Monday, February 27, 2006

The Cuban mystique

The Cuban mystique

February 26, 2006


In many ways, Cuba is a country that has stood still in time. It is a
scenario worthy of the attention of any writer of magic realism, for the
dichotomy of life on this island state is striking.

Ringed by street after street of elegant yet crumbling buildings, Havana
is overrun with patched-together American cars from the '40s and '50s
and faded billboards that praise the merits of socialism. Castro still
reigns supreme in this strange paradise, where the average worker earns
less in a year than a table of tourists spends for dinner.

Despite an often crippling life of deprivation, Cuba's cultural
community has remained surprisingly fertile and relevant. It was Ry
Cooder and his discovery of forgotten Cuban singers and musicians that
generally started a new wave of interest in all things Cuban. The
recording and subsequent Wim Wenders movie, "The Buena Vista Social
Club," helped thrust the island's cultural arts out into the world on a
greater scale.

For decades, art, music, dance and literature have offered sustenance to
the heart and soul of Cuba and its people. Today outside Cuba, the
latest rage is for visual art. Buyers range from exiles, nostalgic for
their homeland, to American collectors captivated by the Cuban mystique.

One of those collectors is Paul Redmond, owner of Havana Gallery, a
Chicago art space dedicated to work by Cuban artists, many still living
on the island. About six years ago, Redmond's curiosity about the
island's art scene got the better of him and he traveled there to see
what was happening.

"I saw so much quality work, I was floored," Redmond said. "I brought
back several pieces to gauge interest and the response was so favorable,
I saw an opportunity to spread the word about this wonderful art."

While Americans aren't allowed to travel to Cuba and most artists have
trouble obtaining visas to enter the United States, artworks, considered
not economic or political, but rather a cultural exchange, are exempt
from the U.S. embargo. However, art dealers, scholars and journalists
can apply for a license to travel legally to the island.



When: Through April 2
Where: Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington
Admission: Free
Phone: (312) 744-6630

Havana Gallery director Allison Hill goes to Cuba several times a year
to search out new work. "Rumors travel fast in Cuba," Hill said,
laughing. "Artists know I'm there before I get there. It's not hard to
find the artists but it is hard to see everything."

Cuban art ranges from the vivid, bold paintings of artists like Pablo
Perea, Alicia de la Campa, Juan Moreira and Isolina Limonta that are
Havana Gallery's specialty to the edgy installations of Tania Bruguera,
recently seen at the Rhona Hoffman Gallery, and the sculptural work of
Los Carpinteros, a collective of three artists whose work is slyly
political (and currently on view at the Chicago Cultural Center).

These artists face a special challenge to use their work to explore life
in Cuba, with issues of escape, shortages of consumer goods, the Cuban
bureaucracy, inequality and racism. Yet they also embrace the joys of
everyday life and the country's folk traditions. Their work speaks to
their community, but also to the world.

"It's a tough existence," said Noel Smith, curator of education at
Graphicstudio/Institute for Research in Art at the University of South
Florida. "Artists in Cuba have to be local and international at the same

If asked to name a Cuban artist with an international reputation, most
would point to Wilfredo Lam (1902-1982), the great modernist who
befriended Picasso, hung out with the Surrealists and created a body of
work that melded Latin-American art with the European avant-garde.

In the United States, only a handful of contemporary Cuban artists are
known outside art circles; Jose Bedia, Manuel Mendive, Tomas Sanchez,
Carlos Garaicoa, Alexis Leyva (known as Kcho) may ring a bell. Many more
artists are recognized in countries such as Mexico, France, Italy and
Spain, where they regularly travel and exhibit.

Smith feels there is a new critical edge to work currently coming out of
Cuba that is filled with pain, longing and waiting. She uses as an
example a recent show by photographer Garaicoa at New York's Museum of
Modern Art.

"His work lately has been very sad," Smith said. "And I think that's
been happening with a lot of artists in Cuba as the government clamps
down on things."

It was in the 1980s when the first wave of modern Cuban artists
flourished, attracting attention around the world. Raised within the
revolution, they proved the visual arts community was smart, innovative
and loaded with style, thriving under socialism despite the embargo.

