña photographed from the Malecón during the most critical years of the “Special Period.” A waterfront promenade marking the northern limit of the city, the Malecón was transformed—under the migratory impulse—into the most visible border between reality and desire. Inspired by T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, the series’ title is an expression of the artist’s own situation at the time. “I took those pictures between 1992 and 1994, during a very dramatic period in Cuba. I felt that I did not have many options left in my life nor in my work” (Sanders, 2002, 3).

While press reporters and moviemakers documented the spectacular aspects of the crisis, Piña disavowed the documentary basis of his series through a dispassionate attitude: he was not interested in social chronicles. His focus on the Malecón, with its cracks like tattoos left by time, its condition of insurmountable horizon, or as the starting point for a possible journey, allowed him to reveal an essential aspect of the Cuban soul: a certain awe for the vastness of the space surrounding the island. The restrained chromatic range was determined both by internal urgency and by lack of film. “I shot the series in black and white because it matched my feelings at that moment, and because of the scarcity of materials… I overexposed the roll and then developed it, so the grain would look more dramatic” (Sanders, 2002, 5). The results were stunning—as if Ansel Adams had shot the fall of Berlin in 1945. The images of humanity overpowered by the sea do not express a romantic identification, but rather extreme frustration in the face of an unbridgeable gulf. The ocean was the claustrophobic border that eliminated escape and, at the same time, deferred all hope.

References: Catalogue, Fifth Havana Biennial, Wifredo Lam Center, Havana, 1994, p. 134. Block, Holly, ed., Art Cuba: The New Generation, Harry N. Abrams, New York, United States,  2001, p. 118. Catalogue, La Mirada: Looking at Photography in Latin America Today,  Daros Latin American Collection, Zurich, 2003, p. 110.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

About María Magdalena Campos-Pons

b. 1959, resides in the United States

The late 1980s witnessed the emergence of several women artists, virtually all of them graduates of the national system of art education. Cuba already had Amelia Peláez (1896-1968) in the 1930s and Antonia Eiriz (1929-1995) in the 1960s as outstanding examples; but for the first time art critics identified a distinct discourse on the female condition. Artists such as Ana Albertina Delgado, Marta María Pérez, Elsa Mora, Sandra Ramos, and Magdalena Campos-Pons were interested in expressing personal matters within a strong social context—turning intimacy inside out, as it were, transforming it into an extroversion without limits. Campos-Pons in particular ventured further down this road, defying the representations promulgated by Cuban literature, advertising, and folk music since the 1800s, which depicted black women as victims and sexual icons.

Campos-Pons’s creativity surfaced in the mid-1980s with sculptural reliefs that celebrated the physicality and sexuality of her own body. Deliberately stripping away any sense of sanctity or mystification, she created visual metaphors from slang expressions referring to genitalia, at the same time reworking sexual themes embedded in the myths of Western culture. Gradually her work expanded its thematic range. In Soy una fuente (I Am A Fountain, 1990, Farber Collection), she challenged the 19th-century medical texts that explained, in “scientific” terms, the insufficiencies of the “weaker” sex. She depicted various “female” organs happily functioning alongside their corresponding fluids: tears, blood, milk. The eternal feminine mystery was dispelled by Campos-Pons’ intentionally naïve imagery and palette of intense colors.

In Everything is Separated by Water (1990), the dislocations of the artist’s body symbolized the traumatic experiences “imprinted” on Cubans and Americans under the political context common to both countries. A year later, at the Fourth Havana Biennial, the installation Tra… (1991) explicitly addressed the exploitation, trafficking in, and killing of African peoples in the Americas and in Cuba. Working with installations integrating everyday objects and video projections has permitted Campos-Pons to revisit personal, familial, and cultural memories in such pieces as Tablas de planchar (Ironing Boards, 1994).

Campos-Pons has shown remarkable flexibility in her use of diverse mediums—installation, video, performance photographs—to explore different lines of creative inquiry. In this, she is like the most recent generation of Cuban artists, who are not confined by the limits of their disciplines, as Clement Greenberg-style modernism would dictate. Instead, they subordinate the medium to the complexity of Conceptual ideas and textures, practicing a post-Conceptualism enriched by a high degree of tropical inventiveness.

Estudio… joins a body of performance photography work, generated throughout the past decade by female Cuban artists such as Elsa Mora, Cirenaica Morera, Glenda Léon, and Marta María Pérez (a pioneer of this form). Consisting of six Polaroid images, the piece was executed as a sketch for Elevata, a work similar in style to Constelación (Constellation) and Rapsodia (Rhapsody), both also completed in 2002.

With minimal expressive means, Campos creates works of complex connotative power. In Estudio…, the medium and the body have been fused in a highly symbolic image, apparently excavated from some dreamlike space. In the Western tradition, the genre of the female nude was based on the detailed observation of the body by a masculine eye, with an interior view—generally the artist’s studio—serving as stage and enclosure for the intimate revelation.

In this work, Campos’s naked body turns its back to the viewer. It resists being possessed by the gaze. Large, diluted, out-of-focus watercolors serve as the background. The nude achieves an ethereal quality, far from any sociological context and in frank protest against previous conventions of the Afro-Cuban theme. The multiple frames work together as a space isolated from time—a negation of reality, where every element assumes a metaphoric role. Hair extensions float weightlessly like cellular tentacles or roots. The chain of stereotypes around the black female body has been abruptly dissolved, and the self-portrait is revealed as a terrain of conflict.

                                                —Abelardo Mena Chicuri

About Pedro Álvarez

1967-2004, resided in Cuba and Spain 

As the Berlin Wall was vanishing into thin air in 1989, a Cuban student was discovering the American artist Mark Tansey in an old issue of Art in America. Pedro Álvarez studied at the Havana University’s School of Artistic Education in a feverish era. Street performances of Arte Calle, fleeting art exhibitions only briefly open to the public, hot news about perestroika published in Soviet magazines, and the anti-establishment protest songs of Carlos Valera gave everyone at that moment the sense of being part of a great, revolving wheel—not of Fortune, but of History.

In the art schools, magazines and catalogues circulated featuring the works of Sandro Chia, David Salle, Julian Schnabel, Georg Baselitz, and the German trans-avant-garde—all obreros, so to speak, workers in the art of painting. For the most part, though, the attention of critics and artists alike was caught by installation art, process art, and charismatic figures in the style of Joseph Beuys. To think in terms of traditional resources and materials did not seem terribly avant-garde or original, but Tansey’s painterly heresy had an impact on Álvarez. “I told myself at that point: If this man is still painting nowadays and saying such interesting things, why not? After all, I have always loved to paint, and I have always loved to tell stories” (Sánchez, 2006).

Álvarez discovered new approaches to painting. His stance was shared by such art school colleagues as Alexis Esquivel, Leonel Borrás, Armando Mariño, the Mora brothers, and Alejandro Mendoza. The analytical education received by the “Columbia generation” (so called because the School of Artistic Education was based in the old military camp of that name) gave them a subtler vision of art, as well as an acute awareness of tradition and métier.

In his work, Álvarez began making references to Víctor Patricio Landaluze, the most celebrated Spanish painter and caricaturist ever to take up the subject of Cuba. In the mid-1800s, Landaluze produced albums of engravings, costumbrista paintings of everyday life and traditions, and satiric images of black slaves and servants. Álvarez took from Landaluze’s work the conventions of European genre painting, as well as several characters—among them the ireme, or dancing imp, of the Afro-Cuban Abakuá sect. The young artist frequently inserted the ireme as a symbol of popular culture; in these works, the deliberate frisson between title and image offered satiric commentary on Cuban current events and cultural obsessions. The idyllic vision of the colonial past was deflated by parodies that percolated from contemporary art into society at large.

By the time Álvarez participated in the Fifth Havana Biennial in 1994, his work reflected a mature and highly personal vision. The titles of his watercolors and canvases—Buenos días, por favor, su carnet de identidad (Good Morning, Your ID, Please, 1993, from the After Landaluze series), El Fin de la Historia (The End Of History, 1994), Martí’s Everlasting Speech, Chevrolet I Pineapple (1994), and Cecilia Valdés y la lucha de clases (Cecilia Valdés and Class Struggle, 1995), among others—introduced a veritable cocktail of eras, historical personalities and everyday objects. The pictorial space became a sort of carnivalesque video clip where Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, the father of the nation to many Cubans, and George Washington (from the reverse of a one-dollar bill) discussed the future of Cuba while strolling Havana’s beachfront promenade, and Landaluze’s mulatto girls sported the Phrygian cap of the Republic of 1902, while Norman Rockwell and Cuban painter Marcelo Pogolotti, French-born Cuban lithographer Frédéric Mialhe and a bottle of Coca Cola joined hands in a hilarious rumba in the gardens of the White House.

Álvarez’s narratives employed an analytical assemblage of fragments and images extracted—as if from a data bank of images—from Cuban and international art, commercial and political advertisements, as well as from 19th-century engravings. He intuitively selected and stockpiled clips from art catalogues, magazines, books, old postcards, and bank notes, using them in a more or less fragmentary way, as backgrounds, characters, or reference points. He seamlessly reproduced those images and followed, like a parodying chronicler, the spatial conventions of 19th-century historical painting. The irreverence of his method exposed the ideological nature of all visual “representation,” and undermined, with a postmodern sensibility, the linear character of historical time. The optimistic (positivist) concept of the future was reduced to chasing its own tail, stuck in a blind alley.

What Álvarez addressed was not the end of history as announced by Francis Fukuyama in 1992, but the impact of Cuba’s “Special Period” in the early 1990s. This era saw the end of the U.S.S.R. and of the belief in “Socialismo o Muerte” (“Communism or Death”); legalization of private enterprise and the possession of U. S. dollars; the revival of prostitution and the art market, a boom in tourism and widening social differences; the postponement of the collective utopia and the desperate search for individual solutions. Cuban reality became a tunnel through time, where historical signs interacted simultaneously, becoming incoherent fragments extracted from cultural and historic memory. All sense of a future was lacking; stripped of their aura of authority, the ghosts and myths of the past reincarnated themselves to mingle with the painful present.

