Centennial Women in Cuban Art


This is a translation of “Mujeres centenarias en el arte cubano,” an article about Cuban-born artists Carmen Herrera and Zilia Sánchez by Isabel M. Pérez Pérez (Artcronica). [Many thanks to AICA Caraïbe du Sud for bringing this item to our attention.]

Women in Cuban art have historically occupied a singular space. However, with the arrival of the new millennium, two long-standing artists have aroused a particular interest, given the curious position they have reached after turning ninety.

Although Carmen Herrera began painting in the 1940s, her recognition did not come until the early 2000s, with her first sale of a painting in 2004, when she was 89 years old. Fifteen years later, just a few months ago, Sotheby’s announced a sale for $3,900,000 of her oil painting “Blanco y verde” [White and Green], completed between 1966 and 1967.

The work was sold at a charity auction to raise funds that will be allocated to the educational training of young women—an auction in which all the pieces are creations by women who donated their works for this event. This project was co-chaired by U.S. television star Oprah Winfrey and the emeritus president of the MoMA in New York, Agnes Gund of Ghada Amer, which included Alice Aycock, Cecily Brown, Mariana Cook, Jay DeFeo, Liz Glynn, Katharina Grosse, Jane Hammond, Jenny Holzer, Roni Horn, Chantal Joffe, Louise Lawler, Vera Lutter, Beatriz Milhazes, Mariko Mori, Sarah Morris, Catherine Opie, Dorothea Rockburne, Ursula von Rydingsvard, Cindy Sherman, Jean Shin, Kiki Smith, and Carrie Mae Weems.

According to specialized critical reviews, the key to understanding Carmen Herrera’s style is to remember that, before leaving Cuba, she was educated as an architect. This foundation can be seen in her need to use measurements and tools to create ordered art in a chaotic world. In an article for The New York Times, the critic Ted Loos characterizes her work as “bold simplicity of the signature: well-defined color blocks often energized by a strong diagonal line.”

In the case of Zilia Sánchez, she was one of the most cited names in the 57th edition of the Venice Biennale in 2017. This Cuban woman based in Puerto Rico, with very little attention given by international critics, was revealed definitively during one of the oldest art events of the world, as one of the most suggestive and distinguished women artists of the 20th century in Cuba. In the Dionisíaco Pavilion of the Arsenale, she impressed the public with a series of three beautiful canvases, which, through their content and precise lyricism, celebrated essential attributes of the feminine being and the eroticism that overflows from it. These were abstract works where the pictorial and the sculptural merged, full of sensuality and eroticism, with an exquisite mastery of color expressed with a sparse palette.

By that time, the artist was already 91 years old and, despite having a solid and sustained work, and having participated in important events such as the Sao Paulo Biennial, had not enjoyed wide international recognition. Only recently, have the major specialized journals and mainstream spaces paid attention to her work.

Both were born in Havana. Carmen took private drawing lessons and later studied at the Marymount School in Paris and at the University of Havana—in architecture—for one year. She then lived between New York and Paris, while systematically visiting Havana until the early sixties. In the meantime, Zilia studied at the San Alejandro Fine Arts Academy and joined the Sociedad Cultural Nuestro Tiempo [Our Time Cultural Society]. Since 1960, she has lived outside Cuba, moving through Spain, Italy, Canada, and the United States [note by the translator: and many years in Puerto Rico]. She has developed her work as a painter, printer, sculptor, and educator.

It is not about arriving late, it is rather about having arrived intact, like unfading flowers beyond time.

[Text by Isabel M. Pérez Pérez. Translated by Ivette Romero. See the original (in Spanish) at https://www.artcronica.com/ac-noticias/mujeres-centenarias-en-el-arte-cubano/?]

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