But the lurch back toward Cold War alienation hasn’t stopped the Cleveland Institute of Art from mounting a spirited look at contemporary art from Cuba, now on view through Dec. 15 in its Reinberger Galleries.
Earlier this month, the Cleveland Print Room also held a pop-up show of works by Cuban photographic artists Pilar Rubi and Sandra Ramos, along with recent images taken in Cuba by Clevelanders Greg Martin, Herb Ascherman Jr., Billy Delfs, Tom Hart, David Jurca and Steven Standley.
Both shows are part of a trend that includes at least five other significant Cuban art exhibitions across the United States this fall, as reported by The New York Times.
The Cleveland shows grew out of the Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion initiative this year, which focused on a multidisciplinary cultural exchange with Cuba. As part of that exchange, I accompanied a local delegation to Havana on a five-day trip organized by the foundation.
The visit showed that while Cuban artists enjoy high status, they have to cope with material privation and hazily defined limits on free speech.
Cuba’s “Jefe” from 1959 to 2008, the late Fidel Castro, ordained that the arts would occupy a privileged place in society.
A special status
For instance, the government provides one-to-one student-faculty ratios at the tuition-free Instituto Superiore de Arte, the national arts university, which is housed in globally significant midcentury buildings built on a golf course seized during the Cuban Revolution.
Yet after leaving this nurturing environment, artists need to scrap for materials and studio space. The Cleveland contingent came away impressed at how Cuban artists strive for excellence amid scarcity.
Less attractive, of course, is that Cuban artists work under a regime that imposes censorship or worse for speech that could be deemed unacceptable.
The Cleveland Institute of Art show explores all these aspects of Cuban art and more.
Top quality from Cuba
On view are 23 works by a distinguished roster including Los Carpinteros, the Havana-based collective whose members enjoy a global reputation; and Nelson Ramirez de Arellano Conde, head of Havana’s Fototeca, a national institute devoted to Cuba’s photographic heritage.
Though not a museum-scale survey, the show is an excellent sampler, with important works spanning several decades that are on loan from private or corporate collections or shared directly by artists.
The members of Los Carpinteros, for example, are represented by impressive large-scale watercolors that lampoon the ways in which modern architecture can serve ideological purposes.
“Marea Verde,” (“Green Tide”) from 2008, on loan from the Progressive Corp. collection, depicts a grid of floodlights mounted on the extended arms of a concrete structure resembling part of a stadium.
The architectural gesture resembles that of a fascist salute, and it calls attention to stadiums as sites of mass assembly and intense public passions.
Criticizing without transgressing
Critiquing political symbols without directly affronting the Cuban regime can be an art in itself.
Skilled practitioners include Ramirez de Arellano Conde and Liudmila Velasco, known as Liudmila & Nelson.
They’re represented by photographic montages that gently spoof the 358-foot-high Jose Marti Memorial tower in Havana’s Revolution Square by having it appear in odd or unusual contexts, like an art-historical Zelig.
The images, for instance, depict the tower rising amid floodwaters, or from the banks of the Volga River in the background of a famous 1870s painting by Russian realist Ilya Repin that depicts brutalized barge haulers.
Such settings would seem to suggest that the Marti memorial could withstand any catastrophe, or that it anticipated the Russian Revolution.
But what does it mean when the tower appears on the spine of the nude Kiki of Montparnasse, in a quotation of the famous Man Ray Dadaist photomontage that portrays his model’s body as a violin?
Here, the tower’s presence is whimsical and borderline irreverent in a way that skirts political boundaries without engaging in finger-in-the-eye transgression.
Despite being founded on egalitarian principles, contemporary Cuba is experiencing heightening levels of racism while cities gentrify under the influence of tourism at the same time that majority black agricultural regions fall behind.
“Africa,” a large-format photograph by X Alfonso, on loan from the collection of Steven Standley, calls attention to this reality in a 2017 image of a bearded black man whose chest is emblazoned with superimposed diagrams of stacked bodies in 19th-century slave ships.
Cuban art also goes beyond difficult social realities, however. Yasniel Valdes, a jewelry designer working at the Cleveland Institute of Art under a Creative Fusion residency, is represented in the show by elegantly crafted silver and leather jewelry that combines quirky geometries with a cool sexiness.
And then there’s “Yandy,” a photograph by Pilar Rubi of a young boy cradling a bird in a tender, intimate, dark image that recalls archaic 19th-century photographic techniques.
Here, as in other examples, the Cuba show breaks free of politics to engage in wonder, a sensation that knows no political or geographic boundaries.
These and other works in the show demonstrate the vibrancy of Cuban art. And they suggest how Cuba and the United States could enrich each other, if only the two countries could get politics out of the way.