Cuban Art Is Hot: Buyers Range from Exiles, Nostalgic for Their Homeland, to American Collectors Captivated by the Cuban Mystique

Article excerpt

Cuban-American artist Alberto Godoy remembers spending his childhood vacations with relatives who lived in the countryside, outside of Havana. "We were surrounded by sugarcane fields," he says, "and farmers, working the land."

Although he left the island in 1980 when he was 19 years old, fleeing government oppression and welcoming the chance to attend school in the United States, he brought vivid, colorful memories of his homeland with him. Twenty-five years later, his bold, colorful paintings depict everyday Cuban rural life and its indigenous people, their customs and costumes.

"I'm more American than Cuban, now," says Godoy, "but the roots still call you. The memories of my younger times in Cuba are always there. They are always reflected on the canvas."

Art buyers, it seems, can't get enough of paintings, photography and illustrations showing images of Cuba, from vintage posters of Havana streets to contemporary portraits and paintings of rural landscapes. Whether they be exiles, nostalgic for their homeland, American collectors who are drawn to the mystery of the "forbidden fruit," or tourists who want to take a piece of Cuban-influenced culture home with them, buyers want pieces that show the exotic, romantic images of the island.

Like the music, the rhumba dancers and so many other staples of the nation's culture, Cuban art is hot. Plus, it is one of the few things unaffected by the U.S. embargo. American dealers and collectors can legally buy Cuban art at galleries, online and at auctions. Museums are increasingly showcasing paintings and sculptures by Cuban and Cuban-American artists.

"The commonality amongst most types of Cuban art is the brilliant use of vivid, bold colors" says Portal Publication's Heather Piazza. "The intense colors warm up almost any space, making Cuban art very appealing for use in home decor."

While Miami remains the U.S. capital of the Cuban art scene, a growing number of Cuban and Cuban-American artists are finding a booming market for their work across the country and abroad.

Houston-based Alberto Godoy, for example, while still best-known in Miami, has had shows in Texas, Florida, Mexico and, of course, Cuba. His distinctive primitivist style uses exaggerated volume and spherical shapes to reflect his artistic philosophy: that perfection exists in the spherical system of the universe.

"I believe the universe is perfect," says Godoy. "All the stars we see in the sky are round--there must be a reason for that. I believe perfection is in the circle."

Godoy observes that American collectors like his palate and his style--"it makes them happy," while Cuban-Americans in Miami, "like the background, the meaning and the message."

Humberto Benitez conjures similar familiar images in his paintings of sugar cane, red dirt and peasant farmers.

He was raised in the small town of Guanajay, in the providence of Pinal Del Rio, "where the red clay soil stained my hands and opened a new world of shades and blending techniques; where the greens are unlike any green in the world; where nature filled the soul; where the magical blue sky and majestic royal palms embraced the landscape. I grew up in this magical place," Benitez says. That was during the '60s, when there was a food shortage and his family was poor.

He came to Miami in 1970, when he was 10, on one of the last Freedom Flights out of Havana. His work isn't influenced by his homeland, he says, his work is his home.

"It was there where the best and worst memories, feelings and emotions were formed," Benitez says. "You see the sugar cane in my paintings because they nourished me when there was no food. You see the drums and the music because they flow throughout my soul. You see the colors of my homeland and they are still vivid in my mind"--vivid greens, soft yellows and rich reds. "I violently apply the texture in all my paintings. …