One Cuban Artist’s Depiction Of The Sea As A Deadly ‘Iron Curtain’

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An article by David Alm for Forbes.

With one week left in his presidency, Barack Obama ended a policy that allowed Cuban migrants who’d survived the perilous, often fatal 90-mile journey to the United States to stay, even without the necessary papers, while those who were apprehended at sea would be sent back. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the news was celebrated in Cuba.

The so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy was enacted in 1995 during President Clinton’s first term and, like the equally controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that allowed LGBQ people to serve in the armed forces as long as they didn’t talk about their sexuality, seemed like a reasonably liberal policy at the time. But “wet foot, dry foot” also encouraged extraordinarily dangerous attempts to flea Cuba for a better life to the north, and for more than 20 years, the island’s 11 million residents endured tales of friends and family perishing at sea.

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Yoan Capote, who lives outside Havana, didn’t anticipate Obama’s executive action — which was planned for months but announced abruptly to prevent any desperate, last-minute crossings — but the artist’s latest work, on display now at the Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea, couldn’t have been better timed. The show, titled Palangre, Spanish for a fishing line with hooks, is comprised of multiple works that function simultaneously as paintings and sculptures.

Viewed straight-on and from a distance, they appear as traditional, if stormy, seascapes; from up-close or the side, they become even more ominous: The dark portions of the water aren’t paint, but fishhooks, aggressively protruding from the canvas as if to warn viewers to stand back. In Cuba, Capote says, “the sea is a symbol for hope, but it’s also a symbol for a trap, for tragedy.”

Capote, who was born in 1977, says the show represents the psychological and emotional reality of his countrymen and women, for whom the sea is a kind of “iron curtain” no less formidable than the Berlin Wall. “In Cuba, we understand the sea as a kind of metal barrier,” he says. “Also the sand is like a trap, where a lot of people die trying to escape.” The fishhook is a trap too, he adds, and “can also be understood as an allegory for difficulty and all the people who die trying to escape from Cuba and get hooked, get caught.”

The symbolism doesn’t stop there: Capote fashions the fishhooks himself, using a machine built in the 19th Century, and nails them to the canvases with the help of locals he employs as his assistants. It’s an arduous, tedious process, and isolating. “It’s symbolic of myself as an artist,” he says, “but also a condition of the whole of [Cuban] society.”

Palangre also refuses the romantic Western view of Cuba as a bright and colorful place, or the Caribbean as a placid body of water beneath a benevolent sun. Capote says his intention is to depict the interiority of the Cuban people: “These paintings are the interior sea of every human being, the psychological seascape the every person in Cuba has,” he says. Unlike the tourist who visits the island and sees a land of pinks and blues, greens and yellows, Capote adds, the people who live there, isolated from the world and beset with the country’s long and dramatic history, “don’t see that light.”

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