“Shake It Up—Rethinking Cuba & “Cubanidad” at Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes” is a wonderful article by Cuban Art News about the National Museum of Fine Arts’s five shows (in the context of the XIII Havana Biennial) examining Cuban art, history, and culture. The article quotes art critic Esther Allen (New York Review of Books) to describe two shows in particular: “El espejo de los enigmas: Apuntes sobre la cubanidad,” curated by Jorge Fernández Torres and María Lucía Bernal, and “Más allá de la utopia: La relecturas de la historia,” curated by Delia María López Campistrous. See full article and excellent photos of salient pieces (including one of my favorites, shown above, “Dando y dando” by Belkis Ayón and Ángel Ramírez) at Cuban Art News. [Many thanks to Corrie Scott for bringing this item to our attention.]
As its contribution to the XIII Bienal de La Habana—and as a preview of the city’s 500th anniversary celebration this fall—in April the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (MNBA) launched five shows examining Cuban art, history, and culture.
The exhibitions, which run through September, are presented under the theme of “The infinite possibility: Thinking about the nation.”
Writing in the New York Review of Books (NYRB), arts critic Esther Allen described two shows in particular as “world-class exhibits” that she considered “the nucleus of the 13th Biennial”: El espejo de los enigmas. Apuntes sobre la cubanidad (The Mirror of Enigmas: Notes on cubanidad) and Más allá de la utopía. La relecturas de la historia (Beyond Utopia: Re-Readings of History).
Co-curated by MNBA director Jorge Fernández Torres and María Lucía Bernal, El espejo de los enigmas offers what Fernández Torres called “a brief overview of what will unfold in the rest of the exhibitions.” In her NYRB essay, Allen described The Mirror of Enigmas as “an irrational genealogy of Cuba’s mythic identity” and “an anarchic tour of the Cuban subconscious.” Both descriptions may well be accurate.
The work of Cuban American artist Ana Mendieta was, for Fernández Torres, an important springboard for the show. And on opening day, her installation Ñáñigo Burial (1976) was a focal point for visitors. Taking its title from an Afro-Cuban brotherhood, Ñáñigo Burial (1976) consists of 47 black candles that form a silhouette of the artist’s body. Mendieta, wrote Fernández Torres, “wanted to melt her body into Nature.” At the age of 12, the Cuban-born Mendieta had been sent to live in the United States. “Having been stripped of the place where she was born,” wrote Fernández Torres, “made her return to what she called the Mother Land.”
Other works interpret aspects of Cuban history and iconography. A wall of drums—with headphones playing their music—stands near El Monte (1984), an installation by Juan Francisco Elso Padilla. Made of wood, plant material, and animal skins, with small ceramic dishes on its feet, it echoes the human silhouette of Mendieta’s installation, and the sense of being rooted in nature.
Across the gallery, Dando y dando (Giving and Giving, or Gift for Gift) is a large-scale collaboration between master printmaker Belkis Ayón and her colleague and teacher Ángel Ramírez. The work envisions an exchange between Europe and Africa.
Several works in the show address the insularity of Cuba as an island nation, including El bloqueo (1989) by Antonio Eligio (Tonel).
A whimsical wooden sled embellished with gothic gargoyles, created by Los Carpinteros in 1994, carries the inscription La otra orilla (The other shore). Above it, the sculpture Las playitas y el Granma (1988) by Alejandro Aguilera depicts the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, the patron saint of Cuba, and her miraculous rescue of three fishermen in the Bay of Nipe in 1611.
But instead of the fishermen, Aguilera puts Fidel Castro and other heroes of the Revolution under the Virgin’s protection, blending her story with the 1956 journey, enshrined in Cuban history, of Fidel and some 80 other revolutionaries traveling from Mexico to the Island aboard the yacht Granma. [. . .]
Cuban history comes in for closer examination in Beyond Utopia. The curator, Delia María López Campistrous, walked us through the exhibition, which begins with the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492 and the Spanish colonization that followed. “Columbus is an enduring theme in Cuban art,” López Campistrous said, “but as a figure he has always been treated very benignly, with kindness.” The same is not true, she noted, for the island’s indigenous population.
The exhibition includes traditional, romanticized depictions of native Cubans undergoing religious salvation. Interspersed among them, contemporary artists provide a different perspective.
Flavio Garciandía’s Quimera del Conquistador, a work in his El Dorado series, depicts an arriving Spaniard as an apparition rising out of the waves. Nearby, a work by Manuel Mendive depicts the arrival of Western theology as a jarring intrusion on an idyllic, ordered paradise. [. . .]
[Photo above (Cuban Art News): Belkis Ayón and Ángel Ramírez, “Dando y dando.”]