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. As seen in this multi-media exhibition, this 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. Using both fine art and found materials, ranging from a 1950 Plymouth to a refrigeration unit to flies’ wings, chewing gum, and discarded clothing, these artworks combine material ingenuity and thought-provoking metaphor to explore what Cubania—the essence of being Cuban—means today.
Emigration, isolation, and nostalgia remain potent themes in art by first and second-generation Cuban artists: Yoan Capote’s In Tran/sit references the struggles of the real and would-be emigrant with his immovable concrete suitcases, suggesting a range of metaphors about the difficulty of leaving one home for another, and the weight of the physical and emotional baggage thence carried; the metal hull of Kcho’s Refrigeration Boat recalls the variety of marine-craft engineered and piloted by Cubans escaping to the Florida shore, hoping these boats will preserve their lives and hopes; Armando Marino’s The Raft similarly references the dreams and ingenuity of Cuban emigrants, while paying historical homage to the labor of Afro-Cubans. 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: like Kcho’s boat, for those isolated on the island, life is a repetitive cycle, and change is often just temporary. Glenda Leóen’s Extension of Desire documents the dawn-to-dusk queing required of Cubans, waiting for the rationed resources and documents that will allow them to pursue their lives and dreams. While some Cubans have profited from the recent influx of tourist capital, many remain like Humberto Díaz’s wrapped figures, bound, cocoon-like, waiting for opportunity to transform their circumstances and release their potential. The men, women, and children featured in Yasser Piña Peña’s photographs also appear stalled, suspended while under scrutiny and control: their faces are photographed as if under water, where they float in the limbo of Ejercicio Repaso—“a review exercise.” State-sanctioned “reviews”—inspections, really—of troops and citizens alike are a common experience for those living under authoritarian rule. Subjected to surveillance, Cuban artists use symbolic and surreal imagery, and other masquerading tropes, to address personal and political issues.
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. The artist’s nostalgia for a past that he never actually experienced is evident in Night Sitting, a five-generation fantasy family portrait through imagined and inherited memories, revived as a movie set. 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, Anthony Goicolea reproduces this structure 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 acenso (Ascending City), and in the urban fantasies of Carlos Garaicoa and Alexandre Arrechea. 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. John Gerrard’s software-generated projection, Cuban School (Community 5th of October) envisions one such functional ruin in his portrait of a school outside Havana, built in the 1960s as a modular Eastern bloc design. Today, it is a boarding school for 75 children, though it never functioned at full capacity. In Gerrard’s virtual portrait of the building and landscape, the sole human presence visible is that of the caretaker, who turns the lights off and on each day. While the piece itself has a 365-day cycle, time seems to simultaneously advance and retreat; in a world where the expected future never arrived, tomorrow fades alongside yesterday.
In present time, however, real change occurs: at dawn and dusk Mariebelle Leon appears in the frame, caring for the school, suggesting, as the artist says, “a particular culture of mindfulness and resolve.” 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 II (“The Map of the Traveler II”) 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, era, 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 traveler—to leave home, to learn, and return transformed.
Alexandre Arrechea’s hybrid sculptures are transforming architectural icons far beyond his native Cuba. Elastic Empire State is a precursor to No Limits, the large-scale installation of public sculptures Arrechea presented on New York’s Park Avenue in the spring of 2013. His sculptures of iconic buildings in the city—the Empire State building, the Seagram building, the Chrysler building, and more—combine the original forms with the curves and coils of a hose, reflecting the artist’s interest in how the elastic nature of a city allows it to constantly expand, contract, and change in response to economic, demographic, and environmental factors. “These buildings are a like new calligraphy that creates a link between architecture and the human condition, and the idea of failure and success,” explains the artist, “I wanted to make the statement that we have the ability to transform our surroundings.”
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 imagenes (‘The impossibility of capturing images”) may yet translate into the potential for innovative new art to transform lived reality.