Carlos Estevez, "Theatrum Mundi", 2008.

Carlos Estevez, "Theatrum Mundi", 2008. Mixed media. 56" x 96.5" x 3"

New Art From Cuba, in Albuquerque

“Confluencias: Arte Cubano Contemporaneo,” at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, assembles what organizers are calling the largest group show of contemporary Cuban art to occur in the United States, since Alfred Barr in 1944 mounted “Modern Painters of Cuba” at MoMa.

“Confluencias” offers some 90 paintings, drawings, video, photography, mixed media, and sculpture, by a group of roughly 40 artists all of whom live and work in Cuba.  “Thats the benchmark,” said New Mexico Secretary of Cultural Affairs Stuart Ashman, noting that while many shows of Cuban art feature artists living in diaspora,  this one spotlights work by Cuban nationals still in-country. Ashman accompanied New Mex. Gov. Bill Richardson to Cuba for a weeklong trade mission in August.

The substantial inventory for this exhibit had been arranged to arrive several weeks prior to the show opening, but the crated works  – subject to exceptions that allow cultural and educational work to cross from Cuba to the US  –  had flown from Havana to Paris before arriving in Mexico, where they were boarded on trucks that US Customs officials stopped at Nuevo Laredo for two weeks. The exhibit on display reflects about 70 percent of what arrived, now on view at NHCC.

Wishful to expose more of the Cuban art in New Mexico, NHCC is lending a sculpture installation, “Utopia,” by artist Roberto Diago, to the Santa Fe Art Institute. SFAI will mount “Utopia” as part of a group show,  opening November 13. Ashman observed that SFAI is also working to try to bring three of the Cuban artists to Santa Fe. He said the timing of this exhibit coincides with a new Senate bill, sponsored by Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and Mike Enzi (R-WY), to lift the travel ban for Americans to Cuba, imposed by the Kennedy Administration in 1963. The bill has 32 co-sponsors,  but Dorgan, a member of the Democratic leadership, told reporters in October he did not know how to get it to the Senate floor.

To encounter contemporary Cuban art is relatively rare for U.S. citizens, who continue to risk $7500 fines for traveling to Cuba under an ongoing economic embargo.

Confluencias closest precedents in North America are the 400-object-strong exhibit,  “¡Cuba! Art and History from 1868 To Today”, held in 2008 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. According to SFAI director Diane Karp, who saw that show,  the MMFA mounted “a beautiful exhibition,”  with encouragement from Cuban culture officials, who lent many of the works to Canada from the National Museum of Havana. The year 1868 of the title identified the signal year in which the Cuban town of Bayamo declared independence from Spain.

“Confluencias” is independently curated, by Juanito Delgado of Havana. The group of artists include names well-known among contemporary Cuban art cognoscenti, such as Ibrahim Miranda, Javier Barroso, Carlos Estévez, Los Carpinteros, Sandra Ramos, Raúl Cordero, and others.

NHCC director Estevan Rael Gálvez pointed out that NHCC on Avenida Cesar Chavez sits at the southern end of Albuquerques historic Hispaño neighborhood of Barelas. Reflecting a pivot between history and an international future is at the heart of this contemporary exchange, said Gálvez. (Raul Cordero, video still from El Reportaje; Ruslan Torres,  Salida / Entrada (acrylic on linen). Photo courtesy NHCC.)

“I think of bridges and really establishing openings at this particular moment. As a 9 year old institution, we see this (show) as a balance to where we sit in this historic neighborhood, reaching out to a global audience.”

Los Angeles dealer Darrel Couturier, who has shown contemporary Cuban art since 1997 and exhibits work by many of these artists (including Carlos Montes de Oca, Aimee Garcia, as well as Estévez, Miranda and Barroso), notes that to attempt to sum up new Cuban art is impossible, given the variety of artistic responses Cuban artists have innovated in response to a lack of available art materials. After the 1959 revolution, many Cuban artists, patronized solely by the state, developed Pop art-inspired interpretations of such sanctioned portrait subjects as Castro and Che Guevara. The founding in 1984 of the first Havana Biennial (held mainly in the vast Morro de Cabana fortress, previously a prison), marked an upswing in international attention to new Cuban art. But the labor demanded of engaged curators and dealers to put the shows on is no small matter.

Couturier reflected in a telephone interview that to overcome the obstacles requires an interested party to travel frequently to Cuba, be prepared to carry art in and out of the country personally, delivering payments and, in some cases, materials, to the artists.

“It requires,” said Couturier, ” a conscious, dedicated effort.”

Among those who have made the effort, in the past decade: Arizona State University, which mounted “Contemporary Art From Cuba,” curated by Marilyn Zeitlin, in 2007; San Francisco State University scholar and curator Judith Bettelheim, who organized the traveling “Afro-Cuba: Works on Paper,” which began at San Francisco State in 2006, traveled to Indianapolis Museum of Art, then Kennesaw State University in Georgia, and Lowe Art Museum in South Miami, FL; and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which put on a new Cuban photography show, “Shifting Tides,” in 2001.

