A QUIET REV­O­LU­TION

Cuba’s art scene isn’t a boom—it’s a re­birth.

Robb Report (USA) - - CARIBBEAN: BACK IN BUSINESS - By Tony Perrottet

Ev­ery night, groups of young ha­baneros turn up in droves at Fábrica de Arte. The con­tem­po­rary art space set in­side an old fac­tory in the heart of Ha­vana’s Vedado neigh­bor­hood is an al­ter­nate re­al­ity to daily Cuban life, where live trova mu­sic and col­or­ful pro­jec­tions of avant-garde films swirl through a war­ren of gal­leries. The brain­child of afro-rocker X Al­fonso, the venue is brim­ming with the kind of progress you’d fully ex­pect to miss when vis­it­ing this last re­main­ing relic of the Cold War. But on one re­cent evening, the scene was more mod­ern-day Soho than old Ha­vana: In be­tween the dance floor and bar, the art was as bit­ing as the cock­tails, with pho­tographs by lo­cal artist En­rique Rot­ten­berg show­ing shabby bed­rooms and star­tling por­traits of women pos­ing half-naked on di­sheveled beds.

There has been a lot of talk about a “boom” in con­tem­po­rary Cuban art among in­ter­na­tional col­lec­tors, who now travel to the gritty streets of Ha­vana from London and New York in search of the next ris­ing star. In a sense, it is not Cuba that has changed but the level of at­ten­tion the art world has deigned to give it. “Ha­vana has al­ways been a wildly cre­ative place,” says Bryant

Toth, a New York art dealer who spe­cial­izes in Cuban art. “It has been hugely vi­tal in mu­sic, the vis­ual arts, ce­ram­ics, the­ater, and lit­er­a­ture. It was just dif­fi­cult to show­case it to the world.”

The rich tra­di­ton goes back to the 1920s, when Cuban artists like Wifredo Lam were hang­ing out in Paris with Pi­casso and Hem­ing­way. But the hey­day didn’t last long; every­thing changed with the Rev­o­lu­tion. Un­der the rule of

a young Fidel Cas­tro, art sud­denly be­came an­other ward of the so­cial­ist state. Gal­leries were the prop­erty of the govern­ment, art was sub­ject to heavy cen­sor­ship, and even call­ing your­self an artist re­quired an of­fi­cial cer­tifi­cate. Can­vases were a lux­ury re­served for a priv­i­leged few, as was ac­cess to the leader’s “free” art schools and in­sti­tutes.

Since Raúl Cas­tro in­tro­duced his re­form in 2011, the tide has turned back, if slowly and un­evenly. The first pri­vate gal­leries have opened, young artists have flour­ished, and the hunt for new tal­ent is on—and a hunt it truly is in this coun­try where In­ter­net is still a rare com­mod­ity. “It’s not like New York where you can walk down a street and see a dozen gal­leries,” says Toth. “You re­ally have to know where to look. You still need to visit artists in their homes and in their stu­dios.”

Though today’s artists are no longer rel­e­gated to a clan­des­tine ex­is­tence, they re­main dan­gling on the fringes of what’s con­sid­ered ac­cept­able in a coun­try still prone to er­ratic spasms of cen­sor­ship. It’s a govern­ment-or­dained pur­ga­tory that man­dates only sub­tle protest—noth­ing too loud, lest it draw the wrong kind of at­ten­tion. Such is the case with Rot­ten­berg, whose squalored sub­jects are an easy ref­er­ence to the ram­pant poverty and in­equity on the is­land, yet they are pre­sented with­out com­men­tary. It’s the same with Adrián Fernán­dez: He makes good use of quiet cri­tique in his pho­to­graphic se­ries To Be or To Pre­tend, which high­lights flo­ral ar­range­ments in front of dra­matic back­drops with an al­most car­toon­ish vivid­ness. But the flam­boy­ant still lifes are a sub­tle swipe at Cuba’s up­per-class: A closer look re­veals that th­ese ar­range­ments, which were pho­tographed in the homes of Ha­vana’s af­flu­ent fam­i­lies, are fake—cheap knock-offs pos­ing as fla­grant diplays of wealth.

There are ac­cept­able forms of protest, of course— those that turn the fo­cus away from Cuba al­to­gether. Painter Alain Pino’s use of images of Ben­jamin Franklin and Ge­orge Washington from U.S. green­backs in paint­ings lit­tered with para­troop­ers and mil­i­tary air­craft are bla­tant in their mes­sage, yet they keep the fin­ger pointed out­ward.

The artist’s other paint­ings show­ing the pro­files of Pres­i­dent Trump and Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping hid­den in sil­hou­ette, pre­sum­ably schem­ing, are the kind of on-the-nose com­men­taries that fly well on Cuba’s radar. (Were Cas­tro in­cluded in those works, the story would no doubt be dif­fer­ent.)

And then there’s the all-out re­sistence of Es­te­rio Se­gura, whose stu­dio-home is a must-see for any col­lec­tor seek­ing a glimpse into the fu­ture of Cuba’s art scene. His pri­vate space com­prises a se­ries of white-cube gal­leries filled with sculp­tures de­pict­ing Pinoc­chios (an overt ref­er­ence to liars), cages (pris­ons), and air­planes (ex­ile). But Se­guro’s most re­bel­lious work lives in his din­ing room, at the end of a long ta­ble, where the artist reg­u­larly hosts din­ner par­ties. There, an en­tire wall is cov­ered with 48 Glo­ri­ous En­tries of the Vic­to­ri­ous Hero into Ha­vana, four dozen ce­ramic plates painted with de­tailed images of Fidel Cas­tro mak­ing love to Cuba in the form of a woman. Each plate de­picts a dif­fer­ent sex­ual po­si­tion to rep­re­sent el co­man­dante’s re­la­tion­ship with the coun­try through­out his 48-year rule. The raw blue sketches would be graphic in any coun­try—most cer­tainly this one. And the day it can be ex­hib­ited at Fábrica de Arte will truly be the sig­nal of a new era for Cuban art.

“IT’S NOT LIKE NEWYORK WHERE YOU CAN WALK DOWN A STREET AND SEE A DOZEN GAL­LERIES.

YOU RE­ALLY HAVE TO KNOW WHERE TO LOOK.” —BRYANT TOTH, ART DEALER

Es­te­rio Se­gura with 48Glo­ri­ousEn­tries oftheVic­to­ri­ous Heroin­toHa­vana hang­ing be­hind him.

Silent protest: Alain Pino’s Con­trol­ling Vec­tors (above), Un­ti­tledNo.45 from Adrián Fernán­dez’s ToBe­orToPre­tend se­ries.

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