Cuba Mi Amor

Modern and Contemporary Cuban Art at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Yo soy un hombre sincero, / donde crece la palma,/ Y antes de morirme quiero/ Echar mis versos del alma.

I am a truthful man/ From where the palm tree grows,/ And before dying I want/ To let out the verses of my soul.

— “Guantanamera,” lyrics, adapted from “Versos sencillos” by José Martí, English translation by Solange Echeverria

Cuba… What image comes to mind when we say this name?  The soothing cadence of “Guantanamera”? Bearded Fidel punctuating his fiery speech with a fist?  The horror of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962?  Lifeless balseros washed on Florida shores?

For more than 65 years, the “Island of Freedom” in the Caribbean, so close yet so distant in relation to its neighbor, the United States, lived in a Utopian — or Dystopian — dream world.  When on Jan. 1, 1959, barbudos, led by Fidel Castro, proclaimed the birth of the first socialist state in the Western hemisphere, few believed that the new regime would survive. However, it did, thanks to the support of its “Big Brother,” the Soviet Union.

As a native of Russia, I still remember the songs of the 1960s which instilled in us the romantic aura of the Cuban Revolution. “Cuba my love, the island of crimson sunsets,” we sang with gusto at elementary school. I have recently re-lived this special feeling of awe and admiration  — barbudos looked so sexy! — having watched the 1964 film “Soy Cuba” (“I Am Cuba”) directed by Mikhail Kalatozov at Mosfilm. Relegated to the dusty shelves soon after its debut, this amazing film was rediscovered by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola and, with their support, was reissued by Milestone in 1995.  I wholeheartedly agree with The New Yorker critic Terrence Rafferty who wrote: “They’re going to be carrying ravished film students out of the theaters on stretchers.”

The eventual collapse of the Soviet superpower cut off the lifeline that fed the people and ensured the continuance of Castro’s regime.  The past two decades have been a testimony to the tenacity, resourcefulness and indomitable spirit of Cubans.

The recent history of Cuba unfolds in the exhibition “Adios Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.  This is the first large-scale exhibition of Cuban art in the United States since 1944 when  the Museum of Modern Art in New York presented “Modern Cuban Painters.” Conceived by the Cisneros Fontanals Fundación Para Las Artes (CIFO Europa) and The Cisneros Fontanals Arts Foundation (CIFO USA), it features more than 100 of the most important works of painting, graphic design, photography, video, installation, and performance.

Glexis Novoa Sin titulo de la Etapa practica

A poster display, with “Revolución” spelled in big letters, marks the entrance to the show. However, the first gallery holds a surprise: instead of revolutionary heroes we are greeted with abstraction in every form and shape. Looking at this carnival of geometry I had a flashback to Russia of the 1920s when Malevich, Rodchenko, Tatlin and other giants of the Russian avant-garde created  their best works in a sincere belief that the October Revolution signalled the coming of the era of free thinking.

Echoes of Russia are heard throughout the exhibition, and not in a flattering context.  The Cuban regime recast itself according to the Soviet model and, therefore, became afflicted with the same debilitating sicknesses.  One of them — the passion for pompous political events — is parodied in Glexis Novoa’s large-scale installation “Untitled, from the Practical Stage series.”   

Los Carpinteros Faro Tumbado

Customarily, during the Communist Party conferences the stage was decorated with ostentatious posters and banners with political slogans. At the first glance, that’s what we see in Novoa’s work — large red banners with words in Cyrillic. However, at a closer look it becomes clear that the writing is gibberish. The artist alludes to the influence of Soviet iconography and propaganda in Cuba and at the same time exposes the absurdity of the Party gatherings which served no other purpose than to eulogize the leaders.

Next to Novoa’s installation, Fidel Castro’s voice blasts from the speakers: “Thirteen hundred… forty thousand… twelve…”  This 5-minute recording accompanied by a creepy black and white static on the monitor sounds like a meaningless listing of numbers. Using clips  from various Castro’s speeches, artist José Ángel Toirac made an audio montage which ridicules the Cuban leader’s obsession with statistics.

