On December 17, 2014, President Obama announced that the United States plans to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba, after a half-century upholding the isolationist policies put in place during the Cold War. While sweeping changes are anticipated on both sides of the Florida Strait, the political, social, economic, and cultural effects of normalizing relations between the two nations remain unclear. In the years since Fidel Castro’s 2006 retirement, the relaxation of travel and commercial policies in Cuba ushered in an era of dramatic paradox: islanders and exiles, as well as tourists, gained more freedom to come and go, but rising economic disparities have limited resources and impeded access to opportunity for many Cubans. As seen in this multi-media exhibition, emigration, isolation, and nostalgia remain potent themes in contemporary Cuban art, often illustrated through symbolic imagery ranging from consumer logos to literature, fairy tales, and the surreal language of dreams, wherein desire and protest are expressed without censure. A collision of belief systems, along with a persistent desire for domestic change and global connection, are shaping artists’ visions of the future for Cubans both onshore and far beyond.
Jose Toirac’s series, A Brief History of Cuba as Told by Other Things, which features provocative juxtapositions of historical or media images with logos for Western consumer brands, draws compelling parallels between the promises of salvation, prosperity, or happiness offered by competing ideologies of religion, politics, and commerce. The subjects in this series span Cuban history from the pre-Columbian era to the present: Cartier is overlaid on an image of aboriginal tools; Bennetton is emblazoned on a picture of the remains of a sugar mill, a place where African slaves were given their freedom and then asked to fight with white Cubans against the Spanish at the end of the 19th century—united colors, indeed; Apple combines the iconic photograph of Che Guevara taken by Cuban photographer Alberto Diaz in the early 1960s with the Apple logo, referencing the company’s “Think Different” advertising campaign of the 1990s, which, as Toirac explains, “used famous historical figures like Picasso, Gandhi, Einstein, and Che, to advertise the supposed creativity and intelligence of their product.” Exposing the manipulation of the media, for political or commercial ends, remains central to Toirac’s practice; his works invoke critical seeing as well as thinking. “The main purpose of my art,” he says, “is to redirect this way of ‘looking’ that is the gamut of visual habits that condition our worldview.”
1869-2006 includes thirty-nine portraits of all the presidents of Cuba and a single, final nail, which punctuates the wall, the work, and the viewer’s experience all at once. The presidential portraits are direct quotations, paintings from what might have been campaign images, all of similar dimensions, all presented in dark frames bearing plaques with the names and dates of the subjects’ service. 137 years of Cuban history—from the 1869 election of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes del Castillo that followed the islanders’ first revolt against the Spanish to the 2006 installation of Raul Castro—are illuminated, revealing tales of turbulence, heroism, privation, nepotism, violence, tyranny, sacrifice, and certainly of propaganda and censorship. Some of the men (all are male) served multiple terms, sometimes sequentially, sometimes not, and some served only hours or days (a group portrait, Pentarquia, features five men who each held office from September 5 to September 10, 1933), some are related to one another. And some are not Cuban: four Americans, including William Howard Taft, were appointed provisional governors of the island during periods of upheaval or political instability. These instances of United States’ intervention are some of the historical facts often ignored or officially denied.“I unearth fragments buried by history,” says Toirac; fragments that raise more questions than answers about both past and present. Concluding this historical investigation with the suspended nail—which begs the question of how and by whom Cuba will be governed next—is a provocatively ambiguous gesture. Nine years after the completion of the work, Toirac’s vision appears especially potent and prescient, foreshadowing the unpredictable changes that may follow the expansion of political, economic, and cultural connections across the Florida Strait.
Toirac’s Walker Evans (Homage to Walker Evans) is a series of 74 mixed- media pieces based on images taken in Cuba by the American photographer in 1933. Evans had been commissioned by publisher J.B. Lippincott to photograph Havana and its inhabitants for a book by journalist Carleton Beals, The Crime of Cuba. Toirac paints a selection of Evans’s images in acrylic on pieces of found wood, and laminates these in gold leaf from Seville, Spain—the port city that received gold from the Americas during the period of Spanish colonial rule. When seen in its entirety and arranged in a linear fashion, Orbis delineates the skyline of the Cuban capital. The title, Orbis, translates from the Latin as a horizon, as something yearned for: Toirac describes the series as “a reunion project with Havana.” Recalling the iconography of Christian alterpieces, Orbis enacts a return of aesthetic resources—the gold, the discarded wood, and Evans’s photographic evidence of beauty, poverty, and terror in Depression-era Havana—through the artists’ re-presentation of imagery and materials.
