Looking Beyond History to Tell the Story of Cuban Art

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Arranged thematically, Adiós Utopia demonstrates ways Cuban artists have responded to their social context, all while revealing a dialogue with art happening around the world.

Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950, now on view at the Walker Art Center, uses Cuba’s political and social realities as curatorial lenses, but it’s not an encyclopedic show. Arranged thematically, the exhibition demonstrates ways Cuban artists have responded to their social context, all while revealing a dialogue with art happening around the world.

The exhibition, put together by Cuban-based curators Gerardo Mosquera, René Francisco Rodriguez, and Elsa Vega, with advisors Olga Viso, from the Walker, and Mari Carmen Ramirez, from the International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA), reflects history while making sure the history doesn’t steal the show from the art. At a press event held when the show opened, both Vega and Mosquera spoke passionately about the important impact of Cuban artists have had on the international art world. Mosquera in particular was eloquent in making the case that while often Cuban art has been used as a way to explain history, “We wanted to reverse this approach and to focus on the art.”

A series of abstract paintings and sculptures produced under the Concrete Art movement introduce a utopian theme. The movement exploded during the 1950s, when artists like Sandú DariéPedro de Oraá, and Loló Soldevilla found inspiration from European modernist traditions of geometric forms, bright, unblended colors, and a feeling of mechanical creation. Taking up the first room of the exhibition, these works illustrate a kind of idealism that perhaps mirrors the formation of utopian ideals leading up to the Cuban revolution. “In the end, concrete art creates a new reality,” said curator Elsa Vega, speaking through a translator at the press event.

Gallery view of Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950 at the Walker Art Center

The show explores how Cuba’s utopian vision was constructed and later de-constructed by Cuban artists. For example, photographic works capture the revolution using a photojournalistic  style while acknowledging the nature of the one-sided propaganda. Colorful, flat portraits of crowds by Raúl Martínez, not only glamorize revolutionary heroes, but put workers, revolutionaries, and townspeople at the center. Martinez “represents art in a very Cuban way,” Vega said. “In his pieces, you can appreciate that while he represents the main leaders in Cuba, these leaders are shown with anonymous people in Cuba, in order to be a public image of Cuba, and the reality of Cuba.”

For Mosquera, Martinez exemplifies the way artists built narratives around the cult that helped to construct a revolutionary nation. In “Sin título,” (1969–70), the image of Che Guevara blends into a crowd of farmers and revolutionaries. “Martinez was mixing together the hero Che Guevara with normal people. It’s a regular worker, a fisherman, who is set in a sort of shrine.”

Other works, like Juan Francisco Elso’s image of Cuban national hero and poet José Martí, who died in Cuba’s war of independence with Spain in 1895, reflect the complex influences that have contributed to Cuban identities. In “Por América (José Martí)” (For America (José Martí)) ((1986) the sophisticated writer and intellectual is depicted barefoot, filled with darts in reference to the death of St. Sebastian, and holding a machete. Tania Bruguera, meanwhile, fashions a Cuban flag out of human hair in “Estadística de la serie Momoria de la Postguerra” (Statistics from the series Postwar Memory), (1995–2000) — a political statement in its use of the grotesque.

Also among the works deconstructing utopia are a number of censored pieces, like Tomás Esson’s gruesome painting “Mi Homenaje a Che” (My Homage to Che) (1987) which shows a horned beast copulating with a woman in front of a framed portrait of Che Guevera. The painting was shown for three days before the exhibition was shut down. “It was not considered proper to represent Che Guevara this way,” Mosquera said. The painting since then has only been shown twice since — in Miami briefly, and then for shows in Houston and Minneapolis. “This is an important achievement to have this work that is rather unknown as a result of censorship in Cuba,” Mosquera said.

Tomás Esson, “Mi Homenaje a Che” (My Homage to Che) (1987)

Besides including censored works (and referencing works that could not be shown due to continued strained relations with Cuba), the exhibition includes art works about ways that the Cuban government has historically controlled discourse and the media, as well as “the role of speech and the role of the words” in Cuban society, according to Mosquera. For example, José Ángel Toirac created a video installation, “Opus,” (2005), in which he edited several Fidel Castro speeches so that one can only hear Castro say numbers. “Usually Castro’s speeches were full of numbers,” Mosquera said, “touting the success of the sugarcane crop, or other positive numbers. He went on, “Numbers became abstract because you never saw the actual results on your dining room table.”

The exhibition also includes a section where artists grapple with Cuba’s geography. “The fact of being surrounded by sea has been crucial in many ways, because it facilitated the revolution,” Mosquera said. “The protection for the island, and at the same time, the ocean was a way for people to escape to southern Florida.” With works like Manuel Piña’s devastating photograph of a man diving into the ocean, or in the sculpture of a makeshift boat made from books “Obras Escogídas” (Selected Works) (1994), by Alexis Leiva Machado(aka Kcho) the viewer can see how the ocean represents Cuba’s isolation.

Gallery view with Alexis Leyva Machado (Kcho) “Obras Escogídas” (Selected Works) (1994)

For Viso, who recently announced her resignation as director of the Walker following a tumultuous year, the subject matter couldn’t be more personal. The child of Cuban immigrants, Viso has a close connection to Cuba’s history of a rocky relationship with the United States. Speaking at the same press event, a few days before announcing her resignation from the Walker, Viso spoke of why it was important to have the work shown at this moment. “We felt there was no better time to do an exhibition like this,” she said:

It’s really important for American audiences to have an introduction to art and history in the life of Cuba, particularly at a time when we’ve made steps towards improving relations with Cuba, and now maybe taking steps back.

Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950 runs through March 18, at the Walker Art Center, (725 Vineland Place, Minneapolis, MN).

 

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