Why Cuba? People have often asked me how I first became involved with art from Cuba. My passion for Cuba began years before I traveled to the country. In 1981 I was working at the Washington Project for the Arts, an art space in Washington, D.C., when Ana Mendieta was invited to create an earthwork in a small park in the city. Born in Havana in 1948, Mendieta came to the United States in 1961 as part of Operation Peter Pan, when approximately 15,000 Cuban children were sent out of the country by parents fearful of the the new Communist regime.
I was intrigued by the work in D.C. and wanted to learn more about Mendieta. She returned to Cuba several times in the early 1980s and became involved with the arts community on the island; the same year that she worked in D.C., she also created several earthworks in Jaruco State Park outside Havana. The carved, biomorphic shapes, embedded in caves and the walls of the surrounding landscape, were titled Esculturas Rupestres (Rupestrian Sculptures).
My first trip to Cuba took place in May 1994. It was the conclusion of the Período Especial, the "Special Period" declared by Fidel Castro in 1990 at the beginning of the Cuban economic crisis, when
The Prado in the town of Cienfuegos.
Photo by John D. Morton
the Soviet Union ended its financial support of Cuba, the sugar cane harvest failed, and the United States tightened its trade embargo. The U.S. dollar was made a legal form of currency in September 1993, but goods and supplies were still scarce the following year. Artists had no access to art materials other than what people brought from outside the country.
Despite this bleak picture, I was determined to visit. I planned to attend an arts conference in Miami, and I brought a delegation of museum directors, curators, writers, and artists to the Fifth Havana Bienal. The Bienal attracted many visitors, primarily from Central and South America and the Caribbean. This important first trip introduced us to a generation of artists from the 1990s, who at that time had traveled little outside of Cuba; few of them had been granted visas to visit the United States. Since that first trip I have organized many projects with artists living in Cuba, including exhibitions, conferences, residencies, and lectures. Unexpectedly, I have become not just a specialist in Cuban contemporary art and culture but a source of information for others interested in coordinating cultural exchange programs and travel.
While in Cuba this past year, on my sixth trip, I worked with the Fundación Ludwig de Cuba compiling the research for this book. I visited over one hundred artists' studios, casas de cultura (state-run cultural centers established throughout the country