Locating Cuba: Julie Schwietert Collazo interviews Rachel Price

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Julie Schwietert Collazo interviews Rachel Price for Guernica magazine (15 December 2015). The scholar and author on Cuban contemporary art speaks about how changing US-Cuba diplomacy may impact the art world. [Thanks to Bill Brydon for bringing this item to our attention.] Schwietert Collazo writes:

When presidents Obama and Castro made near-simultaneous announcements, in December 2014, about a detente in Cold War-era foreign policy that had stymied diplomatic relationships between the United States and Cuba for nearly six decades, tea-leaf readers and armchair analysts from nearly every sector emerged on both sides of the Florida Straits to offer their predictions and projections on how “The Change” would reverberate. These predictions did not exclude the art world: gallerists, curators, auctioneers, and journalists all spoke about an anticipated boom in the showing and sale of Cuban art.

Less prominent in their analyses, however, was a consideration of the ways in which the so-called “normalization” might impact the very concept of the “art world” in Cuba, and in Havana in particular, as well as artists’ interests, opportunities, and economic status. Given that art had an elevated role within the Cuban Revolution, it was inevitable that any large-scale changes in Cuba’s economic system and social organization would impact artists. [. . .]

When Rachel Price started writing her recently published book in 2013, Planet/Cuba: Art, Culture, and the Future of the Island (Verso, 2015), she had no idea that its release would be so timely. She had certainly been observing changes on the island over the course of more than fifteen years; in fact, Planet/Cuba is, in large part, about the transitions the island’s physical environment has undergone since the collapse of Cuba’s relationship with the former Soviet Union. That rupture precipitated an era of hardship in Cuba that is referred to as “El Período Especial” (“The Special Period”) and, more recently, massive economic reforms. Price examines, for instance, how the abrupt decline of the sugar industry made way for the invasive plant species marabú, and the ways in which marabú has impacted the Cuban landscape. She looks at how climate change is felt in a more tangible, accelerated sense on an island whose citizens can’t ignore pending environmental disaster. She considers how consumption and an increasing demand for fossil fuels will affect—and is already affecting—the waters around Cuba, where deep-water oil explorations have occurred. And, most interestingly, she examines all of these developments through the lens of creative production: how artists and writers representing a variety of genres, including digital media, are interpreting and reacting to their changing environment.

I met Price in a café in Manhattan, just a few blocks away from a gallery that had mounted an exhibit of contemporary Cuban art. We then visited the exhibition together to talk about how all of the changes she has observed, as well as those still unfolding in the wake of “normalization” talks, are being felt by artists and recorded in Cuban art. [. . .]

Guernica: Your book is incredibly specific, about a particular aspect of cubanidad [Cuban-ness] but also about Cuban art, this intersection of art and environment. I’m curious about how you became interested in that intersection.

Rachel Price: I first got interested in a circuitous way. I had done a lot of work on Brazilian concrete art and digital art and I was in Cuba in 2010 at a conference on new media and art, and I saw a really interesting presentation about Cuban video game art by an artist and curator named Rewell Altunaga. I was really struck by the fact that even though there’s so little Internet—especially then—and not even that many books coming into the art schools, he had access to very cutting-edge, North American video game art, which is kind of obscure.

I met with him and he showed me a catalogue he’d done called El Extremo de la Bala, which had a sort of snapshot of a hundred very young Cuban artists. As I was looking through it, I noticed that there were some works interested in the environment. I know [the environment] is something on a lot of our minds, but Cubans have a lot to worry about that’s not the environment, so I was very interested in this engagement with the land.

At the same time, I was meeting with a curator named Samuel Riera who used to be a designer, who now has a gallery in Havana. He dated [this interest in the land] very much to the change [of power] from Fidel to Raúl, and he said that it was an abandonment of all these messianic, solidarity, international projects of the ’70s and ’80s. When Raúl took over it was much more about local, national problems, and even sort of an abandonment of Cuba as this kind of icon. It was really like, “Let’s get down to work and figure out what’s happening in our own land.” And so for Samuel, that was an invitation to focus on much more local problems, and that’s when he started this magazine in 2006, Marabusál, which I talk about [in Planet/Cuba]. It was a type of conceptual art project in which [Samuel and a collective of artists] asked for land from the government that was given over to the [invasive species of] weed, marabú. They tried to convert it into a sort of ecological community. He became totally disillusioned when it didn’t work. Everybody stole the parts because they really needed the elements more than the art—they didn’t even understand that it was art. And so he went on to do other things and returned to the more typical art world.

