Mention Cuba, and Americans think cigars, Castro and communism.
But as unlikely as it sounds despite decades of censorship, artists are the rock stars of this tiny island.
In a society isolated from the rest of the world, its average citizens forbidden to travel, artists are the elite. They can travel everywhere and make a living from their art by selling to collectors and curators.
|If you go
WHAT: “Message from La Habana: Six Contemporary Cuban Artists”
WHEN: Today through Sept. 21
Opening reception 5-7 p.m.
WHERE: Zane Bennett Contemporary Art, 435 S. Guadalupe St.
CONTACT: 982-8111 or www.zanebennettgallery.com
While many Cubans live in shacks, the government supplies artists with their own houses. They are paid in dollars or euros, not pesos.
“They are considered the creme de la creme of society,” said Sandy Zane, the owner of Zane Bennett Contemporary Art. “They are the ambassadors.”
The ’90s generation of Cuban art is known as the “bad weed” or the “mala hierba.” They represent a new wave of Cubans offering a stinging take on contemporary life in their homeland. They came of age in a desperately impoverished country. Like weeds, they grew and multiplied despite choking terrain. Unlike their older brethren, who fled the country for the U.S., Spain and Mexico because of censorship, they stayed, and — against all odds — transformed into national heroes, exporting their work all over the U.S. and Europe. Their art expresses their loneliness, migration and the manipulation of history and memory through metaphor and dual imagery. They dared to confront a repressive regime with wit and humor, metaphor and dualistic imagery.
Zane Bennett Contemporary Art is exhibiting “Message from La Habana: Six Contemporary Cuban Artists” opening today. The show features the works of six contemporary Cuban artists: Alexandre Arrechea, Roberto Diago, Glenda León, Ibrahim Miranda, Sandra Ramos and José A. Vincench.
“It’s like they’ve been in this microcosm where everybody can see in, but they can’t see out,” Zane special projects coordinator Meg Hachmann said.
Ramos’ “Narcisus” (2012) is a print in which a woman’s body mirrors the shape of her island home. Her paintings of women inside bottles floating in the ocean represent Cuba’s isolation from cultural interchange. The island is the central theme that has obsessed most of these artists. Ramos has said that, for her, art is a means of resistance. The idea of using her own body in her work is linked to the notion of emigration and of the body as a container and boundary related to the land.
“Cuba is an island and a lot of the work is about bridges,” Zane added.
Vincench is an instructor at Cuba’s prestigious, government-financed Havana Institute of Superior Arts. Vincench uses sly humor to mock the politicos, plastering portraits of them on large plaster aspirins, inferring that prominent pols are literally headaches. Government officials are either ignoring the barbs or they haven’t taken the time to look.
“Did they get it?” Zane asked, referring to the government higher-ups. “I don’t know that they are paying that close attention.”
Diago has said he sees the artist as a thermometer. He or she reads the temperature of the culture, sandwiched between the official platform and reality. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the ’90s, art supplies vanished. Diago went to the streets to feel the pulse of the people and to collect found objects to use in his work.
“He talks about the prejudice and racism that continues in Cuba,” Zane said. “The blacks are related to the slave trade.”
Diago also uses his art to confront the marginalizing of homosexuals in the hopes that viewers will feel validated in their struggles for equality. For him, art is the ultimate refuge for hope.
Miranda confronts a country surrounded by water by creating maps that transform into the shape of a mental landscape. He makes his own cartography as an extended version of the island, instead using cities like London and Paris. Miranda has gained international attention for his prints and paintings. He emphasizes water and isolation, suggesting states of metamorphosis and change. The poetry and song of Cuba provide literary and philosophical ideas.
León focuses on the tendency to consider the daily as extraordinary in a series of photo pastiches of the line that forms at a favorite Havana ice cream shop. The 16-foot-long photo is pasted together to convey the rarity of this cool commodity, Hachmann said. León also created a visual diary of a flight from Havana to Miami with a series of photographs documenting the island as it shrinks into the horizon, the waves and the Miami skyline and shore taken through an airplane window.
Arrechea addresses his country’s isolation and desperate need for connection in giant, stainless steel bridges being held by a hand. It’s as if everyone is waiting for a future where Cuba is sprung free to be part of the world. “They are the cultural ambassadors of Cuba,” Hachmann said. “They are often being critical of the government. But because it’s subtly presented and with some humor, the government allows it.”
“They bring in huge prestige,” Hachmann added. “They make Cuba look brilliant.”