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.

"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.

"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.

Moreover, because there is no direct trade between the two countries, it is expensive and complicated to ship works of art. So much so that Zeitlin chose instead to purchase about a quarter of the show (for something less than $50,000) during her studio visits in Cuba. She carried the art back with her on the plane, and borrowed the remainder of the works from collections in Mexico, the United States and Canada.

The other obstacle is political.
And Mosquera knows it well. Over the years, because of his outspoken support of many of the Cuban artists who went into exile in the 1980s and early 1990s, he says he has been gradually stripped of his ability to pursue his work in Cuba.

He lives in Havana, but has to work elsewhere. He serves as a curator at the New Museum in New York. He contributes to books and museum catalogues in North and South America and Europe.

"The problem here is that the Cuban institutions really don't want to work with me," he says, "because in a way I'm sort of a dissident and they're not very friendly. I am not invited to events. I'm out."

He has remained active and involved at the street and studio level of Cuba's art scene. "But I can't publish here, can't organize a show here. It's impossible for me. I'm a taboo person here."

That taboo isn't limited to Cuba. Two years ago, the Miami Center for the Fine Arts--now the Miami Art Museum--invited him to participate in a panel discussion about the work of a Mexican photographer. But shortly before the event, anti-Castro exiles harassed people attending a concert by Cuban jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba. The center quickly canceled Mosquera's invitation.

Carin Quoni, director of exhibitions at Independent Curators International in New York, the organization hired to arrange and oversee the traveling version of the ASU exhibition, says that an establishment in Miami is among the American institutions considering hosting the show. She won't say which one. And Zeitlin and other ASU museum officials say they can't remember.

Fred Snitzer and others in Miami say they can't think of any area museums that would be willing to take on such a show. The anti-Castro Cuban exiles have long protested and successfully scuttled events featuring Cuban artists.

"Quite honestly, I don't think a majority of people feel that way," says Vivian Rodriguez, executive director of Metro Dade Public Art Program. "But it doesn't take a majority to create problems. I think you'll find a majority of Cubans living in this community willing to separate culture and politics." She says it is not easy for some to do, citing the case of one of her most supportive board members who is also a human rights activist. "As a teenager in Cuba," says Rodriguez, "she was imprisoned by Castro. She has very strong feelings about that, and she's not about to sweep things under the rug, as if to say, okay, never mind the last 30 or 40 years."

Snitzer says that the fact that most of his artists are Cuban exiles would make it difficult for him to show works by Cubans, or even travel there to see the new work being done.

"Whatever the reality is--I don't know the reality and you don't--it's Nazi Germany for [the exiles]. It's nothing short of that."

Zeitlin says she understands the complexity of the emotions that this show might arouse for Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits.

"We're not pursuing it all that assiduously," Zeitlin says of a Miami venue. "We don't want to push anybody about it, because it's a bigger risk for them than anybody else. It's a first show, really," she says. "And I'm hoping we'll be able to do more."

Contact Edward Lebow at his online address: elebow@newtimes.com

"Contemporary Art From Cuba: Irony and Survival on the Utopian Island" opens Sunday, September 27, and continues through Sunday, December 13, at ASU Art Museum in Tempe.

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