[. . .] Guernica: I think there’s an artistic equivalent to the way Cuba is represented photographically in the media here—we associate Cuba photographically with old cars, and rum, and cigars. And in art, the equivalent of that is the palm trees, the ocean, things that are clearly of symbolic value and concern. It’s clear why they are part of the symbology, but that’s the extent of it. A “Cuban art” show here is palm trees and water and horizons and ruined architecture.

Rachel Price: I instinctively shied away from that imagery [in the book] because I just didn’t find it that interesting. One of the changes I was marking in the book was that some of that imagery is more [properly ascribed] to the Special Period of the 1990s, the post-Soviet emergence of Cuba as a post-Communist Caribbean island [where] the ideology continued to be visible in posters and slogans, but life had long since departed from that. So it was folklorically interesting, but, on the ground, Cuban art has always been beyond that. A lot of the artists in the book have had residencies in Amsterdam, Spain, Switzerland, China, and elsewhere; they’re showing just as contemporary artists. But I think in the US they’re shown as Cuban artists.

Guernica: Right. We’re situating this entirely as a relationship between the US and Cuba, which is in many ways problematic because the whole rest of the world has continued to have relationships with Cuba. Is the fact that we’re restricted in what we’re seeing with respect to Cuban art in the US a function of what gallerists are interested in and, to a certain extent, this commercial element, too—this Cuba that we want to see?

Rachel Price: The really great gallerists have always been interested in imagery that is not that imagery. I feel that that some of the better-known Cuban artists, like Tania Bruguera or Carlos Garaicoa, don’t get shunted into that kind of category.

Guernica: There’s this bifurcation: this common, consistent imagery we’ve talked about, but also outliers—within the US concept of Cuban art—like Tania Bruguera, who’ve become something of a commodity here in many ways.

Rachel Price: But I feel like Tania Bruguera and select other artists have managed to transcend the category of “Cuban artist.” Tania is just a contemporary conceptual artist, or contemporary performance artist, or relational artist. In part, she went to the Art Institute [in Havana] and she was early on enmeshed in global circuits that didn’t confine her to that label. And her work doesn’t only engage Cuban reality. Everywhere she goes, she engages with the local conditions.

Guernica: Do you think that what we see here and what’s marketed here as Cuban art is a function of gallerists running a particular circuit in Cuba and, in particular, Havana? Are they likely, for example, to meet someone like Samuel Riera and the “art brut” artists he represents?

Rachel Price: There’s been a diversification of the circuit. So Samuel Riera, who was kind of marginal and almost proudly so, had a show in a gallery on the Lower East Side last winter. He came to New York. People who actually were out of the typical circuit have started making connections and alliances and their work has started circulating. So there has been a diversification in general in the face of Cuban art.

I was [in Cuba] last week and I met with Riera and we were talking about his projects and about the way in which, to date, the normalization has very much been occurring from above—between the two governments. I’m incredibly enthusiastic about the normalization, I think it’s very promising. But I do think there are some worrisome aspects. For example, in Mariel, the port where one of the first US companies has agreed to assemble tractors: the standards are still that Cubans will not earn [fair] salaries. So Samuel Riera and I were talking about all this and he said he feels like the socialist now because he’s trying to actually follow up with these people who are being totally excluded from everything. And the rhetoric is that the state is the socialist state, which it isn’t.

[Image above: Glenda Salazar, Producción, 2009. Installation: 700 balls of earth, American lettuces, water.]

To contact Guernica or Julie Schwietert Collazo, please write here.

See full interview at https://www.guernicamag.com/art/locating-cuba/

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