'Surrounded by Water' illustrates the hopes and fears of isolated Cubans
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / February 24, 2008
An endless sea made up of thousands of small fish hooks rendered in
felt-tip pen looms in Yoan Capote's drawing "Isla (Diptico-estudio para
unos cuadros)", the art work given center stage in "Surrounded by Water:
Expressions of Freedom and Isolation in Contemporary Cuban Art," at
Boston University Art Gallery.
Surrounded by Water: Expressions of Freedom and Isolation in
Contemporary Cuban Art
At: Boston University Art Gallery, 855 Commonwealth Ave., through April
6. 617-353-3329. bu.edu/art
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The image, at once lulling and barbed, sums up the mixed feelings
inhabitants of an isolated island nation might have toward the ocean. It
fills the gaze; it provides food and jobs; it's a wall, but also a
bridge to what lies beyond. This captivating drawing is a study for a
larger piece, in which Capote mounted actual fishhooks on a wood panel.
That would be a sight to see.
A study feels a bit like a cheat. That uneasy feeling of the
not-quite-realized plagues "Surrounded by Water," which was curated by
Natania Remba, a master's degree candidate in art history at BU. These
works of art are often striking; they were made by a range of artists,
from established to emerging. But it's a smallish exhibit, with work by
about 15 artists. Remba makes a sturdy effort, but the giant topic of
water as a metaphor in Cuban art could go much deeper. "Surrounded by
Water" just skims the surface.
Water pervades any island culture. It's intrinsic to the economy and
political relationships, to religion and mythology. In Cuba's case, the
water literally creates a boundary between Cuban society and the outside
world, one that has been reinforced by the isolationist policies of
Fidel Castro, who resigned last week after nearly 50 years as Cuba's
president. Manuel Piña's moving black-and-white photo from the "Aguas
baldias (Waters of the Waste Land)" series, depicts a young man leaping
from the sea wall toward the water. His body surges forward, but Piña
captures him at the moment before his foot leaves the wall. He's still
tied to his native soil.
For Piña, the sea offers freedom. Luis Cruz Azaceta plunges his
"Swimmer" into threatening waters. The tense mixed-media painting sets a
lone man making his way along a ribbon of orange through heaving,
spinning abstracted waves. His work evokes the unsanctioned passage
between Cuba and the US.
The archetypal story of that crossing, that of Elián González, plays out
in "Le edad de oro (The Golden Age)," a telling video triptych by José
Ángel Toirac, Meira Marrero Díaz, and Patricia Clark. US news clips of
the boy's story run on one video; Cuban news clips on another, spelling
out what a political pawn Elián became. The middle video follows a
gentler route, matching images of Elián with pages from a 19th-century
children's book by José Marti, a leader of Cuba's independence movement.
That video celebrates children's innocence and their agency.
Ernesto Pujol's ink drawing "Cuba y Jamaica" refers to his family's
emigration to Puerto Rico. He maps the Cuban archipelago, then draws a
grid of sharks over the map, suggesting danger not just in the water,
but in the fraught political and economic relationships that Cuba has
with its neighbors.
A line from a 1943 poem by Virgilio Piñera provides the title for Sandra
Ramos's powerful print, "La maldita circunstancia del agua por todas
partes (The Accursed Circumstance of Water All Around)." The artist
depicts her own body in the shape of Cuba, then appends the face of
Alice in Wonderland from a 19th-century engraving, suggesting reverie
and a dream world, slyly referring to the alleged socialist utopia
brought on by the Cuban revolution. She's pinned there by palm trees,
which could also serve as propellers that might lift her away.
Some of the art is just about beauty. Photographer Tomás Sánchez makes
gorgeous landscape paintings that dwell on water as a mystical force. In
"Orilla," we look over shimmering water into a forest, only to glimpse a
veil of mist glowing through the trees.
José Bedia makes work that embraces the complex stew of Cuban culture.
In the circular canvas "Amar duele y vivir sin tu amor no se puede (Love
Hurts and Living Without Yours is Impossible)," he evokes immigration
and emigration, the mix of cultures in Cuba. A statue of a Yoruba deity
runs up the middle, and paddlers navigate canoes up paths of running
water along each side.
Several artists use water to make other political points: Rocío García's
untitled acrylic-on-paper work flouts the tradition of the male gaze on
the female nude by focusing on an attractive nude man, who dangles his
hand in a pool; a shark hovers just below the surface. I assumed the
work had homoerotic content (and perhaps it does, although García is a
woman), but in her catalog essay, Remba declares this image is fraught
with feminist imagery: "The shark symbolizes danger in the ocean of pain
encountered by women attempting to defy patriarchal definitions of
Here in the US, that sort of symbolism feels like a throwback to the
1980s. In Cuba, feminism has been slow growing; the University of Havana
only instituted a women's studies program in 2005. Perhaps that lag is
due to Cuban culture; perhaps it has to do with Cuba's isolationism.
Much of the art here addresses the gulf between Cuba and its neighbors,
and not only by delving into it as a subject. There is not much of a
local market for art in Cuba; if artists want to sell their work, they
have to reach beyond their borders. The international market for Cuban
art took off in the mid 1990s, after Fidel Castro legalized the dollar
and opened Cuba to tourism.
The duo of Los Carpinteros, Marco Antonio Castillo Valdés and Dagoberto
Rodríguez Sanchéz has shot to acclaim internationally. They remain in
Cuba, making art that is slyly critical of the socialist establishment;
their work comically comments upon the dearth of artistic materials
available in Cuba. Here, their "Sandalia" is a pair of cast-rubber
flip-flops etched with maps of Havana. Ironically, the artists use cheap
material to make high-priced sculptures of throwaway sandals.
The water theme entices, but it can be used to touch on just about any
themes that arise in Cuban art. Does "Sandalia" really belong here? Are
sandals a water image? If Remba had narrowed her vision to fit her
space, her exhibit would satisfy. As it is, it merely teases.
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