International Caribbean Art Fair (ICAFair)

No Rum or Cigars: Permissible Souvenirs from a Cuban Tour, 2004-2006

By Michelle Bird

Posted: November 3, 2009


Zenia,Tres MariasCourtesy: Michelle Bird

The title of this article comes from U.S. regulations prohibiting the importation of all goods with the exception of art, music, and literature from Cuba. Using the art waiver, I was able to bring to the U.S. over 100 works of art. In the summer of 2007 65 pieces were exhibited from our collection at the Cofrin Art Gallery at Oakhall School in Gainesville, Florida


Many years ago at Rutgers University, through research for a paper on Wilfredo Lam, I learned that Alfred H. Barr, Jr. visited the island in the early 1940s. In addition to purchasing works of art by Cuban artists, he also organized an exhibition called “Modern Painters of Cuba” in 1944, bringing the island and its arts to the attention of the international market. During this period, he acquired Lam's The Jungle for the Museum of Modern Art. It was hung near Picasso's Guernica, to which it was compared. The relationship barely had time to produce little more than name recognition for its author and his native country when the connection was severed by the 1959 Revolution and subsequent political changes. By the mid-eighties, the painting was hanging in a hallway leading to the museum's coatroom. This single action shows how easily Cuban art was marginalization and made inaccessible to the public.


In order to begin to understand Cuban art during our Cofrin exhibit, I turned to one of Cuba's most prolific and well-respected art historians, Orlando Hernandez. In one of his recent essays, he attempts to define what makes Cuban art “Cuban” by trying to convey the complicated environment in which it is created. Even narrowing the geographic field to Havana proves difficult when he writes that "there are at least 4 or 5 Havanas and probably more…What we really have are multiple, plural Havanas. There is one Havana next to another and often one Havana within another…There are impoverished and rustic Havanas like country towns, and sophisticated and luxurious Havanas like foreign cities…On the one hand, there are the two or three clean, well-groomed Havanas made up for the tourists' camera flashes, and on the other hand, the ill-tended, grimy Havanas only witnessed by their oppressed residents. On one extreme there is the chic Havana lived in or frequented by foreign businessmen and diplomats and on the other, the everyday Havana with its slums and overflowing garbage cans. There is the conceited Havana of the Miramar Trade Centre and the underground, secret Havana of itinerant vendors and “shady,” “illegal,” and “forbidden” business dealings. There is a tolerant, indulged, and spoiled Havana, and a guilty, penalized, punished Havana."


In surveying the works in our collection I began to see many of the Havanas of which Orlando Hernandez speaks. The "rustic Havana like country towns" can be seen in works by the artists working in the naïve style. These artists often take as their subject scenes from everyday life, folklore, fantasy, and Santeria. Oswaldo Castillo’s Trabajo/Work (fig. 1) is a work celebrating the laborer. The inspiration for Luis Ramirez's Stealing Wives (fig. 2) is taken from a tale of men traveling through the countryside whisking their brides-to-be away on horseback. I had assumed that this story was the stuff of legend until a Cuban I met told me that her grandmother was stolen by her grandfather in this manner. But do not be fooled by the primitive appearance of these works. These paintings operate on many levels. Aida Hernandez's drawing of a chair called I Stand Up (fig. 3) is a sophisticated reference to a painting by Wilfredo Lam, while simultaneously representing the custom of oral history and collective memory. It is said that the one thing that every Cuban owns is a chair and that everyone who sits in one has a story to tell. As a side note, Wilfredo Lam's painting of The Chair/La Silla hangs in the National Museum of Cuba in Havana. Legend has it that Alfred H. Barr, Jr. had narrowed his choice of paintings for the Museum of Modern Art between The Jungle and The Chair. It is with great pride that the Cubans tell you they got the better of the two.


In Mario Arango’s Guajira (Country Girl) with the Red Hat (fig. 4), we can get a sense of the “one Havana next to another and often one Havana within another.” I gave this artist a book from the National Galley and he was so moved by Vermeer’s Girl with the Red Hat that he did his own version. What makes this painting so remarkable is the familiarity with which the artist interprets the work of the Dutch master, only having learned about him and this work through this book. Arango approaches the subject with much of the same sensitivity and intimateness of the original. He imbues his depiction of a country girl in rich reds and blues on a muted background, again in homage to the great master, but with a distinctly Cuban flare.


The "sophisticated Havana" can be seen in the works of contemporary artists such as Sandra Ramos (fig. 5), Lazaro Saavedra, Carlos Estevez (fig. 6), Rodolfo Peraza, and Yoan Capote (fig. 7), whose international reputation makes them part of the global art elite. These artists are remarkable for their ability to work within the system and be critical of it at the same time.


Like everything in Cuba, lines are not as clear cut as they appear to be. You will find both untrained artists working in the naïve style and formally trained artists exploring similar topics such as memory, isolation, and identity using completely different visual languages. In La maldita circumstancia del agua por todos partes/The Damned Circumstance of Water on all Sides by Sandra Ramos (fig. 5) all of the above issues are explored. The title of this work is taken from a poem by Virgil Pinera (Cuban writer and poet, 1912-1979) called “The Island Burden.” We can feel the weight and vulnerability expressed in this work as the artist substitutes her body for the island and assumes all its past and future responsibilities.


Yoan Capote's suitcase full of bricks entitled Nostaglia (fig. 7) deals with the topic of immigration. He writes of the work, "the brick wall and its weight create a metaphor about the impossibility of returning and also about the barriers we carry in life".


