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"

"The work was amazing because of the high skill level," Zeitlin recalls. "But it was doing more than just demonstrating its own mastery." It had a political and cultural edge that intrigued her. Initially, she wanted to organize a show of works by Cuban artists working in Cuba and in exile. But it was too political. The current show isn't meant to be a comprehensive overview of the contemporary Cuban scene. Instead, it focuses on the edgy political works that have grown from Cuba's artistic tradition of social commentary.

In addition to the political aspects, says Zeitlin, much of the work displays the resourcefulness that poverty has brought to just about every island undertaking. Not long ago, she says, the Carpinteros had told her that "the process of trying to figure out how to do something against tremendous odds--how to get the food and materials you need, or how to get from here to there in the city--trains your mind creatively. And that's a key aspect in this work. It has to do with the idea of inventado--of inventing something out of nothing."

Zeitlin says the contrast with the concerns of some American art and artists couldn't be clearer. "The other night an artist from L.A. was in town," she says. "And at dinner all he talked about was the market and whether his work would sell."

When she asked him what his work was about, he said, "It's about excess. I put a blob in the middle of the canvas and then I give myself permission to do whatever I want in concentric patterns."

"What am I going to do when this Cuban show is over?" Zeitlin asks. "I can't go back to that kind of work that seems so trivial--really and truly trivial--and self-indulgent." This is not a new sentiment for her. Zeitlin's 1995 exhibition of Salvadoran art, containing images about the country's civil war, marked Zeitlin's evolving interest in art that exists in that danger zone of bearing witness to or commenting upon a society's events.

It's evident that the sharp edge that Zeitlin and others see in these works stems from the ongoing friction between what's permissible and forbidden in Cuban society. Less clear is how quickly the search by Cuban artists for greater markets and creative freedom will affect the "edge." But, as it has already done to artists in the United States, Europe and some parts of Latin America, the free market will ultimately change the relationship between Cuban artists and Cuban society--between the art and its context.

For some, that change is already under way. Toirac has spent his summer here developing a brochure to market his art, surfing the Internet and learning how to use computerized visual tools--technologies not available to him in Cuba.

And Zeitlin says that "people are waiting to see what will happen to KCHO. He's been plucked out of the system by Barbara Gladstone [a New York art dealer]. He's very young, 28, so it's hard to keep your feet on the ground. Also, he's an islander of an island. And his materials are so important to the success of the work. For a long time, he used things that he found--like old boats, old wharfs, things he made out of scraps. I think his recent show in New York was a real questionable one, because Gladstone gave him unlimited material."

The larger question is how such access to art-world materials and information will affect the distinctiveness of Cuban art. Part of its distinctiveness can be attributed to the resourceful way the artists use and reuse materials and the island's unique blend of Afro-Euro-Caribbean iconography.

Yet it also stems partly from Cuba's relative isolation from American culture, says Sandra Levinson, who heads the Center for Cuban Studies in New York, and has been traveling to Cuba since the early 1970s. "I remember we did a large show of naive Cuban art. And a Cuban-American art critic who came to see the show said that was a wonderful show, with truly naive art. He said you couldn't have that kind of show of American artists anymore because there is so much information available here that you'd have to be living in a cave to not be affected by the popular market and what sells. For years, these artists in Cuba have just been doing their art."

The irony of the embargo is that it has given Cuban artists an advantage in an art world where original and exotic flavors are becoming harder to find.

"The arts--the fine arts and crude arts--have had the chance to develop on their own there," says Tom Miller. "Had there been no embargo to insulate and isolate them from American culture, they would have been far more homogenized."

Judging by the hurdles Zeitlin has faced in arranging this exhibition, it may be too early to worry about the quick absorption of Cuban art. Cuban-American cultural exchanges are still bound up in miles of red--and red, white and blue--tape. Embargo restrictions prevent direct purchases of works by Cuban artists in the United States. They have to be paid for in Cuba.

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