Cubanist revolution: Isolation did nothing to slow production of fine art
- Submitted by: manso
- Editorial Articles
- 06 / 05 / 2011
Published: Sunday, June 05, 2011, 7:21 AM. Dan Bischoff/For The Star-Ledger By Dan Bischoff/ Much of what we say about art is an analysis of influences: Rembrandt learned his tricks of light by studying Caravaggio,say or Picasso unlearned the Western figural tradition by studying indigenous art in ethnographic museums in Paris.
Cuba still embargoed by the United States (but open to the rest of the planet), Cuba’s faux-isolation has in some ways made its art and artists more personal, more spiritual, and more contemporary than any other art anywhere.
At least, that’s what the 40 paintings, prints, and installations in “Ajiaco: Stirrings of the Cuban Soul,” which opens at the Newark Museum on Wednesday, are meant to show.
“Many of the artists in this exhibition would say they are the Revolution,” says Gail Gelburd, a professor of art history at Eastern Connecticut State University, who organized “Ajiaco” for Newark. “Sometimes I think Chinese artists view their art as a commercial enterprise, aimed at an export market. But the Cubans believe they are expressing their deepest identity, and that identity comes from the 1959 revolution. Artists are jailed in China when they cross a line, but in Cuba, one of the leading artists actually sits in the National Assembly, and Fidel is his godfather.”
“Ajiaco” — the title (say: ah-HEE-ah-koh) comes from the name of a popular Cuban stew, which, like jumbalaya, has a little bit of everything in it — begins with probably the most internationally famous Cuban artist of the last century, Wilfredo Lam. Lam left Cuba for Paris in the 1920s and immediately fell in with the Surrealists. He became close to Picasso just at he time when the artist was studying the work of “primitive” cultures to free himself from the European tradition.
But while Picasso was studying the outsiders, Lam was embodying them. Lam’s father was of Chinese descent (part of a 40,000-strong community of Chinese laborers brought in to work the sugar plantations in the 1850s) and his godmother was African; his identity was drawn from both cultures, with just the right salting of Spanish Catholicism. At the Museum of Modern Art, Lam is categorized with the Surrealists, and his work is knowingly spoken of as reflecting some Cubist influences; but for Gelburd, Lam’s art speaks of syncretism, the blending of multiple cultures or religions into one, and his images are often of “Orishas” (Santería deities).
Orishas, like guardian angels, are said to be particular to each believer, and in a slave or forced labor society they provided continuity for Africans and other immigrants who were often separated from their families. But as the transactional, sympathetic magic of Santería bubbled throughout the island’s culture, it brought about a very tropical melting together of spiritualism, formal hierarchical Catholicism and Caribbean expediency, all of which was poured into aesthetic expression.
And all of which reflected a curiously contemporary combination of individualism and yearning for transcendence that the figurative, narrative-based installation art of the past couple decades shares. Lam (who returned and lived out his life in Cuba in the 1940s) made all these things possible by focussing his art on despised, folk culture themes; and in his wake Cuba became a place where art was a religion.
There are certainly many works of art here that seem to echo Catholic shrines — some, like Laura Luna’s “Hierophany” (2005), replete with columns and a tympanum (though the naked woman at the center is distinctly non-Christian). But we mean something more than simply borrowing forms.
Even when Russia abandoned Cuba, and the American embargo reduced its trade to a trickle, Cuban artists thrived. Unable to find paper or metal plates, they improvised; artists glued several sheets of cardboard together to make printing plates and pressed handmade papers with them (accidentally inventing an early form of collography and, not coincidentally, producing very rich blacks on the five or six prints they could pull before the plate became unusable). They reached out into three dimensions, exploiting the colors of old rags, or the light of votive candles, to give dimension and impact to their art.
They introduced elements of performance, including interacting in space with the art, and music, which added a sense of time.
Artists like Juan Francisco Elso practiced Santería, but also had a fascination for anthropology and Amerindian art that invoked spiritual help in the real world. His “Corazón de América” (1986), a cruciform accordion book printed with a contemporary version of a Sacred Heart, is one of the loveliest works here (Elso died young and often used fugitive materials, so this is a great rarity).
It became a method: Layer one culture atop another, and then another and another, finding always the sweet serendipitous relationships among them all, and you get something original and personal, too. Cuban artists found they had a ready appeal in almost any context. Leandro Soto, whose “KachIreme” (2008) is one of the most expansive pieces in “Ajiaco,” decamped to Mexico at the height of the embargo in 1988, where soon he was running a children’s art school. He began combining Mexican
myths with his Cuban themes; when he moved to Arizona, he added tropes from Hopi Kachina dances and from American Pop, like candy Kisses and Mickey Mouse.
In an interconnected world, where any indigenous culture’s imagery is never more than a click away, being flexible like this is nigh on essential if you want to communicate a personal evolution. The Cubans didn’t necessarily invent this sort of omnivorous spirituality, but they gravitated to it with unusual speed, as if they had been prepared.
While Cuba’s isolated sincerity is an inspiration to every local, heartfelt, and hot-tempered art scene anywhere. ¡Viva la Revolución! info about Cuban works at newarkmuseum.org.