Contemporary Cuban Art in the United States. Notes after the Thaw

Text published December at Cuban Art, Special Edition (2015)  by Dennys Matos 



-The Discourse of the Diaspora before and after the Thaw





I. The Discourse of the Diaspora before and after the Thaw

I start these reflections with an anecdote. A few days ago, a great friend of mine who is a professor was commenting to me how surprised he was by the welcoming words of a senator to the new students of an important private university of the United States where he teaches. In her speech the senator commented that the new students would have a historical opportunity that had not been enjoyed by her generation. She was referring to the fact that in the future they would be able to travel freely to Cuba.

 On diciembre 17, 2015 it will be a year from the announcement of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States. In a note that surprised the entire world, presidents Raúl Castro and Barack Obama gave green light to the opening of embassies in Havana and Washington. More than half a century of hostility between both countries was thus being put to an end, closing the most explosive chapter of the Cold War in the western hemisphere.

 However, in spite of these five decades of conflict, the curiosity for Cuban art and culture never stopped growing in the United States, in the same way that the interest in Cuba for the art and culture of the United States gradually increased. The phenomenon known as the artistic Diaspora in the early 1990’s (daringly posed by Iván de la Nuez) caused a massive exit of Cuban artists and intellectuals; artists from the generation of the 1980’s along with others that were starting to take off in the decade of the 1990’s. Thus, the phenomenon of the Diaspora involved both artists with an important international career and other younger ones who had recently begun to insert themselves into the international circles. A good many of these established themselves in the United States and the rest scattered mainly throughout Mexico, Venezuela and Spain. Two important poles of artistic production developed in the United States: Miami and New York.

 All this has also created a hitherto completely new political and socio-cultural phenomenon. It is the phenomenon representing the reality of certain population groups that today move with great ease among different cities and political-economic realities, that enter and leave Cuba without the restrictions of the old days, that no longer live under the symbolical load of words like «inside» or «outside», «foreign» or «national», «leaving» or «staying». Or, without going further, the last in this series of words: «returning» to describe the phenomenon – now massive – of the «repatriation» of the Cubans who aim at having a residence again in the island, taking advantage of the present conjunctures. In other words, this «classification» has been exceeded and little remains of its excluding nature. These words have ceased to be part of the belligerent language of being «against or in favor of…». And this clearly shows – as admitted by Jorge Brioso – a change of trend in the perception of the symbolical weight of the geopolitics of an island that is beginning to cease to be ruled by the antagonistic logic of its two great polis or city-states: Havana and Miami.

 It was inside that Havana/Miami hostile context where the discourse of the Diaspora was confirmed, validating the nomad nature of this new Cuban cultural subject emerged from the exodus of the 1990’s. The discourse of the Diaspora had the purpose of creating new territories beyond the Havana/Miami tension that had monopolized the Cuban political-cultural imagery, both inside and outside the island, slowing down the development of Cuban culture after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. This Havana/Miami framework of relations, hostile up to now, seems to be disappearing ever more rapidly. With successive blows of Cuba and the United States, the dikes that separated them are being swept away. And without dikes to hold them back, the waters between both countries will recover their level. And they will do it with the mutual «anxiety» of a separation of more than half a century. The thaw that began formally on diciembre 17, 2014 is only the tip of the iceberg in this new stage for Cuban art and culture

II. Presences

For reasons of time and space it would be very difficult to trace an «overview» in the artistic field of the vision or perception in the United States of Cuban contemporary art under the present circumstances. But we can advance on some aspects that can be verified up to this date. Among the most relevant is an increase in the number of important group exhibitions or solo shows of the most recent contemporary Cuban art. Recent showcases and projects presented either in galleries, spaces, institutes and art centers or museums of contemporary art from among the most important in the United States mainstream. We can mention here, among many others, the imposing project No limits set up by Alexander Arrechea in New York’s Park Avenue in 2013; the group exhibition Cuban America: An Empire State of Mind, co-cured by Yuneikys Villalonga and Susan Lehman Hoeltzel, or Glexis Novoa’s solo show Emptiness in the Lowe Art Museum. The studies, book publishing, articles in specialized magazines and events organized by the academic world have likewise increased gradually in the powerful network of universities and colleges. In addition is the growing presence in the most prestigious contemporary art auctions, and the signing-up of artists by powerful galleries in the United States. This all leads to the inclusion of a large group of artists in the most representative public and private collections of contemporary art of the United States.

 In this «scenario», a detachment of artists has been formed whose work is frequently exhibited and who are often represented in the high circuits of the most current contemporary art of the United States. Among many others stand out Los Carpinteros, Carlos Garaicoa, Enrique Martínez Celaya, Glexis Novoa, Alexandre Arrechea, José Bedia, Tania Bruguera, Esterio Segura, Wilfredo Prieto, María Magdalena Campos-Pons, the Capote brothers, Elio Rodríguez, Armando Mariño and Luis Cruz Azaceta, just to mention a few examples. Without forgetting three authors already deceased who have left a profound trace on today’s artists. They are: Ana Mendieta (probably the most exhibited and well-known contemporary Cuban artist in the United States), Félix González-Torres and Carlos Alfonso. 

III. Perceptions

 The contemporary Cuban art discourse has had diverse perceptions in the United States, but three moments have been most emphasized. The first one describes an art produced inside the utopian project of the revolution. It is mainly the art of the 1980’s, bearer of a subversive spirit resulting from its reaction in opposition to the principles of the revolutionary cultural policy (José Ángel Toirac, Pedro Álvarez, Lázaro Saavedra, Glexis Novoa, René Francisco and Ponjuan, and Alejandro Aguilera, just to mention a few examples). A second moment draws a kind of «theme park», where the iconographies of rafts, the island of Cuba (for instance, Cruz Azaceta, Kcho, Sandra Ramos, Ibrahim Miranda) or the representation of ruins (Carlos Garaicoa, Gustavo Acosta or Ismael Gómez Peralta, among others) have a strong presence in the visual imagery. Both iconographies, read in metaphorical language, refer the viewer, on one side, to the drama of migration to the United States and Cuban cultural identity; on the other side, the ruins become a representation of the failure of the utopian Cuban communist project. A third moment, where we find ourselves now and which coexists with the above-mentioned, begins to represent diverse future visions of Cuban art and culture after the fall of the Berlin wall.This art accepts, on one side, the irrevocable fact of the two walled city-states (Havana and Miami) and the end of the Cold War, but where a kind of «inevitable» bipolarity of Cuban geopolitics still persists; on the other hand, this art has been imagining alternative stages to that Cuban socio-cultural past and advances, in its art form and discourse, to discover new possibilities in it. To discover amid the débris that both systems – communism and capitalism – have produced new forms of coexistence, new languages, new artistic imageries. The eternal desire of return and the eternal wish of change: one desires and imagines in this art that everything may return to be, yes, but as it never was. In this direction we find works, for example, by Carlos Garaicoa, Nestor Arenas, Alexander Arrechea, Los Carpinteros, Jairo Alfonso, Geandy Pavon, Glexis Novoa and Alejandro Campins, among many others. It is an art that poses a new cultural dialect, created from the combination of two feelings with opposed temporalities: nostalgia and hope. It is an art that takes up again that ever more dynamic Havana/Miami axis, but acknowledging that the change, the transformation to think of a future for the Cuban society and culture must neither be based on the utopian communist project nor on the nostalgic idea of a pre-revolutionary Cuba.

Images courtesy of the artists