Cuba-ism

Young artists break through the red tape to star in ASU Art Museum's new exhibit, "Contemporary Art From Cuba: Irony and Survival on the Utopian Island"

In the art galleries and studios of Havana this summer, "ASU" has been the word on just about every artist's lips. They aren't parsing it out in three crisp syllables, says a recent visitor to Cuba. They're exhaling it in a whoosh that sounds like a sneeze: Ah-soo! Ah-soo! Ah-soo!

The cause isn't some covert American allergen. It's the Arizona State University Art Museum's exhibition with the drum-roll title "Contemporary Art From Cuba: Irony and Survival on the Utopian Island."

"It is really the buzz of Cuba's art world," says Tucson writer Tom Miller, whose 1992 book Trading With the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro's Cuba has been this decade's most insightful American travelogue of recent Cuban culture and society. "Maybe people in Scottsdale don't know what's happening in Tempe, but in Havana, everybody's talking about who gets to go, and asking what stage of the visa process are you at? And while you're there, could you mail this letter to my uncle in Hialeah?"

This isn't the first American show of art from Cuba. From the late 1970s through the late 1980s, occasional small displays would crop up in spite of the 36-year-old U.S. embargo against Cuban goods. In the decade since Congress exempted art and other "informational materials" from the embargo, American galleries and museums have brought an increasing stream of culture from what the ASU press office is hyping as the "forbidden world." And in recent years, a handful of young Cubans, including an artist with the radio-esque name KCHO (pronounced ka-cho) and the three-member team of artists Los Carpinteros who are in this show, have landed in American galleries.

The distinction of the ASU show, say scholars inside and outside Cuba, is that it offers the most extensive American look to date at Havana's latest generation of young artists. They range in age from 24 to 39. Most of them hail from Havana's Superior Art Institute, Cuba's elite institution for training artists.

When "Art From Cuba" opens September 27, its more than 50 works by 20 artists will spread through every floor of the museum's main building and take up the old galleries across campus at Matthews Center. The show will be accompanied by a slate of lectures, gallery talks and a substantial catalogue. During the show's run, the museum plans to develop a portfolio of prints by some of the exhibition artists. And after the show closes in December, it is expected to tour throughout North America for up to two years.

Meantime, the exhibition's array of paintings, prints, collages, sculptures, drawings and installations promises to attract artists, writers and curators from across the country. And art dealers are sure to join the parade. "They've already heard about KCHO and the Carpinteros," says Marilyn Zeitlin, who directs the museum and curated the show. "They know this stuff is hot. And they are going to want to buy work."

Zeitlin quickly points out that the museum isn't in the business of selling art. Nevertheless, she and her colleagues are trying to work out a strategy for dealing with dealers. Compared with the numerous political, diplomatic and tactical conundrums she has faced in assembling this exhibition, this one might seem relatively small. But it underscores the new reality of Cuban art: commerce.

Spreading the revolution means less in Cuba these days than making some private wealth in an economy that has been on the ropes for nearly a decade. American dealers, curators and collectors are as eager to see the art as Cuban artists are to get their work off the island. In the past, defection has been the typical route. But with shows like this drawing the attention of people with hard currency, this generation of Cuban artists may be the first to consider staying home.

The economic reality of having to look outside Cuba for cash has turned many artists into fishermen, says Gerarda Mosquera, a prominent Cuban art critic and curator who has written an essay for the ASU exhibition catalogue. "They live here and work here, where it's cheaper to get materials, but they are developing their careers abroad--in Europe, Latin America and now the United States. It's like exportation of art in a way."

Their access to foreign money has put a relative handful of Cuban artists in an unusually fortunate circumstance.

"Everything could change tomorrow," says Adolfo V. Nodal, who manages the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, and along with a team of Cuban artists and scholars is writing the first comprehensive book on 20th-century Cuban art. "But the creative people in Cuba have really become an elite. They have access to dollars and they have access to expression."

That combination has encouraged young artists to think that they may be better off in Havana than in New York, Miami or Madrid, where, in Nodal's words, "they'd lose their special place and become just part of another large group of artists scratching to get to the top."

Jose Toirac, who has several major works in the ASU show, is among the handful of artists in this show who have managed to market their Cubanness. At 32, he has an impressive track record of exhibitions, fellowships and contacts in Europe and North and South America. Since June, he has been a research fellow at ASU's Institute for Studies in the Arts. Toirac says through an interpreter that the beginnings of the modern Cuban art market can be traced to the moment in 1993 when Cuba decriminalized the possession of American dollars.

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