The political situation in Cuba and freedom of expression has always
been an issue with artists. By the late '80s, growing tensions between
art and politics were deeply affected by the worsening socio-economic
crisis known as the Special Period, and simultaneously, by the growing
interest in Cuban art abroad. Many of these artists, now at the peak of
their careers, began to rankle at government attempts to censor their
work or to capitalize on it. Many left and are now scattered around
Mexico, Europe and the United States.

Despite this exodus, a new generation of artists, trained at excellent
art schools free to any interested Cuban, were ready to step up. But
these artists offered veiled political and social commentary, if any at all.

Havana Gallery artist Perea, who now lives in Chicago and is married to
Hill, was one of the artists to come of age in the late '90s. He
appreciates the "rebel inside some people," but was searching for
something different within his paintings.

"Others wanted to say something with their vanguard style," said Perea,
whose colorful paintings mostly feature women. "And I agree that there
is a place for this type of art in history and society. But my intention
was always to do something beautiful. I believe in beauty as therapy."

These changes in message are increasingly evident at the Havana
Biennial, which has occurred more or less regularly since 1984. During
this year's biennial, scheduled for March 27-April 27, artists and their
work will inundate the city. But the biennial, an event that once had a
mission to stand out from the pack as a meeting place for Third World
artists and intellectuals, has in the last decade joined the mainstream
with artists creating work geared to the worldwide gallery market.


Walking through the streets of Old Havana, it seems everyone in Cuba
wants to be an artist. Or at least try a hand at it.

"It's an interesting situation," Hill said. "Because a lot of people
have time and opportunity, you get more art. Here, artists don't worry
so much about being financially viable, so they try everything. They get
to be more experimental."

Many young artists start by selling their work in Havana's colorful
open-air street markets, such as the one in the Plaza de La Catedral in
the midst of Old Havana. Many street artists are students at the
prestigious Higher Art Institute. Also near the cathedral is Taller
Experimental de la Grafica, the premiere outlet in Cuba for printmakers.

"Very few artists have studios with a gallery and sign outside," Hill
said. "Others are simply working out of their apartment or their house.
Through contacts, they start to show in Cuba. If they are lucky, they
will be picked up by galleries in the United States or Europe."

With this ingrained will to succeed despite the odds, experts see the
future of Cuban art as bright. When Russian subsidies ended some years
age, things got harder for artists who saw the change as just another
challenge, something Cubans have lived with for decades.

Perea, who trained as a doctor in Cuba before switching to life as an
artist, recalls his early days when creativity was the key to success.

"I would dig in the garbage around town to find paper," said Perea, who
used the tops of cake boxes as canvases for his first black-and-white
drawings. "I made pigment from charcoal in the stove mixed with zinc
oxide and linseed oil. It was primitive but it started the process that
changed my life."

Cuban collective takes a conceptual twist

Los Carpinteros is a collective of Cuban artists (Marco Castillo,
Dagoberto Rodriguez and, until 2003, Alexandre Arrechea) who craft witty
conceptual works that serve as a sort of Cuban pop art. A survey of
their work, "Los Carpinteros: Inventing the World/Inventar el Mundo," is
currently on display at the Chicago Cultural Center.

"This is work that everyone can understand on one level or another,"
said curator Noel Smith. "The artists take ordinary items and endow them
with a different meaning that often has to do with a little linguistic

Take, for instance, the meticulously crafted set of drawers shaped like
a huge grenade or the sleek guided missile made out of wooden bread
boxes. Both play with domestic symbols while also taking a satirical
look at the state of Cuba and the world.

"They are wonderful craftsmen who play with a great sense of humor and
scale," said Gregory Knight, director of visual arts for the Chicago
Department of Cultural Affairs. "They easily take a symbol of war and
turn it into something domestic."

The artists, now in their mid-30s, met at art school. They were dubbed
Los Carpinteros because their work was based in woodworking. In 1994,
their international reputation was launched at the Havana Biennal.

An open forum discussion, "Cuba, Culture and Change," is scheduled for 6
p.m. March 8 at the Cultural Center.

Mary Houlihan

The Sun-Times Company

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