Poverty and Paradise in Cuba: Cuban Art Reveals the Constant Conflict between Its Country's Island Beauty and Its Isolated Struggle. Today, Collectors Are Sampling a Little of Both

By Meyers, Laura | Art Business News, March 2004 | Go to article overview
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Poverty and Paradise in Cuba: Cuban Art Reveals the Constant Conflict between Its Country's Island Beauty and Its Isolated Struggle. Today, Collectors Are Sampling a Little of Both


Meyers, Laura, Art Business News


From colorful, naive explorations of its cities and countryside to cynical installations offering commentary on consumerism and a restrictive regime, Cuban art reflects the challenges unique to the island nation.

The newest generation of Cuban artists use their work to explore arte con la vida (art together with daily life). These artists voice concerns about issues of escape, shortages of material necessities, Cuban bureaucracy, inequality and racism. They express loyalty to their island's natural beauty and socialist ideals, but they do not ignore the daily hardships in Cuba.

"Cubans learn the tragic potential of life much younger than most, and it is reflected in their art," observed Marilyn Zeitman, director and chief curator at ASU Art Museum at the Herberger College of Fine Arts at Arizona State University in Tempe.

Yet today's Cuban artists--particularly those working in the provinces--also express the joys of everyday life. They live amongst vivid tropical colors and a blue-green sea, with deep connections to the spiritual world. Their work celebrates folk traditions, street and rural life and Cuba's rich history. As Phil Linares, chief curator of art at Oakland's Museum of California Art, put it: "It is a time of pluralism in Cuban art, with everything happening at once."

Never before has there been as much Cuban art on view in the United States, at the museum level and in retail galleries. "We have had a lot of interest in Cuban works," said Anthony Fisher, co-owner of Indigo Arts Gallery in Philadelphia, which specializes in self-taught art from around the world. "There is a tremendous general cultural interest in Cuban music and dance and the arts. At least part of it is the aspect of being forbidden fruit."

Making Waves in the United States

Cuban art travels well. A well-received exhibit of contemporary Cuban art, "Irony and Survival on the Utopian Island," traveled throughout the United States for two years, and now a new exhibition, "Cuba Oriente: Contemporary Painting from Eastern Cuba," is traveling to U.S. institutions after debuting last October at the Meridian International Center's White-Meyer Galleries in Washington, D.C. In Arizona, the ASU Art Museum is offering "Cuban Art from the Permanent Collection" and "Landscape in the Fireplace: Paintings by Pedro Alvarez."

Commercial art galleries are promoting Cuban art as well. The Fraser Gallery, with exhibition spaces in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. and Bethesda, Md., has scheduled two exhibits for this spring: "Cuban Women Photographers: Photography by Elsa Mora, Cirenaica Moreira and Marta Maria Perez Bravo" and "Sandra Ramos."

"Cuban art is sizzling hot right now," noted Lenny Campello, Fraser Gallery's co-owner. "Here in Washington alone, there must have been a dozen shows related to Cuba in 2003." Campello is planning a second version of Fraser's successful "De Aqui y de Alla--From Here and From There," a group show of Cuban artists exploring issues of Cuban diaspora. "The first show was highly reviewed, and it sold out," said Campello. "We acquired a waiting list for works by these artists, particularly Sandra Ramos."

The world market is also journeying to Cuba's shores to seek out new art. The 2003 Havana Biennial overcame funding troubles resulting from President Fidel Castro's imprisonment of Cuban journalists, librarians and human rights activists earlier in the year. Thousands of curators, collectors and art dealers came from across the globe to see Cuban and other Third-World art, in both state-sanctioned exhibition halls at the Wifredo Lam Contemporary Art Center, which organizes the event, and at private artists' spaces throughout Havana. U.S. cultural tourists packed the event, held from Nov. 1 to Dec. 15, spurred in part by new travel restrictions that were to take effect a few weeks later. "People were selling art madly out of their homes, maybe for fear it was the last time" said Zeitlin.

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