Around 1997, Álvarez’s intense use of multiple visual references in a single composition seemed to dwindle. His collage method became focused on the juxtaposition of central figures, generally placed in the foreground, and a background selected from the artist’s “stockpile of images.” Domestic interiors showcased in such magazines as Better Homes and Gardens, and glimpses of American car and truck interiors from the 1940s and ’50s were arranged like tapestries, without the dramatic chiaroscuro and other theatrical conventions common to the artist’s previous work.

In Winter is coming…, the foreground characters are taken from the many propaganda images that appeared in the pages of Harper’s Weekly and William Randolph Hearst’s daily newspapers at the start of the Spanish-American War, which began with the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana Bay in February 1898. While Vitagraph Studios turned the Battle of Santiago Bay into a newsreel for nickelodeons—complete with special effects simulated in a bathtub—newspaper artists created inspirational scenes illustrating the friendship between Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and the Cuban troops known as los Mambises. In Álvarez’s piece, the warriors, carrying their respective flags, shake hands ceremoniously before a background copied from a Disney cartoon. Their insertion in a dream environment, and the frank disregard for proportion, create an ironic commentary on the relationship of Cuban and American cultures throughout history: a relationship marked by mutual attraction and lack of understanding, by the search for “exoticism” in close proximity, and by the struggle to escape being co-opted.

Folklore, Homenaje a Öyvind Fahlström (Folklore: Homage to Öyvind Fahlström) imitates the Cinemascope movie format, which had been imported from the United States and very popular in Cuba during the 1950s. Two white explorers enter a luxuriant tropical forest. The woman, in the classic attire and pose of ancient sculpture, bears the attributes of St. Barbara, a Catholic figure transmuted in Afro-Cuban Santería into Shangó, god of thunder. Dressed in stars and stripes, the man carries an enormous hypodermic syringe labeled with the word ‘Folklore.’ The presence of three black characters, who frolic through the jungle dressed in hot-hued fabrics, is evidently incongruous with the rest of the scene. Coined in the 19th century, the term “folklore” was related to the search for and classification of “inferior,” “savage,” and “primitive” cultures by European and American anthropologists. Álvarez theatricalizes the concept, transforming it into an Indiana Jones-style saga that reveals the artificiality underlying the idea of escaping civilization in a quest for the primitive world.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

About Raúl Martínez

Ciego de Ávila 1927–Havana 1995

Raúl Martínez is one of the most important figures in the history of Cuban art. His energetic, multifaceted career was not limited to painting, but extended with equal vigor to photography; publicity; book, newspaper, and poster design; public art murals; set design; and teaching. He was, in all senses of the term, a “multidirectional” creator.

Driven by a restless temperament, Martínez experimented with different approaches to painting. A founder of the art collective Grupo de los Once (Group of Eleven), by the mid-1960s he had explored many variations of abstractionism in a quick succession of stylistic periods that culminated around 1964. At the same time, he started working as a publicist and photographer.

In 1964 Martínez’s work took a sharp turn with his anthological exhibition Homenajes (Tributes), in which he boldly broke with abstractionism to enter a figurative universe in the vein of Pop Art. In the manner of Robert Rauschenberg’s combine paintings, his pieces flared with the energy of an aggressive collage sensibility in which, for the first time, Martínez alluded to the Cuban social environment and street graffiti in a context strongly influenced by the Revolution of 1959. This exhibition was widely discussed and was a hit among the public and critics alike.

Two years later, Martínez started working on what could be considered his greatest innovative achievement as a painter: an extensive iconography of Cuban heroes and leaders. If there is an oeuvre that embodies the image of the Cuban Revolution, it would indeed be Martínez’s. Without intending to, and sometimes even working against the grain, his works gradually constituted a re-envisioning of the most arduous moments in contemporary Cuban history. Far from a propagandistic art bowing to ideological demands and pre-established icons, Martínez’s paintings re-invented those icons, as well as the face of a people undergoing a process of marked social change. In his images, several generations of Cubans have recognized themselves, reaffirming Martínez’s role as a foundational figure in contemporary Cuban art.

The piece El abanderado (The Standard-Bearer)—originally untitled—dates from 1970, during one of the most lucid, innovative, and optimistic periods in Martínez’s artistic development. That year he also painted Isla 70 (Island 70), one of his masterpieces. El abanderado shares with Isla 70 its vivid colors and one-dimensional poster look, its hope in a transformed future, and a realism inspired by the spontaneous popular paintings that were even then surfacing on street banners and walls, to the beat of the public marches and new manifestations of a triumphant Revolution. It may even be said that El abanderado could be one of the figures depicted in Isla 70. At the very center of the first panel of the triptych comprising this mural (in the collection of the National Museum of Fine Arts, in Havana), there is a very similar figure, also a standard-bearer. Like El abanderado, he is dressed in the uniform of the popular militia; the contours of his face are identical, and his torso and head are in an identical position. With the same concentration and gravitas, the same man marches in a crowd through the streets of Havana, in the year of the utopian Ten Million Ton Sugar Harvest.

As in many of his paintings, the figure of the standard-bearer could be based on a photo taken by Martínez himself. It was not unusual for him to populate his canvases with individuals whom he’d previously photographed. At the same time, he frequently adapted photographs from magazines and newspapers—images already shaped by publicity—in his canvases, a formal strategy related to Pop Art.

A few years before El abanderado, Martínez had begun repeatedly painting the face of José Martí—first in ink on cardboard, and later in vast expressionistic canvases, in which he repeatedly painted the same image of Martí, the Apostle of Cuban Independence, in absurdly gaudy hues. This was a marked departure from the white statues of Martí that had been popping up all over the island. It was an impressive body of work that was not initially understood. Martínez later started including the likenesses of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos, Fidel Castro, and other Cuban leaders, as well as globally known figures such as Ho Chi Minh, Lenin, and Marx. These paintings were distinguished by a stern, dark, mysterious quality.

Rosas y estrellas (Roses and Stars) dates from 1972. It was painted after the hero portraits done between 1966 and 1970, and it is quite different in tone. Here, the austere portraits of Martí or Che have been transfigured into idealized versions of themselves. Even though they are impossibly one-dimensional and brightly colored, these heroes are represented as the pantheon of a myth called Revolution. They have lost the roughness and imperfections of popular street paintings and have been elevated, visually and conceptually, to a state of grace, an idealized status.

This canvas can well attest to Martínez’s allegiance to the deepest revolutionary convictions, beyond his issues with the Revolution and the fact that his personal life had been negatively affected. It was painted at a hostile moment: with the 1971 Congress of Education and Culture, the most orthodox and dogmatic faction in power had taken charge of ideological debate in Cuba. Homophobia was on the rise, ideological intransigence was rampant, and everything that did not easily conform—politically, religiously, morally or artistically—to a narrow and supposedly revolutionary pattern was summarily rejected. Many people suffered discrimination because of their religious beliefs, artistic styles, or sexual orientation. It was a time of normative uniformity and widespread purges, the so-called “Gray Quinquennium” (Ambrosio Fornet), the “Gray Five Years.” It is paradoxical that at this particular moment Martínez chose to paint Roses and Stars, so infused with spirituality and allegiance to the cause of the Revolution.

The canvas is a collective portrait of heroes, bringing together seven leaders of Latin American independence. The back tier features Simón Bolívar, Camilo Cienfuegos, the Dominican General Máximo Gómez, and Antonio Maceo; the front row, Fidel Castro, José Martí, and Ernesto “Che” Guevara. There is a familiarity among them that bonds them beyond time and space—like friends gathered for a photograph—reinforced by Che’s hand resting easily on Martí’s shoulder, and by what seem to be the straps of a guerrilla backpack bringing Martí’s attire into current times.

In Roses and Stars Martí is the central figure, as indicated by the roses on his lap and his placement in the painting’s composition. His visual identification with leaders who never met each other in real life was a response to an official slogan of the time: “Cien Años de Lucha” (One Hundred Years of Struggle), expressing the continuity of the battle for independence from 1868 to the present day, united in a common purpose. The presence of continental leaders stresses the Latin American vocation of their nationalistic efforts.

The painting should have been considered an exemplary work in its complete identification with the precepts of the Revolution. Instead, it was met with a certain degree of reserve. It was exhibited at the House of the Americas as part of the Latin American Art Conference in 1972, and in Chile as part of an important show of Cuban art that toured there during Salvador Allende’s presidency. But the painting was perceived as portraying its heroic subjects in a too-casual intimacy, without the martial attitude of warriors, and to top it off, among roses and stars. Given the context of the times, it is not surprising that the work was not shown in many circles, and despite its beauty and strong visual qualities was excluded from many traveling exhibitions during those years.

In a Havana weekly cultural magazine of 1972, Roses and Stars was reproduced in black and white to promote that year’s Latin American Art Conference. At the bottom of the photograph, Martínez wrote in ink, by hand: Martí y la libertad, 1972 (Martí and Freedom, 1972), an amendment of sorts. It makes one think that this casual, handwritten inscription may very well be the real title, while Roses and Stars could be just a convenient moniker for the painting—something all too frequent in the world of art. Further, it should be taken into account that the phrase “Martí and Freedom” is much more consistent with Martínez’s art as a whole and his devotion to Cuba’s National Hero.

Martínez’s stylistic resources were closely associated with art trends that have dominated since the 1960s, chiefly American abstract art, Pop Art, hyperrealism, and European narrative figuration. As an artist, he was relentless in his efforts to stay abreast of current trends and practices. Beyond that, Martínez’s work as a whole owes a great deal to the influence of Cuban street painting, to his work as a designer and publicist, and to his amazing talent as a photographer.

                                                                             — Corina Matamoros Tuma 

About Reynerio Tamayo

b. Niquero, Cuba, 1968

Reynerio Tamayo’s art has been commanding attention since the late 1980s, touched by the all-inclusive, postmodern vocation that permeated Cuban art in that era. From the start, humor has been one of the real foundations of his painting, standing in transparent relationship to popular culture and kitsch. Tamayo partook of the liberating merriment offered by a cultural environment notoriously fond of appropriation, quotes, and parodies, merging them with different forms of humor (and typical Cuban mockery, or choteo) and the visual language of comics. These strategies became integral to the works’ conception and essential elements of his art.

