PAMM art exhibit fills awkward pause in U.S.-Cuba relations

Embracing Cuban Artists.jpg

A report by Fabiola Santiago for the Miami Herald.

There’s nothing like the affecting language of an inspired ground-breaking Cuban art exhibition in Miami.

This city was destined for this: to tell the extraordinary and complex Cuban story through art from wherever it’s made –– Havana, Miami or Berlin –– sin tapujos, unvarnished by politics, and without the separation of geography and circumstance.

To be clear, it’s not that the feat of inclusion hasn’t been attempted before; it has, despite decades of opposition to the idea of embracing artists who’ve flourished under the constraints of Communist rule.

But “On the Horizon: Contemporary Cuban Art from the Jorge M. Pérez Collection” at the quasi-public Pérez Art Museum Miami delivers a vision of what the future could be with impeccable timeliness.

President Donald Trump may have inserted an awkward pause in U.S.-Cuba relations, but art is the vibrant zone where engagement continues to thrive without limits. The intransigent Cuban regime may be responding with predictable indignation, conveniently using the Trump moment as an excuse to continue a failed course.

But here’s the essence of Cuba and the diaspora under one roof, thanks to the exquisite and thoughtful curation of Tobias Ostrander of Pérez’s donation of 170 works and acquisition funds to PAMM’s permanent collection.

This exhibition does more than embrace Cuban artists. It pairs them in conversation with those who live and work in Miami and elsewhere with those who break taboos by living and working in both Havana and Miami.

It feels as if Miami’s showcase art museum has –– finally –– found its voice and natural terrain. Can we now say so long to the New York-wannabe complex, or at least, sideline it to its rightful secondary place in a city of arrivals where the foreign is local and universal?

I love the space created when every Cuban artist –– from here, there and everywhere and from different generations –– adds a layer of history, testimony and visual poetry.

La maleta, the old piece of luggage that children took to their forced internment in agricultural fields for schooling in dogma, becomes the instrument of flight and migration in the hands of artist Sandra Ramos, who has homes in both Havana and Miami.

The solemn yet expressive photographs by Havana’s Juan Carlos Alom of a clan of elderly habaneros who go for an ocean swim together everyday share an alcove with the suburban pool scene of an old woman and a rebelling millennial in Miami-born Antonia Wright’s video “I Scream Therefore I Exist.” The title is appropriated from the biography of late exiled author Reinaldo Arenas “Before Night Falls.”

Diango Hernández turns propaganda speeches into abstract musical notes — or are they a continuation of the waves in his nostalgic “theoretical beach” project? They play out in the six panels of “Ernesto’s Aquarium.” Hernández lives in Düsseldorf, Germany.

The revelation of this show (two more like it will follow through next year on the themes of “Abstracting History” and “Domestic Anxieties”) is sculptor Yoan Capote with a profound and masterful “fishhook painting” of the sea and a set of surgical instruments sculpted into the shapes of Florida and Cuba.

A fisherman who was born in rural Pinar del Río and lives in Havana, he’s enjoying well-earned exposure in London, Toronto, and now, Miami. To stand before “Island” is a spiritual experience. Look up close to behold the half-million fish hooks made by the artist that compose this view of the ominous sea that transports, separates, swallows Cubans.

Collectively, these creators tap into the intangible state of being Cuban, no matter the label (immigrant, hyphenated American, or exile, or all of the above) or where one lives. They peer beyond the fleeting images of rickety boats arriving on our shores, of tearful reunions at the airport, of the desolate faces of people whose journey has been derailed. They show what we cannot hear in polarizing political controversy by the simple evocation of an image, of say, a tiny Putin on horseback, a haloed Jay-Z and Pitbull in the same installation, “Relics of the Tatar Princess” by the Havana duo Jorge & Larry.

The result is magical: the same pathos, the same language of flight, migration, memory and displacement –– and impeccable craftsmanship. The audience’s reception has been extraordinarily welcoming and has launched in the museum a community conversation.

There’s no turning back from this point on the horizon.

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