Forging a bond: The search for Cuban art for future exhibit
Cuba's artist Eduardo Roca, as well known as "Choco", paints in his workshop in Havana, Friday, June 11, 2010.(AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)
There’s something about Cuba that captures the imagination of folks in South Florida.Some of it is the proximity, the feeling it’s so close you can reach out and touch it.
Some of it is the embargo, the forbidden nature of the place.“Whatever it is, it has people excited,” says Jack O’Brien, curator for the Naples Art Association. “I would tell people I was going to Cuba and they would get very excited.”
O’Brien recently returned from a trip the association is counting on to plant the seeds for a blockbuster exhibit in March.
The hope is the show will provide a lift similar to that of the Princess Diana gowns exhibit, which has pushed record numbers through the doors at the von Liebig Art Center in Cambier Park.
“We wanted to put on something significant, like the Princess Diana exhibit,” says Joel Kessler, the association’s executive director. “Obviously it won’t be as successful as Diana, but it will still be significant.”
That’s important for an organization facing financial stress. Unbudgeted repairs were needed to the tune of $200,000, a huge amount for an organization with a $1.3 million annual budget.
But this isn’t merely commercial enterprise; its roots are very much in the art. The idea’s genesis came about five years ago, when O’Brien started working with a group who wanted to host a Latin America festival downtown. The goal was to put on
an accompanying art show and put art in local galleries.
That idea continued to float around for years, never to get off the ground. But then a local art collector with strong ties to Cuba suggested to Kessler an exhibit of Cuban art could be arranged.
“Joel and (John Parke Wright) were both kicking around this idea at the same time,” O’Brien says. “When Parke said he could arrange it, we decided to go.”
What O’Brien says he found was a vibrant and well-organized arts scene still struggling with the ideas of identity and freedom decades after being closed off to its northern neighbor.
Perhaps it’s one too many viewings of “Buena Vista Social Club,” but there’s a tendency to imagine O’Brien’s trip as trip down tiny back streets in search of a rumored genius.
That couldn’t have been further from his experience, he says. Most of the art group’s time was spent being whisked between lunches and studio tours led by Roberto Chile, a Cuban artist and documentary filmmaker.
Walking down the streets they would have found art, but not the kind they were looking for, O’Brien says.
“It would have been so hard to do that,” he says. “We would have found a lot of art done for the souvenir market. But it wouldn’t have been art that explores concepts and ideas.”
Instead Chile took them directly to the source. Unlike major American artists with agents and galleries representing their work, the Cuban artists are left to fend for themselves in many ways.
One of the exceptions to the U.S. embargo is that art can be purchased. So the artists have penetrated the American market better than they have in their own country.
Their work often explores loss of family who have left for Florida, personal freedoms and of a simpler time in their country’s life.
“There’s a certain nostalgia to the work,” O’Brien says.
That longing for the past is often the theme for Kadir Lopez, one of the artists O’Brien is hoping to display in March. Lopez takes salvaged metal advertising signs from before the revolution and imprints them with scenes of Cuban life.
The work evokes simple pleasures. But its composition shows an ingenuity shown by the artists in their search for mediums.
Elizabeth Black, a Naples Art Association member, traveled with O’Brien and Seligman as a sounding board and helped document the work they saw. She said she was continually amazed at the resourcefulness.
“What they don’t have gives them more,” Black explains, quixotically.
What she was saying is that there is a lack of overstimulation that besieges Americans. And that without a constant bombardment of media and entertainment, artists have to rely even more on their own creativity.
In terms of class, the artists they visited were perched near the upper crust of Cuban life. Black said many had beautiful homes. O’Brien mentioned one artist who had a home in the country for painting and another in Havana to pull from the city’s energy.
“They were doing pretty well,” O’Brien says. “There’s a level of respect and a certain station given to artists in Cuba.”
With a week in Havana, O’Brien says he has the foundation for his show. A clutch of catalogs showcases the work he hopes to bring here from artists such as Eduardo “Choco” Roca, who blends his African heritage with Caribbean motifs; Lester Campa,
whose work explores Cuba’s environment; and Alicia Leal, whose art is magical realism on canvas.
The goal is to blend the work of five or six Cuban artists with that of a similar number of Cuban-Americans.
“They are really exploring the same ideas of family and separation, but from different perspectives,” O’Brien says.
While there have been exhibits of Cuban art in this country, O’Brien says it’s the juxtaposition of two sets of artists separated by a small body of water that will set the von Liebig show apart.
“I’ve seen shows of only Cuban or Cuban-American artists,” he says. “We’re looking for a harmonious bringing together of Cuban and Cuban-American art.”
Cuba's artist Eduardo Roca, as well known as "Choco", paints in his workshop in Havana, Friday, June 11, 2010. (AP Photo/Franklin Reyes)
By JONATHAN FOERSTER
Source: Naples Daily News