Tongue-Tied: A Contemporary Cuban Art Show Is a Protracted Howl of Protest against Unfreedom, Writes Michael Glover

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In Eastern Europe during the decades before communism fell, samizdat literature possessed a raw, pent-up energy precisely because officially it was not allowed to exist. Artists and writers were beating with their fists on their own prison walls. "Is something similar still happening in Cuba?" I ask myself as I walk around a beautifully displayed exhibition of work by six Cuban artists who live and work in Havana, some well-established, others just emerging, at the Institute of International Visual Arts (Iniva) in east London.


The theme is heavily, if not ponderously, sociopolitical. It is about negotiating your way through the difficulties of being a citizen of a country with an ossified economy and, in practice, two currencies--the US dollar and the Cuban peso. There is nothing else worth talking about but the social. Life on that small island, within breathing distance of Uncle Sam, and with a decrepit economy and crumbling health-care system (don't believe everything you saw in Michael Moore's Sicko), is too complicated and too difficult to be worthy of naked celebration. This doesn't mean that the show lacks humour. The Cubans still laugh a lot, thank goodness.

For all that, everything I look at in this exhibition represents a kind of protracted howl of protest about the predicament of an island people who still suffer an intolerable measure of unfreedom. That includes everything from Isla, Yoan Capote's painted diptych of a troubled sea whose waves are constructed out of viciously barbed fish hooks--as he describes the piece, the artist holds out his fingers to show just how much he bled as he was making it, staining his own sea--to Autocensura ("self-censorship"), a video by the youngest of the six artists, 27-year-old Jeanette Chavez, in which we watch her binding her own tongue with cord until it turns blue and then closing her mouth.

How much unfreedom do they really suffer these days? I ask the veteran Cuban co-curator of the exhibition, Gerardo Mosquera. After all, this week and next the artists are all here in London, being feted by the international press, introduced to curators, gallerists and Sotheby's. Some of them already show regularly abroad. In 2006, Yoan Capote won a coveted fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation in New York. So, perhaps, these are not the blackest of black days.

"There is still a great deal of unfreedom in Cuba," Mosquera tells me over a cup of green tea in the cafe. "The press is not free. The media are not free. Even before perestroika, artists in Cuba adopted a critical stance. Their art was reflecting upon the failure and the collapse of the communist utopia. They were making art about what was happening in Cuban society."

All the same, aren't things much better now? Yes and no. "Well, there is some censorship, but it is of a fairly subtle kind these days. Artists are tolerated because the authorities feel that they are a minority: these intellectuals are simply not worth bothering about. On the other hand, all these artists have to apply for a permit to travel each time they leave the country. …