In the catalogue for Tamayo’s exhibition Gótico, neogótico y estrambótico (Gothic, Neogothic and Bizarre, Wifredo Lam Center, 1988), Cuban artist Jesús González de Armas commended Tamayo’s works for their exquisiteness and minute preciosity, and likened his skill to that of medieval manuscript illuminators, while on the other hand pondering the artist’s exceptional sense of humor. The virtuosity of Tamayo’s craft, together with his ingenious imagination, became the hallmarks of his style, and their evolution may be followed through drawings, ceramics, posters, watercolors, paintings, installations, and sculptures.

The elements of absurdity and satire inherent to Tamayo’s aesthetic—based on recycling, quoting, and lampooning the entire history of art—merged with his flair for choteo to sketch a unique caricature of society. His works became a singular chronicle of sorts, taking shape in the mix of wit and lyricism with which he depicted well-known types, everyday life, popular customs, and national scenes in the late 1980s. These elements are also present in his ironic, incisive reflections on the multiple absurdities of life on the island in the 1990s, when his paintings gained in intensity and importance. The turn toward more universal themes became more pronounced during his years in Spain (1996-2006), and his most recent works reveal a humanist vocation focused on critical observation of the issues that besiege the contemporary world. The nature of his artistic discourse led him toward more complex forms of humor, from the predictability of satire to the stifled laughter common to pastiche.

Related to this aspect of his current work are several sculpture projects, some of them only recently fabricated. His watercolor La lámpara maravillosa de Aladino (Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp, 2006-2008) could be considered a preview of what not much later would be the metal sculpture of the same name. Created in collaboration with sculptor Eulises Niebla, it became one of the cardinal pieces of the exhibition Magma mía!!! at Villa Manuela in 2008.

Though done in different mediums, both works gave free rein to Tamayo’s vision of modern times, which stems from the central power struggles that define them. Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp denounces those who hold the reins of the world in their hands without caring about the cost of the constant wars waged for control over Middle East oil. The idea, previewed in the watercolor and then fully realized as a metal artifact, used the lamp as a symbol of the Arab world, borrowing it from the tale of Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp in The Arabian Nights. The story’s universal appeal worked in the artist’s favor; emblematic of that region of the globe, it resonated widely in Western culture.

The two works play on a hybridization of the magical oil lamp from the tale and modern warships. Both images meld into a single figure, dominated by a display of artillery. The corroded steel details suggest oxidation as a symbol of the ravages of time, and the rose tints on gray evoke the blood spilt in more than one war, whose real motive was the control of the considerable oil reserves in that region—among other strategic reasons.

The propulsion of a lamp like the one depicted by Tamayo constitutes the axis of the modern world in political, economic, and environmental terms. That is precisely what makes Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp a metaphor for globalization.

The watercolor Buque Petrolero (Oil Tanker, 2009) and the acrylic painting of the same name are parts of that portrait of the modern world Tamayo is interested in creating. The watercolor sketches the idea in a single image: one of those massive ships designed for the transport of oil merges with the undulating body of a snake. Tamayo made the painting for a presentation to the selection committee of the Tenth Havana Biennale. It rounded out the details of the sculpture project he later created in collaboration with Eulises Niebla, establishing the scale of the piece and its relationship with the viewer.

Oil Tanker is related to the same energies that Tamayo channeled in Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp. In both mediums, Oil Tanker is, as Tamayo and Niebla described it, “a kind of monster slithering over the waters of the world, looking for the fuel of life,” a trope that suggests the global dependence on hydrocarbons. This narrows down its symbolism, as well as the role of such a ship as a facilitator or a barrier to development, in being the way the fuel is transported. The analogy between the vessel and the reptile signals the capacity for destruction inherent in the transported fluid, at the same time underlining the dangers of warring over control of the planet’s oil reserves.

Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp and Oil Tanker embody new profiles of the planet: hybrid, crossbred bodies, with which Reynerio Tamayo has created a metaphor that represents the essence of contemporary times.

                                                                                                     —Caridad Blanco de la Cruz

About Reynier Leyva Novo

b. Havana 1983

Reynier Leyva Novo graduated from the José Antonio Díaz Peláez Experimental Art Center in 1998, the San Alejandro School of Fine Arts in 2003, and the Department of Behavior Art (directed by Tania Bruguera) in 2007; from 2004 to 2008 he studied at the Instituto Superior de Arte (all in Havana, Cuba).

“The piece The desire to die for others (2012) is composed of weapons of war among which replicas of machetes and guns used by the heroes José Martí and Antonio Maceo stand out, among many others. The polyester resin these objects were produced of is an important element in the performance of the work, considering they resemble crystal arms. So the stunning image we have of these war artifacts gets protruding nuances in fragility. The author of The smells of war (2009) draws a suggestive metaphor between the paradigm of martyrdom and the above-mentioned objects. The model also includes the heroic human and vulnerable feature.” -- Jezabel Rodriguez Hanze, On Cuba (8 October 2013)

The Desire to Die for Others, 2012. The installation includes::

Bullet. Francisco Gómez Toro
This bullet wounded Panchito Gómez Toro in the chest and was found during the exhumation of his body.
20th Century
Cuba
M.G. No. 26168

Revolver. Carlos Manuel de Céspedes
Belonged to President of the Republic of Cuba in Arms Carlos Manuel de Céspedes. With this revolver he fired three shots on encountering the Spanish troops in Yara, the following day to begin the Ten Years War in 1868.
20th Century
France
Le fa Cheux

Revolver. Calixto García Iñiguez
Belonged to Major General Calixto García Iñiguez
20th Century
Smith & Wesson

Machete. Máximo Gómez
Was a gift from José Martí to Major General Máximo Gómez, and used by the latter during the War of 1895–1898.
20th Century
Cuba

Machete. Antonio Maceo
Belonged to Major General Antonio Maceo y Grajales. On the hilt is inscribed “Invasion of Maceo 1895”.
20th Century
Germany
Fernando Esser No. 87-A

Machete. Quintín Bandera
Belonged to Division General José Quintino Bandera Betancourt (Quintín Bandera).
20th Century
United States
Collins No. 87

Machete. Manuel Sanguily
Belonged to Colonel Manuel Sanguily.
20th Century
United States
Collins & Legitimus Hartford No. 14

Revolver, José Martí
Was a gift from Panchito Gómez Toro to José Martí in the United States. It is known as Colt Frontier or “Peacemaker”.
20th Century
Colt Frontier

About Roberto Fabelo

b. 1951, resides in Cuba

Roberto Fabelo is a member of “the generation of sure hope” whose art was reinvigorated by the creative environment of the 1980s. A printmaker, illustrator of many books (including those of Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez), and a creator of assemblages and installations, Fabelo received an award at the First Havana Biennial for Fragmentos vitales (Vital Fragments, 1984), a piece consisting of drawings done on irregularly cut Kraft paper and glued directly to the wall. Since then, his work has attained broader recognition from the art community in Cuba and abroad.

The artist’s influences are rooted in European art history: “two great Spanish masters, Velázquez and Goya” (Montero, 2001, 224), as well as Hieronymus Bosch and other Flemish painters. In contrast to compatriots like Rubén Alpízar or Reinerio Tamayo, who parody and subvert all references to the European canon, Fabelo’s emphatically modern consciousness is anchored in the trinity of style, authorship, and originality—notions that were reintroduced into contemporary Cuban art in the last decade by a revived interest in aesthetics and in traditional painting genres.

Fabelo started doing watercolors in 1988 as a minor pursuit, but they have since assumed a more definite place in his artistic practice. With his increasing mastery of watercolor technique and exploration of larger formats, he has become the demiurge, or divine creator, of a world all his own. In it, he mixes Jonathan Swift’s acid humor, nocturnal denizens of the Moulin Rouge as immortalized by Toulouse-Lautrec, and the style of Spanish Baroque painting. Those cultural cross-currents give rise to a human comedy played out in a theatrical space.

Fabelo juxtaposes the naturalistic depiction of characters with their staged and compact placement on a sofa or behind theatrical curtains. His deft hand captures each character in a defining gesture or attitude, and clothes him or her in a way that reveals the individual’s own psychology. The realistic appearance of those beings suggests that the artist is like a hunter of faces, stalking his prey in the corners of Havana. But this humanity—genetically tainted by tropical animals and fruits, deities, shy mermaids, feathered heads—is a faithful reflection of his imagination. Clustered on a sofa or gathered around props in an empty theater, his characters wait in awe for an event that will never happen. They seldom look at or talk to each other, and even the dogs share the same baleful glare as their owners. The juicy, Rubenesque nudes do not inspire lust or competition, but only add to the strangeness of the situation.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

About Rocío García

 b. Las Villas, 1955. Resides in Havana.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the female form became one of the central themes in Cuban painting and photography. A study of the artistic work by Cuban women of that period, however, is yet to come: the degree of adherence to, or deviation from, the canons set by the mostly male establishment of artists, trends, and critics. Such study is becoming an increasingly pressing need in Cuban art history and cultural studies, owing to the emergence in recent decades of numerous female artists who explore areas that are apparently invisible to their male colleagues.

Among the bounty and diversity readily evident in contemporary Cuban art, Rocío García is an indispensable figure. Graduating from San Alejandro in 1975, she was sent to the Repin Academy of Fine Arts in Saint Petersburg, in the former Soviet Union, where she graduated in 1983. Her first solo exhibition opened in Havana in 1987, and since then she has also worked intensely as an art instructor and a book illustrator.

In 1984, she started working on several series with suggestive names: “Peluquerías” (Hair Salons), “Museos” (Museums), “Personajes” (Characters), “Caperucitas” (Little Red Riding Hoods), “Geishas,” and “Hombres, machos, marineros” (Men, Macho Men, Sailors—a Cuban expression that humorously plays on the similar-sounding marinero and maricón, slang for an effeminate gay man). “El domador y otros cuentos” (The Beast Tamer and Other Tales) and “El Thriller” (The Thriller) are other examples of her provocatively titled series. Social spaces in García’s pieces, both public and domestic, are generally closed, almost claustrophobic, serving as stages for dynamically painted characters surrounded by large, intensely colored areas. If in her early series women were the protagonists, men and their power relations are the ones now presiding over those shadowy stages. Her paintings are almost cinematographic, as if the artist captured on canvas a still image from an unfinished film noir, projecting it before our eyes.

