As the decades-old U.S. embargo of Cuba winds down, Americans are becoming aware of what an exciting art scene exists just 90 miles off our shores.
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Cuba is the only country on earth where the richest people are the artists. “They are the wealthiest of the wealthy,” says Ramon Cernuda of Cernuda Arte, a gallery based in Coral Gables, Fla., that specializes in Cuban contemporary art. “A mid-career artist makes an average of 100 times what a neurosurgeon makes in a year.” And why is that? Because Cuban law allows artists to sell their works to foreign collectors and dealers in exchange for hard currency. The situation, though lucrative, is paradoxical: Within Cuba, there are no commercial galleries at all, and just one state-run auction house. “There is virtually no art collecting inside the country,” says Cernuda, “except for government collections. We are talking about an export market.”
Also paradoxical is the tremendous vitality of Cuban contemporary art. One might imagine that 50 years of Communist rule would have stifled creativity and freedom of expression, but the opposite is the case. Although propaganda and heroic images of Fidel Castro and other revolutionary leaders have been common themes of Cuban art, especially in the 1960s, on the whole the government has been far less controlling of artistic expression than the Soviets used to be.
Just as important is the fact that the state supported the arts and subsidized artists. “One of first things the Cuban government did after the revolution was to build an incredible free art school,” says Sandra Levinson, a former journalist who runs the Center for Cuban Studies in New York and leads art tours of the country. “In Cuba they are very proud of their trained artists.” While many observers today associate Cuban art with “naïve,” self-taught, or folk expressions, in fact the country has a long tradition of formal instruction in academic art. The Academy of San Alejandro was founded in 1818 by a French painter, Jean Baptiste Vermay, and is still one of the island’s key arts institutions. From Spanish and French influence during the 18th and 19th centuries to modernism during the early 20th, Cuban artists have been absorbing international influences and blending them with local culture to create a diverse, but uniquely Cuban, art.
Contemporary Cuban art owes a lot to the Afro-Cuban modernism of painters such as Wifredo Lam and Eduardo Abela, but today’s artists are just as likely to work in mixed media, found materials, photography, and conceptual modes as in oil on canvas. The range of themes, concerns, techniques, and aesthetics is huge. Abel Barroso’s playful, text-emblazoned mechanical wooden constructions reflect on the consumerism and international tourism that are having an increasing impact on Cuba. Kcho (Alexis Leyva) uses found objects to make large-scale sculptural works that riff on the image of the homemade boats that so many Cubans have used to flee the island for the U.S. Mabel Poblet’s mixed-media works, based on photographs, depict her own life, as refracted through a colorful, fantastic-cinematic sensibility. In Dayron Gonzalez’s figurative oil paintings, splotches of paint disturb the otherwise smooth renderings, imbuing ordinary-seeming scenes with eerie strangeness. Ruben Alpizar is a meticulous craftsman whose paintings are inspired by Old Master still lifes and religious allegories. Carlos Estevez creates timeless, non-perspectival paintings featuring symbolic figures interlaced with cosmological-looking skeins of stars, dots, and lines. He also makes marionettes that combine human anatomy with everyday objects like sewing apparatus or musical instruments. Assemblage artist William Perez works in etched plexiglass illuminated by colored lights; many of his objects depict the architectural legacy of Cuba, in which palatial, European-inspired buildings from the pre-revolutionary era are repurposed for occupancy by the working class. Dagoberto Driggs Dumois’ art also deal with the architectural legacy and industrial history of Cuba. He takes fragments of metal and wood from old sugar mills in his home town of Obin—a now-defunct sugar-refining center—and combines them into assemblages along with old photographs of the area printed on metal plates. Kadir Lopez makes his art out of discarded advertising signage from the pre-Castro period.
This use of found materials, so characteristic of Cuban art today, has its roots in pure necessity. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, Cuba suddenly lost the financing it had had depending on for the past three decades. The ensuing so-called “Special Period” of economic disaster caused art supplies to become virtually unobtainable, so artists had to look for alternatives. With typical Cuban resourcefulness, they started making art from decidedly non-traditional materials, and this up-from-the-bootstraps process led them into new creative expressions. Darrel Couturier, a Los Angeles dealer who has been going to Cuba for 20 years, recalls, “When the U.S.S.R. fell apart, the funding to Cuba disappeared overnight and everything came to a dead standstill. No one came to their aid. Artists continued to pursue art, but with no materials. The result was incredible work.”
Roberto Diago, an Afro-Cuban artist who explores the legacy of Cuban slavery in his works, was led to a new style during the ’90s, when he started making conceptual installation from cast-off objects he picked up during walks through his neighborhood. In a 2009 interview, Diago said, “We didn’t have the materials you need to paint like we were taught in school, so we had to adapt our art to what we could find. Now I can afford to buy good paper and oil paints, but that no longer interests me. The symbolic weight of my materials has become a characteristic of my work.”
The symbolic weight of history continues to have a major impact on Cuban art, despite a revolution that aimed to negate the past and restart the clock. Manuel Mendive, one of the most senior figures in Cuban art, has built his entire oeuvre on a foundation of Afro-Cuban history and religion. A priest of Santeria as well as a painter, Mendive depicts the rituals of this syncretistic Yoruba-descended faith in works such as Ofrenda (Offering), a vision of a world in which men mix with gods on a equal basis as nature envelops them all. Mendive’s dreamlike, tropically-tinted style may suggest folk art, but he is classically trained. He is also a performance artist who has choreographed Santeria-inspired dances in which he painted the dancers’ naked bodies with his trademark imagery, causing both consternation and wonder in his audience both in Cuba and in the U.S.
