Monday, January 29, 2007

Artists color life in Cuba

Artists color life in Cuba
Drake exhibit ripe with innovation after Iowa native helps open
importation doors
January 28, 2007

Outrage isn't an emotion most people associate with Iowans.

But when Mason City native Sandra Levinson learned that Americans
couldn't legally import Cuban artwork, well, let's just say she wasn't

First, a little background.

As the Cold War began to thaw in the late 1980s, Congress eased trade
relations between the United States and Cuba by allowing the exchange of
"informational materials."

To clarify the law, the U.S. Treasury Department later compiled a
detailed list of what was acceptable: books, magazines, CDs, photos,
posters and various odds and ends.

But officials left something out: original artwork.

"I was outraged," said Levinson, who now works for the Center for Cuban
Studies in New York. "Clearly, it made no sense."

Levinson eventually sued the Treasury Department, persuaded the
government to allow the importation of Cuban artwork, and helped the
Center for Cuban Studies amass a sizable collection of sculptures and
paintings, including about 50 now on display at Drake University's
Anderson Gallery.

Many of the works in "Cuba: Women Artists in the Revolution," which ends
Feb. 16, burst with as much color and innovation as any of the rumbas in
Havana's nightclubs.

Alicia Leal's "Un Soldado de America," for example, looks like a cartoon
version of one of Paul Gauguin's wild Tahitian landscapes. Animals
cavort in an orange and green jungle, while an image of Che Guevara (or
a soldier who looks a lot like him) stares straight back at the viewer.

In "Peluquería," Rocio Garcia painted three rather sinister looking
women sitting under hair dryers in a salon. One looks at her reflection
in a mirror, one gossips with a man standing at an open window, and the
third looks on.

What's interesting about "Peluquería" and most of the others in the show
is that they offer a glimpse of Cuban life on its own terms, beyond the
context of the country's often troubled relationship with the United
States. Besides the painting of the salon, the works in the gallery
focus on everything from ordinary street scenes to religious icons.

"The arts in Cuba are very rich," said Drake philosophy professor Jon
Torgerson, who has made a dozen trips to the island and helped arrange
the exhibition.

On his first trip to Cuba in 1986, he was surprised to see such a
vibrant arts community, offering not only visual art but ballet and music.

"I found Cuba to be radically different than what we had been led to
believe," he said.

In fact, the island underwent a kind of renaissance after the fall of
the Soviet Union ended its Communist influence on the tiny Caribbean
country. Suddenly, people who had never created anything in the past
started making and selling artwork to boost their incomes.

Many artists, especially women working from home, incorporated anything
they had on hand. Several of the works in the current show are simple
marker drawings on plain paper. Two paintings are actually on scraps of

Cuba has suffered economically for years, despite its strong schools and
relatively advanced health care system, both of which are free. While
most Cubans manage to put food on their tables, few are wealthy - which
adds another layer of significance to the show at Drake.

"It's pretty fascinating to see what keeps people making art in a
society where daily living is hard," Levinson said.

Reporter Michael Morain can be reached at (515) 286-2559 or

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