The "tourist Havana" can be seen in works by Jorge Luis Sanfiel, who uses recognizable symbols from Santeria in a positive, playful way (fig. 8). José Basulto's Sail Away (fig. 9) lightly veils the common Cuban theme of migration in fantasy. An interesting fact--most of the artists represented in this category began painting in the late 1980s/early 1990s. It is no coincidence that this time period coincides with the end of Soviet influence and economic support of Cuba. Many artists had jobs outside of the art world and are mostly self-taught. Basulto remarked that his career change was due to financial reasons and that he had originally started out as a sculptor. He changed his mind about the medium he had been working in when he realized that tourists do not buy objects that are difficult to carry home.


To see the "oppressed and punished Havana" of which Orlando Hernandez refers, we need only to look at the works by Angel Delgado in his series Si la memoria no me falla/If My Memory Doesn't Fail Me (fig. 10 and fig 11). During an exhibition in 1990 called "The Sculpted Object" the artist was sentenced to six months in jail for defecating on the official communist newspaper Granma. He chronicled his detention and the shared experience of the other inmates in these works that speak of censorship, incarceration, and collective memory.


In his painting Angel apuntalado III/Supporting Angel (fig. 12) , Kdir Lopez takes a statue adorning a grave in Colon Cemetery and transplants her on the Malecon—Havana's seawall. The Malecon is often referred to as Havana's living room or theater. In conversations with the artist, he told me that the angel has stepped in to carry the burden shouldered by the Cuban people for the past 49 years. The statue is facing north in the direction of Miami and suffers in silence while her Cuban people wait for relief.


We can also see the "punished Havana" in works by Jose Fuster and Normando Torres. Fuster's large painting titled Balseros/Rafters (fig. 13 ) was inspired by a conversation the artist had with a Cuban in Spain. She told Fuster that every Cuban knows someone who has been eaten by a shark while trying to make the trip to the United States. A huge splash of orange represents the shark amidst a swirling sea of blues and greens, surrounded by the faces of those that have perished. The bottle shape in the top right exemplifies the Santeria orisha, Elegua, who among many things, is the god of travel both here on earth and between the worlds of the living and the dead.


Normando Torres Soledad/Loneliness (fig. 14) tells the story of another tragedy caused by migration—those left behind. The artist depicts his two brothers, now living in the U.S. as empty inner tubes, while he is the lonely palm standing tall on the other side of the water.


The "secret Havana" can be seen in works celebrating the Afro-Cuban culture of Manuel Mendive Hoyo (fig. 15 ) and Noel Guzmán Bofill (figs. 16, 17, 18) by taking Santeria as their subject. Santeria is one of the many syncretic religions born in the New World. Its mix of the religion of the Yoruba people of Africa and Catholicism allowed it practitioners a way to both preserve their traditions and appear accepting of a new belief system. From Santeria we get a visual language to help guide us in interpreting the paintings. Colors and symbols of the orishas help in deciphering the hidden meaning in these works.


Orlando Hernandez’s many Havanas is a simple metaphor for the multifaceted and complex art of Cuba. The best expression of Cuban culture is sophisticated and naïve, intellectual, and spiritual. It is dark and secretive, as well as warm and open. It is political. It is personal. It is tragedy, memory, identity, and isolation. It is celebration. It is joy. It is life. It is all these things, sometimes all at once. There are no bright lines, just as in Cuba, one cannot be obvious or easily deciphered. This is what it means to be Cuban.


Yau, John. "Please Wait by the Coatroom." Arts Magazine v. 63 (December 1988): 56-59. Hernandez, Orlando. "The Art Victims of Havana." Parachute Magazine v. 125 (Summer 2007): 19-31. quote from Yoan Capote from his dossier.


From May 2004 through November 2006, I had the incredible opportunity to live and work in Havana, Cuba. Given the unusual relationship between Cuba and the United States, the first question that people frequently ask is why I lived in Cuba. I was there accompanying my husband, who was the Department of Homeland Security Officer in Charge of the Cuban Migration Program.


The Cofrin exhibit was the first time that I was able to look at the works of contemporary Cuban art that my husband and I acquired during our two and a half year stay in Havana, as a collection rather than just as souvenirs of our time spent on the island. By exhibiting these works in a public space, I was able to fulfill a promise I made to the Cuban artists to show their work to any and all that are interested. I am eternally grateful to the artists that let me into their homes and shared their life and work with me. In a society where every action scrutinized, I thank them for their courage.


Although The United States does not have formal diplomatic relations with Cuba, Cuba and the United States maintain what are called “Interests Sections” under the protection of the Swiss Embassy in the capitol city of each country. By 2004, relations between our two countries were at an all time low. Many resources were used in the ideological war between Cuba and the U.S. Protests, billboards, and the State run media were all directed towards denouncing the enemy. As American diplomats we were restricted to a 25 mile radius within the province of Havana. Being confined in this manner helped me begin to imagine the feelings of isolation and limitation that most Cubans live with on a daily basis. Cubans know this scenario all too well, as neighborhood brigades called the CDR (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution) monitored each block in all neighborhoods. Watching, listening, and reporting are the duties of every good revolutionary.


Many members of Cuban society viewed Americans working at the U.S. Mission in Havana as enemies. But I temporarily escaped this label when I went out into the art world. There I was just another American trying to understand a world that I had little knowledge about.


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