In the opinion of Cuban art critic Rufo Caballero, “Geishas” is one of the strongest series García has done. Caballero, an authority on contemporary art, points out three significant elements in this group of works: “the enthroning, once and for all, of the world of violence in the space of her characters; the profusion of intertextual games; and a new subtlety in the facial expressions of these characters…” In his 2004 text, Caballero confessed his “predilection” for “one of the most beautiful and enduring pieces in García’s career: Geisha Samurai (Samurai Geisha).”

Geisha Samurai was exhibited for the first time in 1997, in two solo shows titled Pinturas de Rocío García: Geishas o Estampas de la vida que fluye (Rocío García’s Paintings: Geishas, or Scenes of the Floating Life). The first took place in Havana, in March 1997; the second at the University of Michigan in October. Both exhibitions showcased the “Geishas” series, which had been painted in 1995, and had catalogue texts by Cuban curator Dannys Montes de Oca and Cuban-American anthropologist Ruth Behar, who emphasized the connection between García’s female characters and those in Japanese ukiyo-e prints.

García’s extrapolation of these female characters from exotic cultures was probably inspired by the rise in Cuba of female (and male) prostitution as a survival tactic for many during the so-called Special Period. But while Cuban mainstream culture reacted with open misogyny to these circumstances—as reflected in the lyrics of the popular timba brava music of the period—García’s geishas show no explicit condemnation of women performing these functions. Unlike Japanese shunga prints, García’s paintings do not depict explicitly sexual scenes; only one shows an urban locale for carnal transactions, through the appropriation of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Garcia’s geishas always appear naked, hardly fragile, wrapped in androgyny, in sensual monochrome interiors where they glance coquettishly at other geishas, in an atmosphere reminiscent of Ingres’ Turkish harems.

Samurai Geisha shares elements with other pieces, such as Maja Geisha, an homage to Spanish painter Goya. The composition focuses on the bed—the place of pleasure and deception—and the katana sword, a defensive weapon. Cultivated, wise in the arts of pleasure, the geisha raises her sword without an instant’s hesitation; she must decapitate herself to flee a destiny that condemns her to be an instrument of others, and even of herself. In the title character, two opposed references, the geisha and the samurai, are fused into a single being, rupturing the saccharine, victimized portrayals of women in traditional iconographies. In the process, García advances an archetype of femininity that stands as an absolute novelty in Cuban culture and art since the 19th century.

                                                                               —Abelardo G. Mena Chicuri 
 

About Rubén Torres Llorca

b. 1957, resides in the United States

After graduating from the San Alejandro Art School in 1976 and the Superior Institute of Art (ISA) in 1981, Rubén Torres Llorca participated—along with José Bedia, Juan Francisco Elso, Ricardo Rodríguez Brey, José Manuel Fors, Leandro Soto, and Flavio Garciandía—in the influential exhibition Volumen I (Volume One). Its presentation represented a break with a decade marked by decorativeness, an abstract concept of the common man as a subject, and the imposition of ideological paradigms on the visual arts. As the 1980s progressed, Torres Llorca used pop art and a certain campy nostalgia in such works as the series Cine del Hogar (Home Movie Theater, 1983) and Te llevo bajo la piel (I’ve Got You Under My Skin, 1986, MNBA) The strategy was a response both to the Cuban visual iconosphere, which had absorbed the American cultural industry of the 1950s, and to his personal experience growing up in a family of modest means in the historic neighborhood of Regla. During his trip to Mexico in 1985, Torres Llorca was so impressed by the country’s Baroque architecture and traditional arts and crafts that his later works focused on sculptures of vast spatial conception, intended as an emphatically anthropological communication with the viewer.

The central motif in Nosotros… is an authentic historical document: a picture of Ana Mendieta, together with most of the artists who exhibited in Volumen I, taken by Rogelio Lopez Marín outside Centro de Arte Internacional (Galeria Acacia). The artistic and political meaning of this encounter between Cuban creators on both shores, engaged in an aesthetic renewal driven by personal visions, has been transformed into a myth still resonant with utopian projections 25 years later. Nonetheless, Torres Llorca’s subsequent recollection highlights specific tangents to the episode: “In the early 1980s, she (Ana Mendieta) brought Lucy Lippard and Rudolph Baranik to the island. They were absolutely astonished to find that the art of a Communist country had not fallen into the pit of social realism, and upon returning to their country they said that the works seemed taken from SoHo. We became the dream of the American left” (Fontana, 2005).

Torres Llorca’s piece is a settling of scores, with himself as well as with his whole generation. The title sarcastically evokes the loss of innocence and the implacable passage of time, which separates people and dilutes previously shared relationships and beliefs. The expositive character of this piece is masked by the appearance of an interior wall or panel in a home, embellished by a border of plant motifs—a kitsch decorative motif used in Cuban homes. In its center appears the picture taken on a sidewalk near the International Art Center (now the home of La Acacia Gallery). This image is flanked by two electrical devices, above explanatory signs stating the amount of time elapsed between the original event and the moment when Torres Llorca created the piece. But the wire that conducts electricity (energy) in the period between 1981 to 1987 goes nowhere at all: it is a frustrated circuit, with no possible application. Torres Llorca is trying to convey that the communication—the collective, transformative impulse that infused his generation—is hopelessly wrecked. More disenchanted than nostalgic, his piece is a peculiar vision of things “gone with the wind,” a testimony of the losses and failures brought about by life.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

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About Sandra Ceballos

Guantánamo, Cuba 1961

On recalling works from the 1989 Havana exhibition, La bella y la bestia (Beauty and the Beast, Project Castillo de la Fuerza), or leafing through the 1995 catalogue of the Juan Francisco Elso Contemporary Art Award (National Museum of Fine Arts, Havana), one cannot fail to notice the peculiar position that Sandra Ceballos occupies in Cuban art. In these exhibitions, and in the 1993 show Absolut Jawlensky (Galería Habana), Ceballos proclaims her uniqueness among the essential figures in contemporary Cuban art. Even that outsider of Cuban art par excellence, Ezequiel Suárez, at times seems a little cowed by her towering presence.

Ceballos’s poetic decision to delve into the the universe of the scatological, the morbid, the grotesque, the forbidden, and the ill joins her to a Cuban tradition fostered by such outstanding artists as Antonia Eiriz and Santiago (Chago) Armada. Ceballos’s sensibility marks her as a direct descendant of their “pedigree of horror,” not only in her work as an artist but in her roles as curator and art promoter, so necessary for expanding the milieu of Cuban art.

Owing to her sensibility and poetics, Ceballos—who, graduating from San Alejandro in 1983, is part of the 1980s generation—has had to wait longer for critical understanding than some of her contemporaries. Many of her works, exhibitions, and curatorial projects have the force of an unexpected punch in the face. Ceballos doesn’t know the meaning of defeat, and her unwavering attachment to her aesthetic convictions has rooted her firmly in the Cuban cultural landscape.

La expresión sicógena (The Psychogenic Expression) was the title chosen for the solo exhibition of Ceballos’s art that was organized by the National Museum of Fine Arts in November-December 1996, in tribute to her having received the abovementioned Juan Francisco Elso Award the year before. The show boasted an impressive conceptual cohesion; strange, soft sculptures creating a world that bordered on illness and insanity. The gallery was infused with intense feelings of torment and repulsion, as if it were located in a malevolent sanatorium.

This piece, originally referred to as “Untitled” in the exhibition catalogue, was part of a series in which the green cloth of the operating room replaced the traditional canvas. The work seemed to represent the sacrifice of a human body. Surgical pins, intravenous tubing, fragments of medical records, all attached to an anonymous, unidentified body part, seemed to peek into the anguished agony of a particular if unknown person. Bits of evidence scattered in other works in the series indicated that this martyred body was female. The suspicion that it could be the artist’s own added another shock to that discovery. How could the artist bare her body, her pain in such a way? Was she trying to make us participate in the intimacy of illness? Why was she turning us into witnesses to the revolting imminence of death?

Bringing to the surface fragments of personal and family history—which were supposed to be held in the close custody of privacy and shame—was Ceballos’s way to communicate something beyond the physical and psychological state of an individual. It was also a statement against the limitations of art, and an affirmation of individual freedom, the exploration of the forbidden, of the need to speak about vertigo from the very brink of the abyss. Her work opened a space that had not existed in the context of the so-called “new Cuban art,” a perspective that enriches and universalizes it.

Ceballos is an artist focused on the rupture between the individual and his or her cultural context. She follows a lofty tradition that runs from Baudelaire to the Guatemalan Regina José Galindo—a lineage of artists determined to dig into the most equivocal, acerbic areas of human subjectivity. Ceballos, however, has extended this scrutiny beyond her own art, toward other areas of artistic activity or even those seemingly devoid of art, in search of new creators. Tirelessly fostering the emergence of art from the un-art, Ceballos seems to retaliate against the adversities of existence. It is for this reason that her intense, acerbic spirit does not bite its own tail, caught in an eternal, endless circle like a Möbius strip, but instead reaches out, fierce and unbound, in search of new battles and territories for art.

                                                                                        — Corina Matamoros Tuma

About Sandra Ramos

b. 1969, resides in Cuba

In the 1990s, a compulsion to escape its own borders took hold of Cuban culture.  With the rupture of political and economic ties to the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc, the island drifted back into the solitude of the Caribbean Sea and conflictive proximity to the United States. It was the time of the so-called “Special Period,” the exodus toward Mexico of a great part of the young intelligentsia that had created the Cuban Renaissance, and, in 1994, the “rafter crisis.” In the social imagination, to emigrate and live “outside” stopped being an option reserved only for apátridas—those without a homeland—and became instead a tolerated, even necessary way of securing the economic and living conditions that the country could not furnish. Now the Motherland was carried on the soles of your shoes. The hegemony of the island as the exclusive locus of cubanidad was decisively shattered, and the dynamic mobility implicit in Cuban history was reincarnated in Cubans themselves.

