Cuban artists bring perspective of their homeland via Cleveland Institute of Art’s ‘The Cuba Project’

For many Americans, Cuba alternately is ground zero for the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation of John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev over nuclear missiles; a poverty-stricken island cruelly oppressed by Fidel Castro; the place the United States imprisons terror suspects; or the home of the best cigars American money can’t buy—as Chuck Yarborough writes in The Plain Dealer.
But as Uncle Duke once intoned in a Garry Trudeau “Doonesbury” cartoon: “Even in Utopia, there is myopia.” What Americans see isn’t necessarily real.
For sure, the isolated country 90 miles off Florida is not a “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” example of urban sprawl. It’s primarily agrarian, and anything “new” is an aberration. As in most such societies, though, Cubans have learned to “make do.”
David Hart, a 52-year-old assistant professor of art history at the Cleveland Institute of Art, said that the decades-old U.S. embargo has fostered a layer of resilience in the Cuban people.
Years of doing without, said the man spearheading “The Cuba Project” this academic year at the art institute, have made Cubans masters of repurposing things.
“When the refrigerator breaks, they can’t go get a new part,” Hart said. “They make one or jerry-rig it. And when they can’t make it work, they take the door off the Frigidaire and turn it into a shelf.”
The same initiative shows up in their art. Osmeivy Ortega, one of the Cuban artists brought to the United States through the program, is a master printmaker. But paper, the usual way printmakers display their art, is in short supply in Cuba. So Ortega — “Oz” to the staff and students learning from him this fall at the art institute via school exchange programs, classroom work and symposia — often applies his prints to rags that have been used to scrub floors, Hart said.
Hart may be the perfect man to helm the Cuba Project. Art history and teaching are his second profession. Hart’s undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan is in political science. He began his career working for elected officials in his native Detroit. The melding of professions and interests gives him a unique perspective.
“I’ve always been involved in social things,” said Hart. “When I was in high school, while all the other boys were playing sports and things .¤.¤. I was involved in groups like Focus Hope, which is about getting blacks and whites together.”
So it was a natural progression for Hart to get involved with the Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion program, which helps embed international artists with local nonprofits — such as the Cleveland Institute of Art.
The school sent Hart, visual-arts dean Sol Ostrow and sculpture-department head Charles Tucker to Cuba in 2010 to look for the artists to bring to Cleveland. They interviewed 44 Cuban artists and settled on five: husband and wife Jose Toirac and Meira Marrero, Abel Barroso, Alex Hernandez and Ortega. The latter two have ended their residency at the school and left Cleveland; the others will be here for portions of the spring semester.
Views play a part
Toirac specializes in painting, photography and installations. Marrero uses her background as a critic, curator and historian in their collaborations, according to biographies of the artists supplied by the art institute. Hernandez utilizes film and documentaries. Barroso, employs sculpture, printmaking and engraving “to create three-dimensional toy-like forms.” Ortega, of course, is a printmaker.
But the reason they were chosen above the rest is because of an epiphany on the part of the professors: Artists in Cuba don’t really define themselves by their media, Hart said. It’s more a case of generational views.
Toirac and Marrero were born in the late 1960s; Barroso was born in 1971. Ortega and Hernandez were born in 1980 and 1982, respectively. To them, the revolution that brought Castro to power in 1959 is not a lot different than the American Revolution is to schoolchildren here: It’s as real as any event in a textbook can be.
Though the older artists didn’t live through the revolution or the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, those events are much closer in their collective memories. To Ortega and Hernandez, what is always has been. They don’t understand the “why” of the ongoing U.S. embargo, but they get the reality. Just as confusing to them is the stereotypical American belief that the idea of government support for an artist in a communist country is an oxymoron.
In late November, a group of schoolchildren from Hope Academy’s East Campus in Cleveland, led by art teacher and art institute alumna Kristin Thompson-Smith, got a chance to see firsthand that art lies not in geography or politics, but in vision.
Work driven by intensity
Ortega is a slight man who spent four years in law school before bucking his mother’s wishes (he confessed with a musical laugh) and devoting his life to art. When he’s not creating it, he’s teaching it in university classes. He even makes his home in his Havana studio.
He has wiry arms, with fingers strengthened and scarred by years of carving the bas-relief blocks from which his prints are made. In the Latin way, those hands are almost always in motion as he talks. He constantly touches his listeners, as if to include them physically in the conversation.
But it’s his eyes that are catching. Hazel and set under a full brow in a face framed by dark locks that cascade past his shoulders, they seem almost able to X-ray emotions.
Michelle Fernandez, a student at the art institute and a Cuban-American who served as Ortega’s interpreter when his limited English fell short, said his intensity — and that ability to look at the superficial and see the in-depth — is what drives Ortega’s work.
“He forgets about Cuba and focuses on the social problems of wherever he is,” said Fernandez, noting that Ortega’s art and reputation have taken him all over the world.
His mammoth piece “The Air From the North,” created during his semester at the school, which ended earlier this month, is a good illustration of that.
Standing easily 12 feet high, it features a massive whale on the bottom, representing the United States, spewing from its blowhole a hurricane topped by a female Olympic high jumper (symbolizing the U.S. boycott of Moscow’s 1980 Games). The bar itself represents the political hurdles challenging the United States and Cuba.
Will she make it? Nobody knows, Ortega said, and that and the cyclone symbolize the uncertainty of the relationship between the two countries. Eventually, the piece, which also has a hidden profile of Castro and boats representing the U.S. blockade, will be two-sided and inflated to create a three-dimensional installation. It features a house straight out of Better Homes and Gardens (the American dream) and a backward Walmart logo as well as a sign for Dave’s Markets (the middle class). In addition, the work boasts several zebras, a recurring theme in Ortega’s work, an homage to Cuba’s African heritage.
In all, it’s a stunning piece, where it seems every hand-carved line has meaning. Clevelanders will get a chance to see it – and works from all the artists participating in the project — this spring.
The date and location for that exhibition have not been set. It’s still possible to see previous works by Cuba Project artists at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland. That show is on view through the end of this year.
And when the spring exhibit does open, it most assuredly will add another perspective of Cuba, one that goes beyond political conflicts, stereotypes and cigars.

For the original report go to

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s