In Confluencias, the large number of Cuban artists represented helps expand the view onto the large and diverse group of working artists living in Cuba. “Its a wide open field,” said Couturier.

Esterio Seguras chromed fiberglass sculpture, "Pinocchio with Rope"

Esterio Segura’s chromed fiberglass sculpture, “Pinocchio with Rope”

So, in Confluencias, here are some of the works that captured my attention. Esterio Seguras chromed fiberglass sculpture, “Pinocchio with Rope” (left. Photo courtesy NHCC), stands as a companion piece to “Pinocchio and Napoleon Tell History.” In the latter piece, Pinocchios long nose grows into a menacing bayonet culminating in a toy military plane; in the former his nose ropes him in a bind of lies. The figure stands on a pile of books, Hispaño-Americano “histories” in rich covers.  Four charcoal works by Santiago Olazábal, “Se rompió el tabú” (the taboo was broken)/”Yo reanudé el pacto” (I renewed the pact)/La flecha que hirió al pájaro muerto (“The arrow that injured the dead bird”)/and “El Misionero” (The missionary”), reflect intense gestural expressions.
Raúl Corderos acrylic on canvas, “Barbiturico” (Barbiturate), is stark gray-tone in comparison to his hot-weather lush video,  “El Reportaje.” I first saw this video in 1999 at Iturralde Gallery in Los Angeles. Shot from a street corner, it chronicles a man and a woman meeting, and their axis of emotional trajectory between embrace, abuse, and things that from the eyes of the witness remain excruciatingly hard to read. Like Cuba.
Sandra Ramos contributes In My Head,” a large-scale piece using photography, video and mirrors. Abel Barrosos “Globalization Bridge”,  is sited at a corner of a gallery so that the projection and its accompanying sculpture run into the wall. Cramped construction as commentary on “Globalization” as dead-end.   And other important paintings here include Aimee Garcias “Conspiracy,” as well as Roberto Fabelos “Grasshopper Man,” rendered in crayon on masonite.
While, in other shows of Cuban art, themes have emerged that link Cuba to Africa through ritual, religion and politics (Angola, for instance, where Cuban fighters and cultural attaches went in the 1970s for its revolutions), in this show the African connection is not made explicit.  Also not highlighted  –  and possibly for diplomatic reasons –  is too fine a focus on the issues that constellated the 10th edition of the Havana biennial in March, “Integration and Resistance in the Global Era.”

Video still, Havana-Cultura dot com interview with Rene Francisco about  his video, “El Patio de Nin.”
You must indeed read between the lines here to find commentary on Guantanamo Bay or multinationalism, but I find various signs for why this may be.
One is that, as artist René Francisco said in a video interview (above), shown at the 2007 Venice Biennale, he sees himself as an “an artist whos trying to perform curing, somehow.”

The other may be that to smooth cultural exchange requires underplaying the complexity of views from Cuba toward the US. This, contends art dealer Couturier, is indeed relevant, especially when it comes to suggestions that President Obama will simply take action and herald a new day for US-Cuba relations. “Its still illegal to spend money in Cuba,” Couturier said. “People think Obama is just going to lift the embargo. Hes not. People also have to understand Cuba isnt just going to throw open its doors. Just the opposite. Theres a great concern on the part of Cubans (in Cuba), about Cubans in the US coming back and causing civil unrest.”

Aimee Garcia Marrero "Conspiracion" 2006. Oil on canvas.

Aimee Garcia Marrero “Conspiracion” 2006. Oil on canvas.

Indeed, the last time New Mexico tried to mount an important art show from Cuba was 1999, when now Cultural Affairs tsar Ashman was director of the Museum of Fine Arts (now the New Mexico Museum of Art). The Elian Gonzalez dispute, over the child who survived his mothers drowning to be “adopted” by Cuban expat relatives in Miami (later to be returned to his father in Cuba) resulted in cancellation of a planned exhibit of Wilfredo Lam paintings.

Couturier for his part observed that art cant by itself overcome the larger political agendas that keep Cuba isolated. He cited prominent families, from the Bacardis in Miami to the Bushes in Dallas, as supporting the continuing embargo and travel restrictions. The Bushes, said Couturier, have a pending civil lawsuit attempting to retake land holdings in Cuba the Bush family contends were stolen in the 1959 revolution. “These are big questions,” Couturier said. “They concern how points of view are established. Why you want to maintain an embargo. Why (do) we have relations with all kinds of Communist countries, China for instance, but not Cuba?”

Hence, for now, by way of a window into the culture, Confluencias offers a deep look at the range of expression communicated despite economic hardships in Cuba, by a group of Cuban artists not living in diaspora.

Top Photo: Carlos Estevez, “Theatrum Mundi”, 2008. Mixed media. 56″ x 96.5″ x 3″
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