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"

"Up until then," agrees Tom Miller, "you could be thrown in jail for possessing them. In fact, a lot of people were." Dollars quickly became not just a currency of preference, but one of necessity. The dollar drives the extensive black market that provides the Cubans with basics and other supplies and merchandise not available in government stores.

"When the dollar was introduced, it wasn't a brusque change," says Toirac. "It was gradual. So was the realization that the art market and art were not mutually exclusive. Until the 1980s," Toirac says, "the best offer an artist could receive would be to teach. It was the best offer because an artist would have access to materials. He would have contact with younger artists. And he would have time to do his work.

"Before the art market was legalized," he goes on, "to talk about an art market was taboo. And not only a political taboo. To talk about a market, and to think of yourself as a mercenary, was the worst insult you could put on somebody."

But that was before the collapse of the Soviet Union put the Cuban economy in a tailspin. During the "special period" of the early 1990s, Cubans endured severe hardships and shortages. Artists were no exception. Those who had come out of the elite Superior Institute of Art in Havana, and had enjoyed relatively free access to materials, suddenly found themselves more preoccupied with finding food than finding art materials.

Zeitlin says Toirac's works are among the most astute political commentaries being made in Cuba. They exemplify the kind of games that Cuban artists play with imagery to avoid directly tangling with the government.

Toiroc paints and draws his images as directly as possible from state propaganda, essentially manipulating and revising official accounts. For example, one of his installations at Matthews Center features boards mounted with small drawings of photos from a book that memorializes deceased agents from Cuba's interior ministry--which spies on Cuban citizens. Titled "Heroes of the Ministry," it can easily be read as a memorial--ribbons and all--to men who died serving Cuba. But it can also be seen as an elegy for men who are despised all over Cuba. Toirac's bounce between irony and sincerity poses the question, are these guys heroes who deserve our respect? Or are they simply creeps?

Mosquera says the gamesmanship of Cuban art has changed considerably since the 1980s, when an adventuresome generation of artists--including Consuelo Castaneda, Carlos Rodriguez Cardenas, Flavio Garciandia, Glexis Novoa, Rene Francisco and others--took the Cuban government head-on. "There was nothing written on what the limits of what you could say were," says Mosquera, who worked at Cuba's Culture Ministry and the Wilfredo Lam Center at the time. "It was something the artists tested." In 1988 and 1989, during Havana's version of "Prague Spring," the artists and intellectuals pushed the limits until the government began pushing back--canceling exhibitions, closing shows and confiscating works that openly mocked Castro and his regime.

"The critical aspect of that time," recalls Mosquera, "was that artists were the first ones to open the critique of our culture."

The government's backlash was swift.
In 1989, several liberal members of the ministry of culture were removed. Over the next two years, an estimated 80 to 100 artists left Cuba for Europe, Mexico and other parts of Latin America.

According to Mosquera and Fred Snitzer, whose Miami gallery exhibits works by some of the artists forced into exile, many of the artists left Cuba for Mexico City under an arrangement with the Mexican government.

"It was a clever way to take a problem and move it somewhere else," says Snitzer. "But Mexico got tired of it after two years and pulled the rug on the thing."

Instead of returning to Cuba, most of the artists--including some of the finest of their generation--dispersed to other Latin American countries, the United States and Europe. The influx of talent into the United States gave Miami an art boom and heightened American interest in Latin American art. In Cuba, the exodus left the task of art to the generation of artists in the ASU show, and instilled a wariness about censorship, and how far an image could go in critiquing Castro or the values of the regime.

"That's why there are so many metaphorical approaches," says Mosquera. "Sometimes there are three and four discourses in one piece of art or literature or theater. So the artist is pretending to say something and actually he is saying something else." Ambiguity, irony and humor are the weapons Cuban artists use to disguise or insulate the political subtext of their imagery. As a result, many of the objects and images in this show live in the cryptic realm of innuendo and implication.

Zeitlin says these layers of meanings are what attracted her to the idea of doing an exhibition of Cuban art. She had visited Cuba in the late 1970s, when the arts were suffering from the Caribbean strain of socialist realism--the Soviet flu that had effectively killed most of the art in the eastern bloc. When she visited Cuba again in 1996, she saw an art world that had been transformed.

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