The country’s younger generation of artists are exploring their identities using fresh techniques and materials. A report by Gillian Daniel for the Business Times.
MUCH has been made of Cuba being in the throes of change as a result of watershed events in 2016, including the former US president Barack Obama’s historic visit there in March, the first direct flight from the US landing in Santa Clara in August and former Cuban president Fidel Castro’s death in November.
Have things changed for Cuba’s artists? That is the question I pondered aloud to my guide Sussette Martinez, one of the country’s leading art critics and curators, as we rode in the back of a cherry red 1954 Chevy towards the leafy neighbourhood of Vedado in Havana, where many of the city’s young up-and-coming artists live and work.
Martinez’s guided tours around artist studios in the city (+53 7267 7989, CUC35-50 – which is about S$49-71 – excluding transport) are a great way to delve into the country’s changing cultural scene.
The history of Cuban art, like the history of the country itself, has been a complicated one with many starts and stops. Before the 1920s, colonial-era landscapes and portraits dominated the cultural scene.
The years that followed were what are now often regarded as Havana’s glamorous heyday when Cuba welcomed a glittering host of American celebrities including Frank Sinatra and Ernest Hemingway.
But by the 1950s, it was mob money belonging to the likes of mafia kingpins Meyer Lansky and Santo Trafficante that was funding the country’s reputation as a decadent holiday location. It was this growing organised crime and culture of hedonism that eventually paved the way for the Cuban revolution.
Shaping a new paradigm
The 1960s saw a period of upheaval as the revolution imposed harsh restrictions on the cultural scene. However, art for the masses became a key device in shaping Mr Castro’s and Che Guevara’s new paradigm. In the regime’s bid to develop a close relationship with artists, the Instituto Superior de Arte schools were established. Soviet-style propaganda posters dominated the visual culture of these years.
But by the early 1980s, a new generation of artists emerged from the art schools. Art collectives like Arte Calle, Grupo Provisional and Grupo Art-De began to look back beyond Cuba’s revolutionary past to its guerilla heritage. They borrowed from Arte Povera in Italy, using throwaway materials and staging disruptive performances.
The 1990s saw the collapse of the USSR. The economic and ideological collapse of the Cuban regime soon followed. Artists began to critically examine the effects of the socialist government on everyday life. Collectives like DUPP chastised the government in their works.
In the years following, new emerging voices in the Cuban art scene have been characterised by their tendency towards experimentation with subject matter, form and materials. The arrival of the Internet and increased opportunities to travel abroad have allowed young artists to explore their Cuban identity through a variety of different mediums and techniques. We look at the practices of three of them below.
Three Cuban artists to watch
PHOTOGRAPHER Adrian Fernandez’s intriguing photographs explore the role of image-making in cultural construction. His work examines how private individuals and government regimes throughout Cuba’s history have attempted to project desirable images of themselves and the country through art and design.
Fernandez’s latest series, Requiem, which was started in 2014, looks at the imagery in Cuban stamps. After he began noticing that the stamps contained officially-selected imagery that related to ideals of the regime, Fernandez started to build a collection. These stamps are significant because of the circuits of exchange between Cubans in different parts of the country and also between Cubans and people in foreign countries. In this way, the image on each stamp is selected to be a snapshot representative of Cuba, taking on an important role in the export of cultural myths within and outside the country.
Fernandez explored different ways to interrogate these images, eventually settling on using a high-resolution camera to focus on cropped sections of each one, capturing their surface textures. These manipulated fragments become physical evidence of the fact that the closer you look at these images, the more you discover that there is nothing under the surface.
Fernandez’s investigations into the truth value of images began early on in his career. His noted studio photography series To Be or To Pretend (2008) and About the Aesthetic Possibility of Emptiness (2010) explored the dining-table centrepieces of affluent homes in Vedado, home to the class of political elites.
The series, which features configurations of bouquets of vibrant fake flowers and bowls of shiny plastic fruit set against matching ornate tablecloths, explores the Cuban tendency towards preserving appearances, laying the groundwork for his later work.
IBRAHIM Miranda is a print-maker who makes use of cartography and maps in his works. Miranda sees maps as historical records of a society’s efforts to make sense of its relation with the physical space around it. In his investigations into Cuban identity, he uses maps literally as a mode of way-finding.
Miranda’s work is built around the concept of what he calls “iconographic recycling”. According to the artist, recycling is the activity that unites Cubans from all walks of life. Faced with a restricted supply of goods, Cubans must resourcefully recycle materials and objects to give them new leases of life. Inspired by this distinctly Cuban trait, Miranda began to collect old art books, maps and atlases that for him became a way to understand Cuban culture and its place in the world. Miranda’s modus operandi revolves around the textural layering of different methods of mark-making on cultural detritus.
Mapaglifos (Glyph Maps) is a series that arose when Miranda closely studied the maps of global cities such as Paris, Tokyo and Tel Aviv. The artist traces the shapes of animal forms that can be observed lurking within the sprawling city streets. The series includes works like A Fish in London (2007) and A Dog in Paris (2011).
Miranda and his contemporaries possess a sense of insularity and isolation as a result of their country’s political and economic exclusion from the rest of the world. Apart from running a strict planned economy, Cuba also heavily monitors and restricts the travel of its citizens.
For Miranda, each animal is a glyphic symbol that allows him to ascribe meaning to faraway places. His use of animals recalls his childhood in the wildlife-rich, fertile valleys of the Pinar del Río Province, as well as the widely practised syncretic Afro-Caribbean religion, Santería, which involves animal sacrifice.
PAINTER Douglas Perez’s work is defined by his brazen, razor-sharp sense of humour. Perez deploys this incisive humour as a tool to comment on Cuban history, society and culture with great acuity.
His colourful caricatures feature a unique blend of a vibrant palette inspired by Cuban and Caribbean culture and climate with themes relating to Western colonialism and the visual vocabulary of the art of that period.
Many of his works recreate colonial scenes from Cuba’s past by borrowing from Costumbrismo. This was a genre of painting featuring everyday Hispanic realities that was popular in Cuba in the 19th century.
He often appropriates from foreign painters such as Federico Mialhe and Hipólito Garneray who were working in Cuba during this time and recasts them to feature local iconography. Like these Western colonial painters that Cubans became familiar with during that period, Perez’s works feature scenes of market places and domestic interiors that appear to hark back to Cuban colonial times.
However, closer inspection of Perez’s creations reveals details specific to a contemporary Cuban situation such as posters of Ché Guevara. The figure of the black slave is recurrently cast as protagonist. Perez’s carnivalesque, caricature style recalls Cuban bufo musical theatre, a bawdy form of satirical comedy built around creole Cuban culture and vernacular language, starring the stereotypical stock characters of el negrito (the “blackface”) and la mulata (the bi-racial person of white and black ancestry).
Through his unique brand of local humour, Perez presents a critique of the struggles of the Afro-Cuban creole population and other regional identities.
Perez’s fascination with science fiction has recently led him to step away from the colonial past into the future.
After years of pondering Cuba’s past and present, a new strand in the artist’s oeuvre focuses on dreaming up its future. Using his signature vibrant colour palette, his recent works depict various possible manifestations of the future Havana cityscape.