At the other end of the broad spectrum of Cuba’s cultural currents, photography and photo-based art have become especially popular among the generation of artists that came of age after the ’90s. “Photography has become a really important medium in Latin American art in general,” notes Couturier, “particularly since digital cameras. It used to be really expensive; now it’s democratic. I’ve noticed that painters who never really did any photography have started working with digital images.” One example he cites is Aimee Garcia, whose work blurs the line between painting and photography. Garcia’s moody, contemplative images explore the way in which one looks at oneself and is looked at by others. Cuban photographers are also continuing with “straight” approaches to the medium: Mario Algaze, born in Cuba but now living in the U.S., works in the tradition of black-and-white artistic photojournalism—whose most famous Cuban practitioner was Alberto Korda, Fidel’s longtime personal photographer—chronicling life across Latin America, including Cuba.
As it experiences this fantastic burst of creativity, Cuba also finds itself at a geopolitical crossroads that stands to have an major effect on its art market and even art-making. After five decades, the U.S. embargo of Cuba is finally being wound down, and travel restrictions on Americans are about to be significantly eased and eventually eliminated. American eyes are on Cuba as they have not been in a very long time, and one consequence of this is a growing interest in Cuban contemporary art. Cernuda points out that the U.S. market for it has been growing very fast: “For the past five years the growth was 20 percent—4 percent a year. This year it’s up 40 percent from the year prior.” He ascribes the change to increasing U.S. tourism in Cuba. While it’s actually been perfectly legal for Americans to buy art in Cuba since 1992, when a group of advocates including Sandra Levinson successfully petitioned the U.S. government to make art an exception to the embargo, awareness of this legality has been limited. Levinson recalls that American gallerists were reluctant to get involved, incredulous that it could be “really legal.”
Now, however, the message has finally gotten through, and Cuban art has new level of presence in this country. More dealers are showing it and making frequent trips to Cuba to find the best works. More Americans are attending the Havana Biennial, a showcase for the art of Cuba and the developing world in general, founded in 1984 and held not quite every two years since (the most recent was in May–June 2015). The U.S. has been granting Cuban artists long-term visas that allow them an unlimited number of visits over a 5- or 10-year period, and a good number of artists now divide their time between the two countries. According to Couturier, “half of Havana” was at this year’s Art Basel Miami Beach. Group exhibitions on both coasts have given new prominence to Cuban contemporary art in the past several years. These changes are great for the market, but they cause some longtime observers to wonder whether the go-go attitude will end up harming the artists and the art.
“My fear is that if too many people from the U.S. start rushing to buy Cuban art, some artists will find themselves repeating what is saleable,” says Levinson. “I think the artists I like will not do that, because they are very inner-directed. But the more often some go to Miami, to Art Basel, the more often people say ‘please do this, please do that,’ they’ll feel pressure.” Cernuda echoes this concern, saying, “It’s absolutely an issue. We have artists who are very authentic, conveying beliefs and sentiments about aspects of life in Cuba. Then we have artists who are trying to please international markets.”
Couturier takes a hopeful view. “I daresay there’s going to be a real explosion. That’s my sense. I think Cuban art overall has been undervalued because of lack of access, but at this point now, there’s greater interest than ever in the art itself, and the more people go down there, the more context they’ll have to appreciate the work. I’ve been taking people down there for 18 years, and a very common reaction is, ‘I had no idea how sophisticated and international it is.’”
Undoubtedly, some of the creative ferment in Cuba has been due to the island’s isolation, fraught political climate, and scarcity of resources. Despite the wealth flowing into the Cuban art world, artists still struggle with lack of materials and lack of access to the internet, but the way things are going, the situation will likely improve, sooner rather than later. Will that take away the specialness of Cuban art? Most observers think not. Cuba’s specialness is deeply embedded in its culture, dating back long before the revolution. “Historically, Cuba has always been very rich in culture,” says Couturier, “predominantly because it was a crossroads for travel between Europe and Mexico, Central America, South America. It was, per capita, the wealthiest country in the Western Hemisphere. They hired the best artists and architects.” Nance Frank, a Key West, Fla.-based dealer of Cuban art, says, “Cuba has been in a special, unusual position since the beginning. In the Spanish colonial era, they were the center of the Latin American art world. If you couldn’t afford to go to Paris, you went to Havana.” And then there’s Cuba’s sense of artistic community, fostered by the collectivist mentality of the Castro era. Art collectives such as Los Carpinteros (Marcelo Castillo and Dagoberto Rodriguez) and The-Merger (Alain Pino, Mayito, and Niels Moleiro) create work together without seeking to draw attention to individuals, prizing practice above personality in a manner reminiscent of the medieval guilds. And then there’s the legendary intensity and ambition of Cubans, national traits that will doubtless survive any political or economic change.
There is a sense, though, that now is a special moment, one that collectors should take advantage of while it lasts. Levinson urges those who are interested in Cuban art to go to Cuba, to see it in its native environment, and above all to meet the artists. “Right now,” she says, “for art groups, the artists are completely available. We go to their homes and studios. Almost never will they say, ‘Well, the meaning of the work is just what you see.’ Oh, no. The Cubans will say, ‘Let me tell you what it’s about,’ and you’ll be there for the next hour. But once a lot of people start expecting that, they’ll have to close their doors, because they need to work.”
By John Dorfman