The image of Cuba as the terra firma described by José Martí as “where the palm tree grows” (Valentín Sanz Carta, Domingo Ramos, Tomás Sánchez) had been replaced by navigational charts, with which the island broke its ties and was set adrift like a boat or a pneumatic raft. By means of prints, installations, sculptural objects, and drawings, Sandra Ramos contributed a peculiar vision to the phenomenon. The engravings made around 1993 transformed her vision of the tropics into a narrative of families, friendships, and a culture torn apart by migration, and were a critical testament to the servility toward foreigners and the commercialization of values. From this emerged one of her best known works, La maldita circunstancia del agua por todas partes (The Damned Circumstance of Water Everywhere), in which Ramos symbolically fused her body with the island’s geography, fenced in by the inescapable perimeter of the Malecón. The poetic transformation of the individual self in an isolated fragment of the world defied the myth of the infinite or utopian island: José Martí’s lines gave way to Virgilio Piñera’s, incorporated into the title of Ramos’s work.

With the exhibition Migraciones II (Migrations II), featured in the Fifth Havana Biennial (1994), the artist started using the suitcase as a recurring element in her discourse on migration. The object, essential to any journey, was turned into a metaphoric expression of “rupture, excision, the trauma of distance well beyond its physical dimension. Personal experience in this case bursts into a wealth of suggestions that mix memories, ideals, and cruel realities” (Álvarez, 1994, 135). Covered by almost naïve figures that transmitted the complexity of the yearnings and the losses experienced by the traveler, these suitcases then began to sink—literally and metaphorically—shifting the narrative to the sea bottom. In its dreamlike atmosphere and the procedure involved in its assembly, Historia de las islas (History of the Islands), one of the most impressive of these suitcase works, alludes to the collage boxes of Joseph Cornell. Wide as a Louis Vuitton case, it contains images of the mystical Lamb; it makes reference to the ocean as well, in the conch-children resting at the bottom of the open case and in the use of an actual starfish to represent the star in the Cuban flag. The flag itself has been made from dyed feathers—a type of ready-to-go wings that Ramos added to other works of the same period, adjustable equipment that provides an escape akin to an angel’s flight. 

A metaphor of flight, of the personal crisis linked to the bankruptcy of values, the submerged story depicted by Ramos does not make any concessions to political pamphlets or to sociological critiques. Instead, it channels with suggestive richness the anguish of the context in which it was created.

References: Catalogue, Sandra Ramos 1989-2003, Fuchu Art Museum, 2003, illust. cover, illust. p. 24.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

About Segundo Planes

b. 1965. Resides in the United States.

Segundo Planes’ work could be categorized as belonging to the surrealist vein of Latin American art. Like an iceberg, this artistic style has surfaced in different countries and moments to become a “tradition” in the course of the 20th century. Described as “super-surrealist, super-expressionist, and super-baroque” (Mosquera, 1987), Planes and several of his colleagues have been undeniably influenced by such artists as Jonathan Borofsky and Kenny Scharf. These influences are reflected in a freewheeling figurative style; an intense emotional engagement, encompassing Renaissance-style perspective as well as the rules of “good” painting; and an intimate acquaintance with Pop Art’s warmer tendencies.

In Planes’ case, we are not presented with magical realism, or the dreamlike fantasies that people tend to identify with Latin American art. Nor does he show any interest in the concepts of national identity so dear to certain aspects of Cuban art of the 20th century.

Planes’ work places him as an artist maudit in the romantic vein: a medium whose spontaneous disorder of the senses allows him singular access to distortions in the social sphere. “He combines grand portraits with philosophy, sex, scatology and poetry in an endless baroque flow.” (Camnitzer, 2003) His style does not resort to Salvador Dalí’s Technicolor techniques, nor to the fortuitous encounter of dissimilar objects. Instead, his works are installations composed of several canvases, images on the floor, and added objects. In these works he unleashes a boundless, multicolored figuration, in which he mixes episodes of his personal life, reflections on his education as an artist, and references to interior body cavities—as if, as in Untitled (1990), the viewer were witnessing an endoscopy guiding him to the other side of the visible. Of the multiple eyes placed in this interior, only one seems to have an active pupil capable of vision. Over the open membrane, perhaps the optic cavity, nerves crisscross in the shape of the hammer and sickle, symbols of the Soviet Union until its dissolution in 1991.

                                                                              —Abelardo G. Mena Chicuri

About Tania Bruguera

b. 1968, resides in Cuba and the United States

Given that Bruguera is internationally renowned as one of the most active practitioners of performance art, it’s no coincidence that her art was originally an homage to the memory of Ana Mendieta. In the early 1990s, while many artists from the island were emigrating to Mexico and the United States, Bruguera was proposing a comprehensive and evenhanded understanding of Mendieta’s significance, and the need to preserve the cultural dynamics that had been established between them: “Ana had been in search of the Cuba that I had lost, I was in search of what Cuba was losing” (Garzón, 1999, 55). Bruguera’s concern for historical memory was also reflected in Memorias de la Postguerra (Postwar Memories, 1993), an alternative publication that collected, like a time capsule, the circumstances facing the artistic community on the island during this period of conflict in national life and culture.

In its original version, Estadística (Statistic) was exhibited during the Sixth Havana Biennial as an immense background (3.60 x 1.70 meters, or almost 12 x 5.5 feet) for Bruguera’s performance work, El Peso de la Culpa (The Weight of Guilt, 1997). Subsequently, she produced similar pieces in different sizes. Estadística belongs to the series Memorias de la Postguerra, in which the artist attempted to salvage remnants of the collective spirit that animated Cuban art in the previous decade. Bruguera’s concept transformed the connotations of the visual image, as well as the production process itself, into content. The use of the Cuban flag—created in New York in 1849 by the exiles Narciso López and Miguel Teurbe Tolón—resonated with the demystification intended by other artists such as Tomás Esson, Carlos Cárdenas, and Kcho. But by changing materials and creative processes, Bruguera introduced new and unsuspected references.

Creating the piece required the help of many compatriots from all over the island, who donated locks of hair that were sewn onto pieces of fabric. It was a collaborative process similar to Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1974-79), which in this case took several months of intense work. Other artists, as well as Bruguera’s friends as neighbors, got involved in the patient reconstruction of an image that has crystallized the capacity for political battle and cultural resistance in the Cuban people since the late 1800s. “The piece has a ritual component,” declared Bruguera, “from the very moment when we gathered the hair, rolled it, sat every day—which we did for months—and sewed it as if we were in colonial times. In that era, the women of the house would get together to sew the Cuban flag, which was a symbol of revolutionary ideas and the fight for independence. It was an act of conspiracy as well as solidarity” (Zayas, 1999, 150).

At a moment in which economic crisis, emigration, and discouragement assaulted the trenches of art and society, to make a Cuban flag together—in a sentimental conspiracy, knee against knee—implied the reinvention of a consensual utopia. The symbol of the nation was reconstructed, literally sewn (a technique linked to traditional feminine culture) by means of a process of intimate interactions between anonymous Cubans, who contributed a bodily attribute that is, according to myths and religions, charged with energy. In the midst of the social commotion of the 1960s, pop artist Raúl Martínez created a piece titled Todos somos hijos de la Patria (We Are All Children of the Motherland). Thirty years later, the flag that Bruguera envisioned was an attempt at a spiritual re-foundation beyond the bureaucratic impersonality of a demographic census.

Performed for the first time in 1997, El Peso de la Culpa (The Weight of Guilt) marked a change in Bruguera’s performances, which sought a greater interaction with the audience and the evident ritualization of the movements. The artist takes on the subjects of guilt and individual responsibility based on a piece of historical information: during the initial years of the Spanish colonization of Cuba, Cuban Indians committed a peculiar form of collective suicide: they ate soil until they died. Using this fact as a starting point, the artist structured an act during which she holds a sort of shield created from pieces of a lamb carcass. In front of the performer, two containers were placed, one filled with soil, the other with salt water—materials from which she modeled earth balls that she slowly ingested in silence over several hours.

The artist explained the ideas suggested by her act: “To eat soil, which is sacred, and a symbol of permanence, is like digesting our own traditions and heritage. It’s like erasing one’s self” (Valdés, 1999, 157). On the other hand, in Cuban street argot, comer tierra (to eat soil) describes the most pitiful state of an individual, the most absolute personal crisis. Bruguera has fused both interpretations (self-punishment as a form of rebellion and the obliteration of the self) with the idea of submission implicit in the animal carcass. Considered in Catholic iconography as a symbol of nobility, kindness, and faithfulness to God, the lamb and its pelt have long been used as a metaphor for evil masquerading under the pretense of innocence. Its central role in the performance “makes one think of a strategy of simulation and irony; in the end, of another form of concealment in that apparent innocence of ‘saying without saying’ evident in Tania’s work” (Wood, 2000, 37).

In El cuerpo… (1998), Bruguera went even deeper into the cycle of submission and obedience. The performer stands naked in a space covered by lamb meat simulating the insides of a human body. The audience could only view the execution of the performance, which started in a corner of the space, through a small opening. Meanwhile, Bruguera wrote corrections in an official history book, in movements repeated over and over again. Terrified by the probable consequences of her actions, she started to lick the text in order to erase it and, seeing it was impossible, ripped apart the pages and swallowed them.

In contrast to the Happenings of Allan Kaprow and the Gutai Group, whose main focus was the process itself and an immersion in the “experience,” Bruguera’s interventions have more theatrical roots. The photographic or video images are the essential medium through which the act will endure beyond time, as an icon of forgetfulness and collective neurosis.

                                                                —Abelardo Mena Chicuri

About Toirac & Marrero

José A. Toirac (b. 1966, Guantánamo, Cuba)
Meira Marrero (b. 1969, Havana, Cuba)

Toirac's works could be easily defined as a non-official chronicle of Cuban history in the last half-century. The artist proceeds in the manner of an archaeologist, compiling and processing the images of historic events and personalities presented by the island's news media.

Along with J.P. Ballester, in the second half of the 1980s Toirac was part of a collective called ABTV (Angulo-Ballester-Toirac-Villazón). As a group, they bet on a post-conceptual approach to art: for them, what was essential was not images but their symbolic economy, the way society generates and circulates them in pursuit of a collective consensus or the isolation of the “other.” Indispensable to the development of this point of view was their discovery of American artists Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine, and Richard Prince; the Canadian group General Idea; and German artist Hans Haacke. ABTV brought to Cuban art a self-critical perspective that it lacked, as well as an urgency to explore the possible limitations of art in a Communist society situated in the Third World.

The intense but short-lived presence of ABTV caused a shift in the artist's role, from an emphasis on technical skills and individual style to a redesigning of the politics of exegesis through curatorial actions. Consequently, parody, pastiche, and public exhibitions became their favorite weapons for exposing the contentious links between the art market, political institutions, censorship, and social simulations.

