More than 50 years have passed since the Cuban Revolution and President Fidel Castro famously planned to have the Havana Country Club developed into an arts education complex called the Insituto Superior de Arte, commonly referred to as ISA. However it wasn’t until the events leading up to and ultimately the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 when Castro’s socialist welfare state began to unravel, that the students and teachers of ISA began to openly create work that spoke against decades of censorship, injustice, and racism that continue to oppress Cuban culture. Since then, ISA has created a platform for thriving contemporary art with graduates like Tania Bruguera, Los Carpinteros and Carlos Garaicoa gaining international notoriety. Until recently there have been few exhibition opportunities in the United State for most Cuban artists because of continued censorship and travel restrictions.
Cuba Now displays the perseverance, hope, and resourcefulness of the Cuban people despite their many struggles. Artists like José Toirac and Angel Delgado, who both live in Havana, have not been fortunate enough to work with the approval of the government and since the 90s they have rarely been able to exhibit their work in Cuba. The work of René Francisco also shows a similar sacrifice for an imagined democratic future. One of the most influential artists of his generation, Francisco chose to stay in Havana after graduating from ISA in the 90s. Instead of fleeing the country, like many of his contemporaries during the ‘intellectual diaspora,’ he stayed in Havana and has devoted his life to art and teaching. His multimedia work entitled A La Casa de Rosa, which combines video and painting, is an inspiring example of a generation of artists who see sociology as an important function of art.
Many of the artists in the exhibition explore the confused relationship between Cubans and their attachment to the island country. Sandra Ramos’ paintings and lithographs often explore the dreams and desires of the balseros, or boat people, that attempted to escape Cuba during the crises of the 80s and 90s. Ramos uses the image of a young girl in many of her works to suggest a naivety that exists among her people, imagining ideals and the Western world’s promise of salvation in the form of consumer culture. However, in the new millennium, many young artists are no longer sheltered from the possibilities that lie beyond their borders and therefore struggle with censorship and a lack of freedom. This can be seen in the recent photographic series Ejerico Repaso by Yasser Piña Peña where he portrays the helplessness felt by many young artists. Twelve faces are portrayed as if they are frozen or stuck in time.
As a first generation Cuban-American, Anthony Goicolea, also explores these themes related to the Cuban diaspora. After recently traveling to Cuba for the first time, Goicolea created his series, Once Removed, as a response to his interest in the romanticized perceptions of Cuba and his nostalgic memories based on stories told by his family. This conflict between his own experiences and constructed memories is seen in the photograph entitled Jettisoned, where ghostlike hands grip desperately from the water beneath cinder blocks that magically float alongside an empty sinking boat. This image can be viewed as poetic portrayal of nostalgia for a country shackled by its past and symbolic of a young artist coming to terms with the histories that make us who we are.
The complexities of Afro-Cuban religions can also be seen in many of the works in the exhibition. The work of Alberto Casado and María Magdalena Campos-Pons in particular are steeped in symbols associated with the Afro-Cuban religion of Santería. While the meaning of many of the symbols may be difficult to decipher for non-natives, the sense of mysticism created by the unknown not only alludes to the diversity of Cuban culture but can also be viewed as political resistance to the status quo. Many young artists, including Louisville-based Cuban artist Carlos Gamez de Francisco, have been able to break the mold of Cuban-centric themes. Francisco’s intricate watercolors and video animation have a timeless quality that is refreshing both technically and stylistically.
In conjunction with Cuba Now the 21c Video Lounge will feature a selection of work from the exhibition, Video Cubano, which was recently on view at the 8th Floor Space in New York. Video Cubano is a juried exhibition of video art, selected from over 70 submissions in response to an open call to Cuban artists on YouTube. The judges included Rachel Weingeist, Curator, The Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection; Corina Matamoros, Curator of Contemporary Cuban Art, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Havana, Cuba; Alberto Magnan, Co-Director of MaganMetz, New York; Ben Rodriguez-Cubeñas, Program Director, The Rockefeller Brothers Fund; and Noel Smith, IRA Curator of Latin American and Caribbean Art, University of South Florida.
Drawn primarily from the 21c Collection and augmented by the generous lending of other important private collections and institutions, Cuba Now comprises over 90 works including painting, photography, drawing, sculpture and video. This marks the first time that all of the 21c Museum galleries have been devoted to a single theme. From the varied perspectives of the artists living in Cuba, Cuban immigrants, and first generation Cuban-Americans, Cuba Now presents a unique glance into the tensions, hopes, and resourcefulness of a culture in all of its multiplicities, in an increasingly global community, and at a time of transition.