Many works in the exhibition use Cuba’s map as a visual metaphor, a starting point for a philosophic contemplation on the country’s past, present and future. Concrete blocks on the floor that are laid out in the shape of Cuba in “The Blockade” by Antonio Eligio Fernández (Tonel) are a transparent pun and a reminder of the political isolation of the country over the past 65 years. The seeming simplicity of Tonel’s work conceals a deeper meaning. What is a blockade?  Is it a symbol of the imperialist ambitions of the United States?  Or it is a reflection of the rigidity of the Cuban leaders, their reluctance to change? Or maybe it is their excuse for justifying the policy of harsh restrictions, privations and social control?

Sandra Ramos projects herself onto the map of Cuba, with palm trees growing out of her body, in her etching and aquatint titled “The Damned Circumstance of the Water Everywhere.” When the flow of goods and commodities from Russia dried out, Cubans fully realized what it meant to live on an island cut off from  the rest of the world.  For the title of her work Ramos used the opening lines of a poem by Virgilio Piñera from 1942: “The curse of being completely surrounded by water / condemns me to this café table./ If I didn’t think that water encircled me like a cancer / I’d sleep in peace.”

The sea is an open space, a way out, and also an enclosure, a border. So many Cubans risked their lives on makeshift rafts across the Florida Straits taking a leap of faith — just like the man in the photograph by Manuel Piña.  There he is caught on camera in mid-air as he jumps off the Malecón, the magnificent esplanade in Havana, into the sea without even removing his shoes.

Boats, rafts, rafters — these are recurrent images in the exhibition.  “Selected Works” by Alexis Leyva Machado (Kcho) is a wry commentary on the usefulness of education in a totalitarian state.  It features a boat made of books attached to a metal frame.  You may study all your life — it will get you nowhere, just like this boat can’t get you across the sea.

José Bedia portrays the sea as a mystical element, a spiritual being in his painting “To the Possible Limit.”  At the first glance the image looks like a large black half-disc, like some ancient artifact; its arch is pointing down and there is a golden band running along the diameter.  Strings of lights are radiating from the center of the band giving the painting a mysterious glow.  At a closer inspection one realizes that the golden band is actually a row of elaborate buildings, a reference to the Malecón.  And at the lower edge of the arch, barely visible, a tiny figure is helplessly floating on a lifebuoy.  Will he survive or drown?  He is at mercy of the powerful sea that watches him with a pair of unblinking eyes.

While Bedia is influenced by the symblism of Afro-Cuban religions, such as Santería and Palo Monte, other artists find inspiration in Christian iconography. Juan Francisco Elso looks for answers in the life of famous Cuban patriot and poet José Martí who died fighting for Cuba’s independence from Spain in 1895. Using wood, plaster and even his own blood and that of his wife, the artist created a three-quarter size figure of Martí as a popular saint who sacrifices himself for his country. His body is pierced with darts; the red ones symbolize the blood that he shed and the green ones stand for the new growth, the rebirth. The work is titled “For America”: Martí dreamed of a unified continent, with no borders.  Elso surreptitiously placed a stone from the Andes inside the statue.

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Lázaro Saavedra also uses Christian iconography in his tongue-in-cheek version of a popular reigious image — “Sacred Heart.” His Jesus is a true Cuban: he has Cuba in his heart, the Soviet rhetoric on his  lips, and the United States on his mind.

However, there is hope for a better future epitomized in the “Felled Lighthouse” by Los Carpinteros, the dynamic duo of artists Marco Antonio Castillo Valdés and Dagoberto Rodríguez. The huge structure is helplessly lying on its side unable to provide guidance; the country is no longer following the course which proved to be a deadend.

So what lies ahead for the “Island of Freedom”? “There is some pruning to be done,” says Francisco de la Cal, an imaginary alter ego of artist Fernando Rodriguez, as he is wielding his scissors cutting away dead branches and unwanted growth in “Necessary Pruning.” He is undaunted by the fact that he himself is made of the same rusted material as the one he is reorganizing.  After all, Cubans are nothing if not resilient.

The exhibition “Adios Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950” is on view at MFAH through May 21.

Story by Elena Ivanova, ISSUE staff writer

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