CUBAN CONTEMPORARY ART ON
Cuba. Tatuare la storia has been proposed as the most extensive exhibition on contemporary Cuban art. Because of that peculiarity it is placed in the list of great group shows with a national topic which, since the middle of the 1990s, have been holding away from Cuba, with the intention of offering a deep look on the Cuban phenomenon and facilitate its placement in the international artistic panorama.
Until September 12 it will be possible to visit the exhibition at the PAC of Milan, Pavilion of Contemporary Art. Among the works we find recent or almost site specific pieces, and others that may be defined as classics, of the 31 invited artists. There are different generations facing each other, “a decentered constellation of artistic experiences and attitudes” as can be read in the press note; most of the names chosen had been already exhibited in Italy, some of them even in prestigious events like the Venice Biennial.
Such a wide exhibition offers many arguments on which to reflect: the body as place of intervention, the search of identity, the trans-territorial characteristic of Cuban culture and the problem of migration, of censorship. There are many paths that may be followed. That is why we must choose which to deal with so as not get lost in the crowd.
Cuba. Tatuare la storia is the title chosen by curators Diego
Sileo and Giacomo Zaza to metaphorically underline how the Cuban events left an indelible mark in the corpus of the world history of the 20th century, just when the international political changes have switched on the reflectors to the country and the interest to know Cuba grows, also from an artistic point of view. Cuban art, as already happened years ago, must face the expectations of the West and choose whether making good use of its advantage or refuting the false myths that were built around it. “Would you like to buy my misery?”, Luis Gómez phrase, seems to be the most adequate to express this obsession. Un sueño Sufi
(A Sufi Dream, 2011), the title of the work, is a clear reference to consumerism related to art. I imagine that part of the audience visiting the exhibition will have similar prejudices and I wonder if this will be the occasion to refute some and open to a determined historical relativism. What is the idea of History within the island and not the idea of History that has been formed on the island? Cuba shares with other countries in Latin America a colonial past that canceled its original chronology to postpone its birth in the moment in which Christopher Columbus discovered it, and to erase from memory all indigenous traditions.
For many centuries, Cuba has become an only geographical entity: the Europeans before and the Americans later have been interested especially in its strategic position in the Gulf of Mexico. In addition, the socialist Revolution implanted itself in that historical void and amplified the time dimension towards the infinite. From the year of the “Triumph of the Revolution”, all the subsequent years were devoted to commemorate every event of the guerrillas or the goals achieved by the regime. Unbelievably, Cuba lives today sunk in the history, which represents the crystallization of its recent past. To classify the historical facts in a daily theatricality produces the paralysis of each possible argumentation. Among the artist chosen some vindicate their “own right to put in debate the official versions of reality and history”, to use Tonel’s words.1 There is no doubt of the importance of the values generated by revolutionary events, but of their true repercussion in present times.
The site specific work Barreras Ideológicas (Ideological Barriers, 2016), by Humberto Díaz, receives the visitor at the entry of the exhibition and it’s strongly related to that idea. The artist projected a labyrinth occupying the entire courtyard between
Villa Reale and the venue of PAC. At first view, the installation seems to be a group of geometrical elements with a metal grid reminding some cages but, looking with more attention, the visitor finds out that the practicable space corresponds to the form of a letter in the alphabet. In some moments of the day, the shadows projected on the floor facilitates to decode the letters. This sudden discovery is an invitation to read: the group of characters forms the word IDEAS. Crossing the orthogonal axes of that space is a claustrophobic experience because the view of the sky is hindered by the metal grid. And if we decide to venture in the tortuous interstices of the installation, our eyes are free to look above.
The straight and easier path to follow is a metaphor of orthodoxy (from Greek orthos which means straight and doxa, which means opinion) imposing the absolute acceptance of an official idea, while the non-rectilinear path coincides with the process of search of personal ideas, the only way to guarantee our freedom.
Diglosia (2010) by Ernesto Leal invites us to reflect on the dilution of meanings of revolutionary slogans once they are repeated with insistence on the walls of the city and are denied by the urbanistic environment that receives them. In spite of their large letters, these messages now seem not to awake the interest of the passers-by and remain only as a chaotic visual background.
