Is contemporary Cuban art fixated on a handful of familiar icons that represent “la cubanidad” [Cubanness]? Does a current reading of “cubanidad” demand new symbols—or any symbols at all? At “The 8th Floor” art space in New York City, the exhibition “Waiting for the Idols to Fall” explores these questions. Orlando Hernández, the show’s Havana-based co-curator (with Rachel Weingeist), wrote a thought-provoking exhibition essay, which he shared with Cuban Art News; here are excerpts:
[. . .] Cuban visual art of the last few decades has fixed on a group of icons that undoubtedly contains a certain capacity to represent us as a social, cultural, and human collective, while setting aside the inevitable clashes and dissidences: the map of Cuba, the Cuban flag, palm trees, the boats and rafts of emigration, a few kitsch elements of our popular culture. The image of the Morro castle, the Malecón, the ruins of Havana, José Martí, Che, la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, San Lázaro. And the exoticized objects and ritualistic symbols of the Afro-Cuban religions of Palo Monte, Abakuá, Santería and Ifá, among others.
Some great icons—especially the so-called “historic leaders” of the Revolution—were acclaimed as idols at one time and have since been amply represented by photojournalism and documentary films. But their images have not been abundant in Cuban art. Images of these iconic revolutionary characters have suffered a kind of prohibition—much as the Muslim faithful are prohibited from creating “graven images” of the prophet Muhammad, or of any human or animal figure—a taboo that very few Cuban artists on the island are unaware of or have dared to violate. José Ángel Toirac has been the Cuban artist who has most frequently used such embarrassing icons in his work in the sharpest and most original ways. Other artists have employed similar concepts, labels, and epithets, such as the ones inscribed in the work of José Angel Vincench. Words such as “Gusano” (Worm) and “Escoria” (“Scum”) have become frozen in the vocabulary of a sector of Cuban society to refer to the “antiheroes,” to those deemed as politically marginal from the perspective of those who wield political power.
Looking at the issue in a more drastic, radical way, we are dealing in many cases with old icons, with icons pertaining to the “third age;” images that have begun to lack esteem perhaps, to lose some of the vitality and virtue that they once had in abundance a half-century ago when the “repetitions” of Che or Martí created by Raúl Martínez were a faithful reflection of our epic hopefulness, which reached their apotheosis in works like 15 repetitions of Martí from 1966.
Some icons, of course, have never lost their symbolic power, but Cuban art will have to include in its repertory many other images if it aims to represent what we imagine as “lo cubano” in its full measure. “The Cuban” is not a static or stagnant condition, but just the opposite. Cuban art will have to expand its iconographic panorama if it aims to “illustrate” that which we have always put up on high as a shield, as a coat of arms that identifies and differentiates us, or as a talisman that protects us wherever we find ourselves, whether in Havana, Madrid, Paris, New York, or Miami.
How to represent “lo cubano” without resorting to some version or variation on the same old icons? The new generation of Cuban artists has not considered this question worthy of attention. They have not even posed it as a dilemma. Simply put, they have moved on. Is this preoccupation with representing Cuban cultural identity and “lo cubano” in art a thing of the past, an old-fashioned matter? Is there a need to represent something, reaffirm something, cling to something in order to continue being Cuban? It seems that simply being Cuban is not enough.
Orlando Hernández is a Havana-based author, critic, curator, and poet with an interest in popular cultures and Afro-Cuban ritual arts. In 2010, he curated Without Masks, the first exhibition of Cuban art in South Africa, which presented themes of Afro-Cuban culture and issues of race and identity. Previous publications include The Art Victims of Havana (2007), The Importance of Being Local (2005) and “The Pleasure of the Reference” in Art Cuba: The New Generation, edited by Holly Block (2001). He graduated in Art History from the University of Havana in 1978.
[Image above: José Toirac’s «Pantócrator, » 2012.]
For full article, see http://www.cubanartnews.org/news/en/19-exhibition-focus-waiting-for-the-idols-to-fall