Toirac uses painting and video as low-tech tools to exemplify how Western religious myths survive in the political images broadcast by mass media. In the context of the history-painting genre, his art is revulsive rather than affirming: he is not interested in reasserting official narratives, but in turning them upside down and exposing the artificiality of their discourse. For this reason, he tends to forgo individual pieces, opting instead for lengthy series that allow him to establish deep connections between the images he reproduces from the news.

For his paintings, he has appropriated the “Gerard Richter technique,” a personal take on the blurring that the great German artist has been using since the 1970s in his series on politicians and historical personalities from that European nation. This blurring, related to the wear of time and to a palette of grays born from black-and-white movie nostalgia, is a distancing mechanism used by Toirac to preclude any complacency in the viewer, to sabotage any certainty or transparency in the meaning of the images. He also nods to Richter in such series as Presidentes de Cuba (Presidents of Cuba), reproducing from the pages of Bohemia magazine monochromatic images of Cuban leaders, from Tomás Estrada Palma to Fidel Castro.

The sheer multiplicity of Fidel Castro's and Che Guevara's images in Toirac’s repertoire has in some instances triggered the disqualification of his works as “official” art, and in others prompted the intervention of censorship. However, these images are essential components of the iconographic universe that Cubans have been fed over decades; they have been basic tools in the hegemonic building of their subjective lives.

Eternity is part of a series created in 2000 about the new socioeconomic realities introduced by the decriminalization of the U.S. dollar, the broadcasting of commercial ads, and the drive to incite consumption. The fusion of the emphatic photo of Fidel Castro with a Calvin Klein ad comments on the commodification of History and the breaking with the Franciscan ideal imposed by the revolution—a critical emphasis that Toirac shares with Chinese artist Wang Guangyi, who began his “Great Criticism” series in 1990. The visual imprint left by Che Guevara, the Argentinian who left his middle-class life to become a guerrilla fighter and an anti-imperialist leader, is another series of icons to which Toirac returns continually (Che). It allows him to approach the themes of death, sacrifice, traditional painting themes such as the vanitas, fragmentation of memory, and the shared spaces of politics and religion.

Atlantes—conceived with his partner Meira Marrero—is a series of four life-size paintings. They reproduce snapshots of the leader of the Cuban revolution at various moments of his life, from the photo taken by Alberto Korda in the Sierra Maestra in 1960 to a recent picture after he renounced his role as head of state. The selected images reproduce in turn original photographs, in which Castro appears alone, pensive, seen from a lower level, as if he were engrossed in a dialogue with the heavens or the supreme forces of History. The title, taken from Greek mythology, is a symbol of the Titans condemned by the god Zeus to hold on their shoulders the pillars that separated the Earth from the heavens.

In an interview for that exhibition, the artists explained their point of view: ”We focus on those events that have shaped the life of present-day Cuban society, and at the same time are points of cultural interaction with human history in general.”

                                                                      —Abelardo Mena Chicuri

About Tomás Esson

b. Havana 1963, resides in U.S.A.

Tomás Esson Reid is one of the most significant artists to have emerged in Cuba during the 1980s. Creator of provocative works, and something of a controversial figure himself in the Cuban context, Esson participated, along with Carlos Cárdenas and Glexis Novoa, in the exhibition Patria o Muerte (Fatherland or Death), presented at Havana’s Castillo de la Fuerza in 1989. Like them, he chose to emigrate in the early 1990s.

In Cuba, Esson began a body of work that critics tend to label as grotesque, mythological, and vulgar. Beast-human hybrids and sheer monstrosities, often in distorted poses, populated his paintings, drawings, and sculptures. Those hideous figures took center stage in universes devoid of apparent contextual clues. Their rotund forms made them appear almost too corporeal, even telluric, for their two-dimensional plane. A sense of fleshed-out volume was Esson’s mark of visual belligerence.

Above all—as he confessed to art critic Gerardo Mosquera—Esson’s main interest as an artist was the visual effect in itself. It did not concern him whether his works were in sync with postmodernism, a mainstream current that, needless to say, he cheerfully ignored. He did not delve in postmodern quotes, appropriations, or pastiches.

An admirer of Goya, van Gogh, the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, and fellow Cuban Servando Cabrera Moreno, Esson shares with those artists an expressionistic essence. Isolation, alienation, deformity, and violence are vectors of a heightened expressivity in those masters’ works, as well as in Esson’s. With Cabrera Moreno in particular, Esson has in common a loving treatment of flesh and a daring focus on certain parts of the human anatomy, as Mosquera noted in the catalogue for Esson’s first solo exhibition, A tarro partido (Horn, Tooth, and Nail), 1987. Esson’s focus on deformity and the grotesque could border on caricature, but it is first and foremost a personal, deeply felt stylistic approach.

Spoulakk (1987) and Talisman (1989) have a few points in common. One is the figure viewed from the back; another is the emphasis on the female derrière, so highly valued since the earliest cultures. As a matter of fact, Esson’s female figures show a steatopygic tendency à la Venus of Willendorf, made contemporary with the exuberant voluptuousness of a typical Cuban woman.

In creating his monster-women, Esson did not allow himself to be seduced by the “body-building” stereotypes of the 1980s. His intention was not to paint beautiful or pleasing figures. His archetypes were coded reflections of the crassness and vulgarity prevalent in Cuban society, the aggressive crudeness that prevailed on the streets and in the home, which he did not represent directly.

Esson’s gaze was further saturated with a jesting, scatological humor. With typical Cuban cheekiness, he used as a title a seemingly Russian word, Spoulakk, which, spelled out, is the phrase ese pe-o (h)u-ele a ca-ca (“that fart smells like doo-doo”). In this, Esson follows the example of Foo Foo Fooo muchas veces (Phew, Phew, Phew Many Times), a 1967 painting by Cuban artist Umberto Peña.

Looking from the back—but not in flashback—the viewer does not find in Spoulakk and Talisman an adoration of the female derrière, but a strong visual impression, not necessarily erotic or ritualistic. Buttocks and horns seem to coalesce into a sort of good-luck charm—an “artistic amulet”—as well as a signature motif that shows up again and again in his work. One way or the other, Esson reminds us that the viewer of a work of art is always a voyeur.

In Talisman his virtuosity—with the sculpted form, and with visual synthesis as well—is evident. Spoulakk shows off his gifts as a draftsman and painter. His brush deftly traces black contouring lines while giving volume, gestural expressivity, and chromatic nuance to what is essentially a gaseous form.

For Esson, painting means attacking the canvas with a loaded brush, fleshing out a “sketched structure” to give visual form to an idea. An idea, however, that is most definitely better seen than smelled.

                                                                                        —Israel Castellanos León

About Tomás Sánchez

b. 1948, resides in Costa Rica

Closer to the paintings of the Hudson River School than to the technological avant-garde, Tomás Sánchez’s imaginary landscapes do not bear the labels of rebellion, irony, postmodernism, or kitsch imposed by American academics on the recent artistic fruits of the island. Through Sánchez’s work we arrive at a utopian space where anguish and politics, the unavoidable disorders of our times, have been miraculously excommunicated.

A student of Antonia Eiriz at the National School of Art (ENA), since his graduation in 1971 Sánchez has pursued an expressionist figurative style, in which the ambience of Cuba’s traditional rural hamlets is transmuted into a gritty vision of existence and the miseries of the human condition. In 1974, his discovery of the American hyperrealist movement, the work of Andrew Wyeth, and the Russian realism of Levitan and Shishkin drove him to create landscapes reflecting a realist aesthetic. Within this framework, he joined artists such as Flavio Garciandía, Eduardo Rubén, Gory (Rogelio López Marín), Nélida López, and Aldo Menéndez, whose warm, optimistic vision of hyperrealism served as a bridge toward the formal and conceptual innovations that later emerged in Cuban art.

After receiving the 19th International Joan Miró Drawing Award in 1980, Sánchez participated in the “founding act” of Volumen I (Volume One), the influential 1981 exhibition which laid the foundation for the art that followed. By 1982, when the Ministry of Culture organized the first Landscape Salon, Sánchez’s images were perceived—along with the works of Bedia, Fors, Grupo Hexágono (Hexagon Group), and Gustavo Acosta, among others—as the revitalization of a genre.

Enriched by a personal world view, Sánchez’s works embodied a realism unburdened by formulaic academicism, “with which I could create the illusion of three-dimensional space, and an atmosphere that would induce intimate, subjective emotions in the viewer: a subjective realism, in other words, reality filtered by my individuality” (Hernández, 1985, 38).  His landscapes of the early 1980s reflect two other approaches as well: a baroque, somber style, as in his depictions of garbage dumps, and what has been defined as a “landscape of synthesis”—islands, shores, and floods. Above all, Sánchez emphasized the archipelago’s immeasurable liquid element: the vastness of territories flooded by tropical hurricanes, the confluence of the rivers and the sea, the islands beyond the horizon, and the immensity of natural spaces, depicted from an elevated point of view that facilitates sensory and contemplative immersion.

In January 1985, when the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana exhibited more than a hundred of his engravings, drawings, and paintings, Sánchez received definitive recognition. But creative endeavors such as his were implicitly placed in question by the cultural dynamics of the late 1980s. The art of that moment challenged the style, the impeccable craftsmanship, and the contemplative point of view inherent in Sánchez’s work, favoring instead group collaboration, a conceptual approach, or an assertive brushstroke. This critical attitude was directed not only toward stereotypes and defects in the social utopia, but also toward the destruction of “useless” genres.