Leal, who for years carries out a research on institutional world’s lexis, tries to evade through the video the context of the phrases and give them a new sense thanks to edition. Marrero and Toirac, however, question the rhetorical behavior of the authority when rewriting the history, revealing the rules of their self-representation and the form in which memory is manipulated. Con permiso de la historia (With Permission of History, 1994) is a collection of black and white photos with which the artists reinterpret some famous photos by Korda in the year 1962, when the Commander in Chief returned from Sierra Maestra to posthumously build the official images of the Revolution. The ruling power uses photography with discernment, because it recognizes their aura of objectivity and invents the iconography that would travel around the world during those years feeding the romantic idea of the Cuban revolutionaries. The artists show, through an evident mise-en-scène, that history’s accuracy is only assumed.
is the title chosen by curators Diego Sileo and Giacomo Zaza to metaphorically underline how the Cuban events left an indelible mark in the corpus of the world history of the 20th century…
Some of the exhibited works have in common the same interest to examine the figure of the hero in our times: Javier Castro’s video titled Reconstruyendo al héroe (Reconstructing the Hero, 2006) and Héroe (Hero, 2011), a sculpture in glass by Wilfredo Prieto. The word hero might seem rather antiquated in today’s usual language; however, in Cuba it is reiterated with insistence in the communication media: enough to think is the recent case of the “Five Heroes”, Cuban secret agents arrested in the United States and released in 2014. The depth of the marks left by History is again measured in everyday life. Castro establishes a parallelism among the twenty-six war wounds of the courageous general Antonio Maceo and the same number of Afro-Cuban mothers who declare to the camera how many and which were the episodes of violence suffered by their sons. Violence, sublimated in the epic of the Maceo’s myth, is expressed with all its harshness in family stories which highlight an extremely delicate social situation in which heroism does not find a place of its own. Prieto also questions the hero’s identity in our times when he presents us a parallelepiped of empty glass as if it were a display cabinet ready to keep his vestiges. However, the space in the urn stays vacant, because today the dynamic strength of the ideas of the great ones is preserved only if they do not turn into stereotypes.
The work by Reynier Leyva Novo is centered on this point: in No me guardes si me muero (Do Not Keep Me if I Die, 2016), the artist decides to burn the volumes of the complete works of national poet José Martí as if the flames could metaphorically liberate the original essence of his thought of the useless tinsels generated by the use of the texts. Tonel, however, is interested on another great politician and man of letters: Antonio Gramsci. The autobiographical references are openly evident in the title of the work. Autorretrato como intelectual orgánico. Homenaje a Gramsci (Self-portrait as an Organic Intellectual. Tribute to Gramsci, 1997-2016), an installation of drawings made on different supports, photography and preexistent objects, like bricks. Tonel continues questioning the role of intellectuals in Cuban society, a still open topic as much as it is thought ended with the optimistic impulse of the artistic generation of the 1980s, the “children of Utopia”, as Osvaldo Sánchez named them.2 Although with the bitterness of someone who notices that aspiration and reality not always coincide, Tonel dreams with the possibility of incarnating Gramsci’s ideal of an artist operating without being separated from the context to which he belongs.
Cuban artists are still the chroniclers of their time, without reaching utopia, with their feet on the earth. Many give voice to secondary stories, collect the biographies of common people living in the margins of the official history and, with their marginality, demonstrate the partiality of a univocal version of the facts. The omitted parts of the official speech find their place. René Francisco Rodríguez, for example, documents in video how the creative act may be translated into a process serving the community in an absolute way. In Agua Benita (2008) we know Benita, an elder lady with serious difficulties of movement who lives alone in a ruined house in Buenavista neighborhood, in the periphery of Havana. Video images witness the commitment of the artist in restoring the house in agreement with the wishes of its owner. On the other hand, already in 1990 he had invited his students from the Higher Institute of Arts to live for some days with the people of a very poor neighborhood, with the obligation of putting at disposition their capacities to satisfy the needs of their roommates. Galería DUPP, acronym of Desde una Pragmática Pedagógica (From a Pedagogical Pragmatic), as this experimentation group was called, was a concrete example of the closeness between art and life.