Emigration, isolation, and nostalgia remain potent themes in art by first- and second-generation Cuban artists: The drawn and animated characters in Sandra Ramos’s fantastical works traverse the oceans and the cosmos, while Esterio Segura dreams of escape via a hybridized Chrysler limousine, transformed by wings into an airplane. Visions of flight are often tempered by an acknowledgment of its difficulty, and of the glacial pace of change in the lives of ordinary Cubans: Glenda Leon’s Extension of Desire documents the dawn-to-dusk queuing long required of Cubans, waiting for the rationed resources and documents that will allow them to pursue their lives and dreams. While some Cubans are profiting from the recent influx of tourist capital, many continue to wait for real change. The men, women, and children featured in Yasser Pina Pena’s photographs appear trapped: their faces are photographed as if under water, where they float in the limbo of Ejerico Repaso—“a waiting period.”
A defining condition of island life, water alternately symbolizes creation and destruction, hope and despair, escape and return, isolation and connection. The sinking boat in Anthony Goicolea’s Jettisoned never left the Havana harbor; in fact, the photograph, like the scene itself, is a construction. Upon close inspection, pairs of hands are visible holding up the cinder blocks floating on the water’s surface. The suggested aftermath of a storm or attempted flight occurred only as an imagined memory. A first-generation Cuban-American, Goicolea traveled for the first time to Cuba in his 30s, returning to create landscapes and portraits exploring his ancestral and social connections to a mythical homeland, Cuba. Desire and nostalgia also suffuse American photographer Michael Eastman’s light and color-filled images of once glamorous Cuban Interiors, as well as Guerra de la Paz’s Family—a smiling, multigenerational group of figures constructed from layers of discarded clothing the artists gathered and repurposed, effectively appropriating past lives and identities to create an idealized family unit.
Running parallel to the water that acts as both conduit and hindrance to family connections and personal freedom is the Malecon, Havana’s famed sea wall, which Anthony Goicolea reproduces in blown and cast glass as a line of cinderblocks topped by bottles filled with family portraits drawn on mylar. His messages in bottles will not reach another shore nor clarify all the identities depicted, but rather demonstrates how the evolution of the built environment symbolizes and reflects Cuban identity and experience today. Finding and shaping shelter is a persistent preoccupation, as seen in Rene Francisco’s video portrait of a community, A la casa (caza) de Rosa /(In the house of Rosa/On the hunt for Rosa), in Roberto Diago’s multi-media installation, Cuidad en ascenco (Rising City), and in the urban fantasies of Carlos Garaicoa. Without adequate resources, equipment, administrative oversight, and until very recently, the right to own private real estate, Cubans have improvised in their efforts to preserve or improve living conditions, creating cities and towns that grow organically, haphazardly, with apartments and shops and home restaurants wedged side by side behind Colonial era facades—life pulsing behind the slow destruction of neglect. In Cuban architecture, the future is decaying alongside the past: buildings constructed or renovated during Fidel’s early years—with infusions of Soviet support—were never finished or dedicated to their original intent; decades later, intention crumbles with infrastructure; in a world where the expected future never arrived, tomorrow faded with yesterday.
Carlos Garaicoa applies both mindfulness and imagination to his multimedia visions of a Havana transformed by the past, present, and future. El Mapa del Viajero (“The Map of the Traveller”) is a wall-based installation of strips of paper and pushpins designed like iconic buildings in the Cuban capital. The strips of paper feature literary quotations from hundreds of travel writings; Garaicoa’s city of desire incorporates aspects of urban planning from a variety of places, eras, and sources, as the ideal city of the future would draw upon a range of ideas and influences, and would celebrate the role of the traveller—to leave home, to learn, and return transformed. Back in Havana, Sandra Ramos draws and animates historical and architectural icons, displaying them in the palm of her hand, or deploying them into the ocean, into the solar system, creating evocative traveller’s maps of the artist’s imagination. The visions she entitles La Incapacidad de atrapar imagines (‘The impossibility of capturing images”) may yet translate into the potential for innovative new art to transform lived reality.
– Alice Gray Stites, Museum Director