Cuba: real-life surrealism

I know no other country that holds so many contradictions as Cuba does. Virtually nothing on this Caribbean archipelago seems to exist that is not intrinsically contradictory. Dealing with Cuba can therefore be quite a feat…

On Cuban Cubans and Cuban expats

Cuba was one of my very first destinations. As early as August 2000, I made acquaintance with the art scene in La Habana, where I met Tonel, Sandra Ceballos, Katya Ayón, Santiago Rodríguez Olazábal, Eugenio Valdes, Manuel Piña, Gerardo Mosquera, Tania Bruguera, Diango Hernández, Francis Acea, Nelson Herrera Isla, Cristina Vives, Los Carpinteros, Ernesto Fernández, Lázaro Saavedra, René Peña, Magda González, Carlos Garaicoa, and René Francisco, among others. Prior to that, at the Art Miami fair in the end of January 2000, I had already been introduced to the “exiled” Cuban artists César Trasobares, Rubén Torres Llorca, José Bedia, Glexis Novoa, Florencio Gelabert, and, inevitably, the art collector Rosa de la Cruz.

I had the intention of thoroughly involving myself with the island, its history, and its present!

I seriously tried to find out who were the “better Cubans”, in the sense of the “real Cubans”—those who had stayed or those who had left? Numerous energy-sapping nightly discussions later, it finally struck me that my question was all but irrelevant. From that point my life became far more relaxed, at least in terms of my interaction with Cubans. I learned to accept both groups as two sides of one and the same coin. Regarded as a whole, however, the artistic creation of the Cubans who live on the island is more multifaceted, of higher quality, more suspenseful, and more intense than that of their compatriots residing on the North American mainland. There are various reasons for this that I will discuss in more detail at a later point.

Sweet temptation and persuasive sham

One of the contradictions I experienced was that Cubans are essentially convinced of their own greatness—and are highly successful in convincing others too, even despite better knowledge. One just falls for them over and over again, like in a highly dramatic, neurotic love affair! Essentially, all art revolved and revolves around the own island, with its never-changing local anecdotes and domestic problems. But then, this unbeatable blend of folklore and political plight, seasoned with a good shot of pseudo-revolutionary Che-sexiness never failed to set off US art buyers virtually vibrating with shopping lust. The art biennials invariably brought days of untiring production that culminated in countless works of neo-conceptual light art. They sold like hot cakes among the gringos, and rightly so. People have to make a living, after all. The Chinese, by the way, did the same big style.

Parochialism and socialism; love and hate

Together with the ubiquitous classism [sic!], racism [sic!], and a petty-bourgeois, conservative, Spanish-grandeur attitude, Cuban affectation increasingly got on my nerves. After a few years, I was ready to take a break of some 3 to 4 years, in which I stayed away from the island altogether. Somehow, this ostensible socialism and the never-ending tales about it have etched themselves deeply and ungainly into the souls of most of the islanders…

But that’s how it is: love is always also one part of love-hate. We would neglect reality if we were to deny that the Cuban art scene thrives. Despite embargo, censorship, shortages, etc., Cuba, today, as in the past, boasts a booming art production inferior to none and fully on par with its larger Latin American neighbors. Censorship does exist, but for the most part it is suavely sidestepped. Sometimes, even the government itself will embrace “benevolently” critical artworks, such as has happened in the instance of the presentation of Tonel’s “Bloqueo” at Museo Nacional in La Habana. This approach works not least because many works can be read and interpreted in different ways, that is, from both sides. And this, precisely, is at the heart and core of their sublime elegance!

Tonel (Antonio Eligio), El bloqueo, 1989, Concrete, approx. 60 x 450 x 1000 cm, Installation Casa Daros, Rio de Janeiro, 2015, Daros Latinamerica Collection, Zürich, Photography: C.M.

Even el bloqueo has its good sides

The government school for arts, ISA (Instituto Superior de Arte), is not only one of the best art schools worldwide, but also one of the most tolerant ones. Believe it or not: critical thinking is (still) being taught and lived here—nowadays a revolutionary act in itself!

In addition, the embargo, el bloqueo, on which the Castro regime based its domestic political legitimacy, at least has the advantage that works of art, hardly conceived, cannot be realized immediately, ad hoc and on the spot. It rather requires a lengthy process of thinking and rethinking the underlying idea, of clarifying and sharpening it, until—once it has been thoroughly thought through—it can be realized even with simple means. 

Under the „socialist“ utopia and the concurrent shortages of Cuba`s economy, the necessity for invention and imagination flourishes abundantly: any progress requires personal strife and struggle, coupled with individual inventiveness and ingenuity, in order to make the very best of what is there and to ensure survival. Another plus: once having succeeded at creating and selling an artwork, it’s not even liable to tax. Not bad at all!

La Habana: breathtaking and sexy, now going global

Did I forget to mention how downright sexy La Habana and its inhabitants are? When I visited the city for the first time in 1997 on the occasion of the 6thHavana Biennale, I went absolutely delirious! For days, I lived in a state of erotic ecstasy, additionally intensified by the tasty rum! La Habana is simply breathtaking, one of a kind, insanely beautiful, and totally crazy! No wonder that the European and US-American curator colleagues were rarely able to form a clear thought under these circumstances.

Nowadays, even Cuba does not go unscathed by the gentle yet unrelenting globalizing ways of the world. The playful, intensely metaphorical conceptualism that forms Cuban art is gradually but steadily yielding to a globalized art narrative. One visible example of times changing: Cuban artists nowadays tend to arrive even before time for exhibition openings, whereas, in the past, one would wait for at least two hours after opening time before showing up at a vernissage…

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