Grethell Rasúa follows the steps of René Francisco, activating with her audience a true clientele relationship and “offering small services, the artist fills the fractures of the social link”, using the words of Nicolas Bourriaud.3 In the long run project
Con tu propio sabor (With Your Own Flavor, 2005-2006), Rasúa promises to cultivate herbs and spices for a chosen group of persons in exchange of receiving their excrements to prepare the compost with which the plants would be fed. The level of proximity reached with the public is surprising, since we are talking about the negotiation with something as private as defecation.
Cuba. Tatuare la storia
WILFREDO PRIETO Héroe, 2011
REYNIER LEYVA NOVO
No me guardes si me muero, 2016
Photo: Alessandra Dini
Cuban art, as already happened years ago, must face the expectations of the West and choose whether making good use of its advantage or refuting the false myths that were built around it…
Another exchange is that of Luis Gárciga with the passengers to which he offers a free trip in car to learn about their histories. The video Destinos posibles (Possible Destinies, 2008-2009) registers fresh testimonies of the people in the street in the format of a documentary film. When listening which are the purposes these persons would want to reach in life, the spectator empathetically reflects his aspirations and discovers that wishes are frequently frustrated in the same way, whatever the latitude in which we may be.
In a social system that emphasizes collectivism it is not easy to preserve small spaces for personal affirmation and, although many things are changing from that point of view, in the Cuban population an evident schizophrenic behavior has been created: Cubans think and say opposite things, hiding facts and opinions has entered into the limits of normality and is widely tolerated. Celia-Yunior and Ricardo Miguel Hernández listen to the rumors of the neighborhood and explore the limits of double morality. The omitted stories, in this case, correspond to what is inappropriate to tell but everyone knows. Colonias Epífitas (Epiphytic Colonies, 20122013), by Celia-Junior, is cataloguing the houses abandoned by their rich owners after the Triumph of the Revolution, successively confiscated and turned into State institutions. As an epiphytic plant, the new State has established itself in
the mansions of the precedent economic power. Photographies of different sizes, presented without frames, essential in their function as a document, made up the series Acerca de las bajas pasiones (About Low Passions, 2014-2015). During an entire year, Hernández has followed a person the State has set in charge of watching the behavior of his fellow citizens to denounce suspicious individuals. The artist decides to reverse the role and, thus, makes evident the failure of a system based on the reciprocal suspicion which should guarantee a morally impeccable society.
An archeologist attitude moves Carlos Garaicoa when he roams among the architectonic ruins of the wonderful Cuban capital. The buildings, as well as the persons, may keep peripheral stories and talk without too much clamor.
The installation Sloppy Joe's Bar Dream… (1995), which closes the exhibition tour, is an example. In this work the artist perfectly reconstructs the original environment, based on some objects found in this mythical place of enjoyment: the bar, the labels of the bottles, the coasters, the photos of those who frequented the place hanging on the walls. The memory of a space witnessing the society in the years before the Revolution is now restored, a memory vivified by the visitors who cordially drink the wine offered by the artist and leave their marks when leaving the empty glasses.
LOS CARPINTEROS Clavo ocho, 2015
Photo: Annamaria La Mastra
RICARDO MIGUEL HERNÁNDEZ
Acerca de las bajas pasiones, 2014-2015 (Detail) Photo: Alessandra Dini
HUMBERTO DÍAZ Barreras ideológicas, 2016 Installation
© Humberto Díaz
1. Antonio Eligio (Tonel): “Tra rinnovamento e crisi: l’arte a Cuba negli ultimi decenni del XX secolo”. In: AAVV, Cuba. Tatuare la storia, Silvana Editoriale, Milan 2016.
2. Sánchez, Osvaldo: “Los hijos de la Utopia”. In AAVV,
No man is an island, Pori, Pori Taidemuseo, 1990, pag. 54.
3. Bourriaud, Nicolás: Estetica relazionale, Postmediabooks,