The following decade transformed Sánchez’s work into a legacy and a canon. In a time characterized by the return to technique and craft, renunciation of the utopian spirit of social renewal in favor of ambiguous dissonance, the fracturing and juxtaposition of historical eras, and the rescue of traditional genres under the ever-present pressure of the art market, Sánchez’s oeuvre was perceived as a “landscape after the battle,” in which the aesthetic paradigms of style, authorship, and skill stood tall. The practice of landscape painting revived, multiplied by the hands of imitators and long-distance disciples. Despite these circumstances, inevitable for all those who shine with their own light, the island’s artistic community recognizes Sánchez’s worth and awaits a public re-encounter in Havana.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

About Tonel (Antonio Eligio Fernández)

b. 1958, resides in Cuba and Canada

In the early 1980s, the publication of Tonel’s “caricatures” in humor magazines led to his being erroneously classified as a humorist. Nevertheless, with the 1989 exhibition Yo lo que quiero es ser feliz (All I Want is to Be Happy), his art parted ways with the publishing circuit and started flowing through a variety of media—drawings, sculptures, installations, prints—that expressed his vision of human beings and society. In addition to being an art historian and the author of indispensable texts on contemporary Cuban art, Tonel has contributed to a revival of thought-provoking conceptual humor in Cuban art, as seen in the work of Rafael Fornés, Chago (Santiago Armada), Carlucho (Carlos Villar), Alberto Morales Ajubel, Manuel (Manuel Hernández Valdéz), Osmani Simanca, Félix Ronda, and Reinerio Tamayo, among others. Over the years, he has intensely promoted this artistic direction through exhibitions and publications.

Tonel’s own creations draw inspiration from the countercultural comics of the 1960s, including the work of R. Crumb; from artists like Saul Steinberg, Philip Guston, and Peter Saul; the tautologies of 1970s conceptual art, as well as from the international “new image” art of the 1980s. His works do not attempt the mass projection of American superheroes à la Marvel Comics, or the narrative dimension of Japanese manga; instead, they address a viewer who can accept complicity in Tonel’s caustic vision of humanity, his detailed exploration of bodily functions, and his anti-romantic concept of sexuality and sentiment: Sex and the City minus the credit cards, sweating in the tropical heat. The artist has created works that “without being caricatures or illustrations, retain some expressive resources from those manifestations marginalized by high culture; and at the same time uses those communication models for the sake of an autonomous body of work, rigorously intellectual” (Montes de Oca, 2000, 12).

The interaction of people and animals is not a frequent subject in Cuban art; rats, even less so. Tonel keeps in mind the cultural connotations of that mammal—associated since the ancient Greeks with sickness and pestilence, plague and decadence, greed and the demonic—and makes an original contribution to a cross-cultural iconography that includes works by such artists such as Vincent van Gogh (Two Rats, 1884) and the aquatints of the German novelist Günter Grass. In this case, instead of turning rats into discomfited witnesses to urban modernity, or leaders of an apocalyptic, Terminator-style end, Tonel chooses to present an extreme case of voracious hunger, a descent into hell.

The human being who opens his mouth to crush and gulp down the animal’s head, in a desperate gesture, is a schematic representation of the artist himself, whose likeness has been captured in numerous drawings and sculptures. It is a stark self-portrait, created with no more than a simple line—a functional solution that expresses the idea without falling into tear-stained melodrama. Sanctioned by the obvious reiteration of the title, the strange situation distills an excessive, grotesque chronicle of scarcity and helplessness, and transforms the image of the artist into a symbol of humanity enduring physical and moral degradation.

Autorretrato como barco (Cuatro pirámides) [Self-Portrait as a Boat (Four Pyramids)] is one of the essential pieces that Tonel dedicates to the subject of Cuba and its insular self-image. It belongs to a cycle of work, begun in 1989, that has since intertwined with other aspects of his oeuvre. Installations such as Bloqueo (Blockade, 1989), Mucho color (A Lot of Color, 1992), País deseado (Desired Country, 1994)—exhibited in that year’s São Paulo Biennial—and Mundo soñado (Dreamworld, 1995, MNBA) have engendered “a profusion of contradictory meanings surrounding such concepts as homeland and nation” (Montes de Oca, 2000, 21). In an attitude common to such artists as Sandra Ramos, Kcho, Ibrahim Miranda, and Osvaldo Yero, representation of the island does not reflect a theme of exalted patriotism, nor does it vindicate its isolation from the world. This reference to the geographical map seems to translate into a “critique of insularity,” understood as a limit and a border—a natural wall that separates Cuba from the mainland and generates deep tensions in the individual, the family, and the nation.

Autorretrato... is a drawing of exceptionally large dimensions, measuring almost five feet by eight. In a way that has become characteristic of Tonel’s work, line plays a fundamental role. It is not, however, a matter of magnified illustration, but of drawing as the quintessential protagonist, the expressive tool par excellence. By such means, the artist effects a transmutation of matter: his head becomes a figurehead, a boat, a small Titanic that follows its own solitary route, rocked by winds and storms. The artist’s body becomes a space in which the merely testimonial transcends itself to become metaphor.

In his 1989 drawing Hemingway, su técnica (Hemingway, His Technique), Tonel had used the submerged head of the American writer, peeking just a few centimeters above the water line, as a reference to his literary technique of the “iceberg.” In Autorretrato... , however, the boat-head has sunk to the bottom of the ocean and it is supported by reefs: four rocky pyramids, previously depicted as funerary monuments in his drawing La isla en peso (como los egipcios) (The Whole Island (Like the Egyptians), 1992, Ludwig Forum collection, Aächen). The terrain of Cuba, called a “cork island” by geographers because of its cyclical movement of oceanic ascent and descent, here defies its floating nature and sinks exhausted to the boat’s deck. The transparencies between the long archipelago and the ship suggest their fusion, as if the destinies of the artist and his nation had tragically become one under the warm waters of the sea. Oblivious to the turbulence of History roiling the ocean surface, the man and his island rest with open eyes on the sea bottom, supported by the pyramid-reefs. Perhaps they have been transformed into a new Atlantis, the ruins of a civilization to be discovered again in the future.

In Tonel’s works the human (Cuban) body seems to become conscious of its own odors and fluids, with a sensory intensity even more compelling than Andrés Serrano’s Piss Christ (1989). Unlike some of his compatriots, Tonel is not interested in deconstructing historical narratives. He is a visceral explorer who ventures into territories that are taboo in art, setting his gaze on inconsequential, everyday moments: the anti-epic of respiration and sex, promiscuities of the flesh, the daily routine evacuations, senseless phrases, and insignificant miseries. The characters in his stories seduce or repel us through their absolute lack of modesty; they seem to live right before us as before the cameras of Big Brother. They impel us to share in their misfortunes and contradictions with absolute calmness, without the slightest trace of drama.

Unlike some contemporary artists, who freeze instants of their lives by incorporating real objects into their works, Tonel employs the same old-fashioned tool used by the archaic artists of Lascaux and Altamira: the simplicity of the line, free of decorative arabesque. It is an essential trace that defines the boundaries, the limitations, of the paper, and projects itself into three-dimensional space through sketches of sculptures and installations. In this fashion, Tonel demonstrates the integrity and complexity of his conceptual thought, an inexhaustible well from which he “extracts” his artworks, which are then fleshed out in various formats as he finds technical solutions that satisfy him.

A precursor of La silla (The Chair) is the drawing El vómito es cultura (Vomit is Culture, 1990, Jurgen Harten Collection). In that work, “a clever pun announced the inexhaustible and pregnant spew that will alleviate the man, temporarily restoring his insides” (Valdés, 2000, 30). In the center of this banal scene—which every common mortal has experienced, one night or another—is the image of the artist once again, his self-portrait passing from face to face like a mask. Half naked, the figure leans on the wall to ease the brutal push of his own regurgitation, over which he will float like a messiah.

In this corresponding sculpture, a profuse arch emanates from mouth to floor; but the body assumes a seated position, as if to serve as a platform for a visitor still unknown. Cut and assembled from recycled wood—what Cubans call “plywood”—it belongs to a series of large-format sculptures, made to be hung as wall reliefs or placed in space as if inviting interaction, virtual or real, with the viewer. (Other works in this series include El Puente (The Bridge), and Atalaya (Watchtower), both made in 1993.) The design of the chair emphasizes its “linear” origins, and at the same time emphasizes the implausibility of its function. The seat has no arms; the character depicted here is one of those mutilated beings that populate Tonel’s universe, marked by “severed arms, stumps, eyeless faces, penises as long as they are useless, macerated torsos” (Montes de Oca, 2000, 18). The torturers of this ailing humanity, the executioners of so much flagellated flesh simply do not exist. Tonel’s beings are victims of themselves alone; they bear the stigmas of their own apathy and frustration, of the disjunction between their purposes and their methods, their failure to act according to their beliefs, and their profound discouragement. For them there are no self-help manuals, no therapies against the clock. They seem definitively condemned to vomit their own frustrations over and over again.

References: Valdés, Eugenio, Catalogue, Utopian Territories, New Art from Cuba, Vancouver, Canada, 1997. Block, Holly, ed., Art Cuba: the New Generation, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001. Valdés, Eugenio, “Solitude Laid Bare in the Garden of the Madhouse,” essay in cited catalogue, p. 30.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri

About Umberto Peña

b. Havana 1937, resides in Salamanca, Spain

Umberto Peña spells his first name the Italian way, like his famous namesake, the Futurist painter, sculptor, and theorist Boccioni. Peña, however, is Cuban, and renowned above all as a painter and graphic designer, two professions he pursued simultaneously until 1969.

For Peña’s art, the 1960s were a productive decade. In 1960 he had his first solo show at the Center for Contemporary Art in Mexico. In 1964, he received a special award at the Havana Exhibition, a Latin American art competition organized by House of the Americas, and in 1967, another at the Fifth Paris Biennale of Young Artists. That year, the city of Havana hosted the Salon de Mai and an International Festival of Protest Song. Through such routes, the latest art trends, such as Pop Art and the neo-figurative movement, found their way into Cuba, along with a more rebellious spirit. Unfortunately, the dogmatic mindset of cultural officials would prove a strong deterrent to the creative freedom announced by Fidel Castro in his 1961 speech, “Words to Intellectuals.”

Peña was disinclined to paint the epic themes that artists were directed to tackle, leaning instead toward the erotic and the scatological. In 1965, he began alternating between his own highly personal art and his official work as book designer for House of the Americas. In any case, his painting and design work were parallel but very different endeavors. The abstract, geometric style and calm, ascetic approach he favored in designing books and magazines diverged sharply from his paintings of the same period.

Foo Foo Fooo muchas veces (Phew, Phew, Phew Many Times), for instance, reconciles the chromatic stridence of Pop Art with caustic neo-figuration and grotesque expressionism. The work could easily be considered part of a larger series of kindred paintings. The design of this particular piece transcends the semantic dimension of the Italian word disegno—outline or drawing—and its original Renaissance meaning as a sketch or plan, intended to crystallize an idea in expressive terms of visual effect, morphology, syntax, and composition. Peña resorted to bilateral symmetry to divide, in a tidy, balanced way, the top and bottom halves of the painting. The figure is in the very center of the canvas, becoming its vertical axis. The resulting composition could not be more balanced, almost to the point of stasis. Nevertheless, the work is pure imbalance—sheer passion.

The use of a psychologically serene pigment like green for the horizontal dividing line contrasts with the aggressively red background—its complementary color, prevalent in this piece. The emotions associated with the color red are accentuated by the literally fleshless figure that unites, in an antagonistic, dislocated manner, both a expansive opening and an implosive clamping shut.

Such violence may be understood as an expression of an existential conflict or dilemma between the outer persona dictated by society and the inner being of the artist. It may be seen as the need to communicate versus the external or self-imposed need to stifle such expression. This painting may be seen as a portent of the crisis that came two years later, when, faced with the pressures of that era, Peña gave up painting altogether to devote himself to graphic design—a discipline that did not offer the complete freedom of expression possible in painting or printmaking.

In Peña’s paintings the scatological and the repulsive found visible manifestation not only in the grotesque representation of certain signifiers such as toilets and human innards, but also in emphasizing their meaning, in a perhaps tautological manner, through text added to the composition. In some cases these were strings of words or names, at other times onomatopoeias or ejaculations.

Foo foo (phew, eww) is a Cuban expression, now somewhat fallen into disuse, that denotes a reaction to stench or fetidness. In the painting, it is a cry that seems to arise from the bowels. The repetition emphasizes its strength, its belligerence. However, what stinks? What is the source of such an expression of disgust? One can only speculate. Although Peña can be very graphic (in all senses of the word), and his insistence borders on the reiterative, the meaning of his paintings is never transparent; rather, it is recondite, encrypted, polysemic, teeming with questions.

This use of text should not be strange in a professional book designer, someone with the ability to integrate words and typography as elements of composition. Some specialists, however, consider the inclusion of texts in Peña’s paintings as a legacy or appropriation of the language of comics, which in Pop Art was most notable in the work of American artist Roy Lichtenstein.

                                                                                     —Israel Castellanos León

About Yoan Capote

b. 1977, resides in Cuba

From his first exhibition, Yoan Capote has shown a peculiar sensitivity toward everyday objects. This is not an “archeological” interest in the improvised technologies of a Cuba in the midst of an epic shortage of supplies and spare parts (as practiced by the artist collective Ordo Amoris). Nor does it follow the type of elevated design concept elaborated by artists and architects in limited editions for clients whose mantra is “small is beautiful.” Instead, Capote strives to reveal the metaphorical facets of objects and to make certain interpretations about the people who consume or modify them through use.

In that sense, the use of everyday objects as a self-imposed choice makes Capote a peculiar type of sculptor: one who remains alien to the traditional methods of his art. The roots of his attitude may be found in Duchamp and in the analytical traditions of Conceptualism and Minimalism, but he does not focus on deconstructing the linguistic foundation of art. Capote’s method of creating pieces is extremely intellectual—a sort of ping-pong game between an abstract concept and the different ways in which it can be expressed. Consequently, his pieces assume a variety of appearances: engravings, sculptures, assemblages, and drawings. They are surprisingly witty, gazing with a certain aloofness on obviously social subjects.

Matrimonio (Matrimony) is Capote’s ironic take on one of the unresolved enigmas in the history of humanity: the conjugal union. To tackle this subject, he appropriates the craft of shoemaking. He remakes two pairs or shoes, one men’s and the other women’s, one shoe from each joined by an extended piece of leather. The result is a vision of heterosexual coupling as hilarious as it is absurd. The spouses will have a close relationship, but will never be able to consummate the marriage. The disposition of the shoes condemns them to circle eternally around each other, as if the impossibility of the union—even at such short distance—were a proverbial Sword of Damocles irrevocably hanging over the lovers’ heads.

References: Heartney, Eleanor, “Yoan Capote at George Adams Gallery,” Art in America, June-July, 2005. Martell, Marisol, “Yoan Capote at George Adams Gallery,” ArtNexus, No. 56, Volume 3, 2005, pp. 154-155. Prisant, Carol, “Lounging at Longhouse: Carol Prisant Visits a Benchmark Exhibition,” The World of Interiors, September 2004, p. 106.

The formation of creative collectives was a logical outgrowth of the developments of the 1980s. By the end of the decade, the phenomenon had taken on a variety of incarnations: publishing projects, such as Grupo Ph, Banco de Ideas Z, Memorias de la Postguerra, and Loquevenga; spaces for the promotion of artists, including Aglutinador and La Huella Múltiple; and artist collectives such as Los Carpinteros, Ordo Amoris, Enema, Edgar and David, and Fabián and Soca.

The burden of continuing—and revising—teaching methodologies for artists was taken up by René Francisco as a member of the Visual Arts Faculty at the Superior Institute of Art (ISA). Francisco’s art has since achieved international recognition; in 1989-90, he started a project known as DUPP (De Una Pragmática Pedagógica, For a Pragmatic Pedagogy), which was reinstated in 1992. Through ventures such as La Casa Nacional (National House), DUPP profoundly influenced the “cambio de bola” (in sports, a turnover of the ball; more broadly, a change of approach) of a new generation of artists such as Los Carpinteros and Fernando Rodríguez. With students at ISA, in 1997 Francisco started the DUPP Virtual Gallery to promote creativity in the visual arts, and to reflect on artistic practices that were being marginalized by the trans-nationalization and standardization of Cuban art, its rhetorical strategies and expectations. Until its dissolution in 2001, DUPP organized several group exhibitions and installations in urban public spaces, and stimulated the creation of performance works. It was the only Cuban group that was invited as such to the Havana Biennial in 2000.

As a member of DUPP, Yoan Capote presented 1… 2... 3… Probando as a collective work at the Seventh Havana Biennial. The title refers to the first words that are generally spoken when testing audio equipment or microphones, as is the case here. Capote’s proposal consisted of an installation in a public space: namely, the placement of multiple microphones along the wall of the Malecón, Havana’s seaside promenade. The devices would face not only inward from the shoreline but also out toward the sea, the open space. Capote’s subtle drawing traced a perspective of the possible installation of the microphones, and included an anonymous figure that seemed to make use of them.

The piece implicitly paid homage to one of Havana’s main thoroughfares, which runs along the city’s northern border. The Malecón had been built gradually, between 1900 and 1958, in the tradition of grand seaside promenades intended to sanitize and beautify insalubrious cities; it is the most expansive recreational space enjoyed by Habaneros, and has been a witness to important historical events. Praised in the early 20th century by poets and painters alike, from the writer Santos Chocano to artists Blay Oliva and Vila y Prades, the Malecón was given new meaning by the aesthetic consciousness of the 1990s, driven by the diaspora: as an insurmountable border, limit, or rim, and revealed in works by Manuel Piña, Sandra Ramos, Edgar and David, and in such films as Enrique Alvarez’s La ola (The Wave) and Fernando Pérez’s La vida es silbar (Life is to Whistle). Capote’s intervention was a reincarnation of those meanings, underscoring the character of the place as a utopian space for social communication. During the Biennial, however, the iron microphones were not installed along the Malecón, but at the fortress of La Cabaña, where the exhibition took place. Standing tall on the cracked 18th-century walls of the castle, the long curved staffs seemed to capture of the uneasy mutterings of the city, while the sea and salty air took their inevitable corrosive toll.

References: Catalogue, Seventh Havana Biennial, p. 166. UNESCO Award for the Promotion of the Arts (with Los Carpinteros, Jean Pierre Raynaud), Seventh Havana Biennial. ArteCubano, 2-3/2003, cover. Levin, Kim, “Cuba Libre, Art and Contradiction at The Havana Bienal,” The Village Voice, 26 December 2000, Vol. XLV No.5, p. 130. Robinson, Walter, “Havana, Art Capital,”. Bousteau, Fabrice, “Cuba la Belle Américaine,” Beaux Arts, No. 200, January 2001, p. 77. Cembalest, Robin, “Where Rube Goldberg Meets Kafka,” Art News, February 2001, p. 151. Turner, Grady, “Cuba II, Sweet Dreams,” Art in America, October 2001, pp. 72-75.

Completed after 1…2...3… Probando, Protocolo (Protocol) was created as part of an installation consisting of two similar chairs, a long aluminum-and-glass table placed between them, and a soundtrack of mumbled, unintelligible phrases. It was not the first time that Capote had built furniture; he had previously made metal and wood park benches infused with a strange, expressionistic quality. But this time, the piece of furniture loses all suggestion of functionality to venture into the field of the purely symbolic.

The term “protocol” alludes to the ceremonial rules established between heads of state or between officials of a similar rank, which control movements, phrases, and gestures by means of an established code that is taught in foreign relations institutes. The artist expresses the relative power of the officials whose presence is implied by the work, by means of a metaphor as simple as it is effective—a metaphor inspired by the devices that Capote had proposed placing along the Malecón in 1…2...3… Probando. Though the red velvet cushions refer to the presumed distinction of the individuals involved, these are, in fact, microphone-chairs. Their peculiar design expresses a truth about negotiations—not only on the diplomatic, but also on the day-to-day level—which at their heart are based on a verbal pact between individuals who, using the voice as their primary instrument, attempt to convince or best their opponents according to their own interests.

Moving from 1... 2... 3… Probando to Protocolo, Capote’s meaning became more allusive and obscure, and infused with a deeper ambiguity. In this piece, the metaphor is nurtured or even generated by a contradiction between the function of the object being portrayed and its structure, or the materials from which it has been made. It is a proposal that does not want to be classified by local cultural contexts, but rather by the universal scope of its mise-en-scène.

References: Bomin, Amalia, “Ivan and Yoan Capote at Galeria Habana,” Art Nexus, No. 44, Volume 2, 2002, p. 109. Noticias de Arte Cubano (Cuban Art News), No. 7, Year 2, 2001, cover illust. Vázquez, Darys, “Yoan Capote: La constante mutación de los objetos” (Yoan Capote: The Constant Mutation of Objects), unpublished article, May-June 2005.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri