Has Cuban art become stagnant?

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo

“Levitar” by Tomas Sanchez

“I guarantee the artist is Cuban,” I say aloud, but to no one in particular, as I look at a painting at the PINTA Latin American Art Fair, which is taking place in New York City this weekend before it packs up and heads to London for an engagement next year.

A woman studying the same painting looks at me and asks, “How do you know?” Five minutes later, as I’m expounding upon the common themes of modern and contemporary Cuban art, she’s probably sorry she asked the question. When I notice she’s looking for a way to escape gracefully, I give her an out. “Enjoy the fair.”

I don’t know about Cuban art because I’ve studied it formally. I know it because I’ve seen so much of it. After a while, all of its distinctive characteristics become immediately evident, even to the auto-didactic eye. In paintings, there will be palm trees. Water. Boats, generally of a shoddy variety like the one Francisco took to the United States. Whimsical, fairy-tale like characters, often unmoored from land, floating away. There will be color–lots of it. On the most concrete, obvious level, there will be the depiction of the island itself.

“Maleconada” by Jorge Perugorria

Cuban photography is even easier to pin down. Crumbling architecture. Ironic contrasts that underscore Cuba’s political and economic situations, a not so subtle commentary, even when artists insist, as they inevitably do, that their work “isn’t political.” Again, the ocean.

In all genres: images of or references to Che and Fidel. The use of currency. Windows with a view of water pushing out to the horizon.

A work by by Yoan Capote at the Jack Shainman Gallery

Art, of course, reflects life. But the life depicted in Cuban art is so puzzling in its partiality. Regardless of one’s views of the Revolution, people still love. They still work. They still eat, go to school, get sick. They have birthday parties. But rarely are these aspects of life visible in Cuban art work.
To the art lover who is new to Cuban art, these images and symbols and subjects I’ve mentioned will all likely seem novel, as they should. The crowd at the recent Yoan Capote exhibit at the Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea seemed charmed by the artist’s work.

A work by by Yoan Capote at the Jack Shainman Gallery

Though I was impressed by his range of genres and his technical skill in executing each–sculpture, photography, installation, drawing, painting, and multimedia– I was underwhelmed by the preoccupations explored in the work, as well as their conceptual execution. When asked to elaborate on one of his pieces, Capote, giving a talk to visitors, said, “I don’t like to talk too much about my work. I feel it’s a bit like undressing a woman.”

Longing, loss, freedom and the lack of it, deterioration, the tension of living in a seemingly perpetual ambiguity… these are all, inarguably, part of “the Cuban experience.” As such, they will inevitably be explored by artists in their work. At the same time, I’m keen to see Cuban artists exploring these emotions in new ways.

Cuban art has become stagnant.

That’s what I thought as I looked at the Cuban pieces on display at PINTA.

I was desperate to see something different.
But if Cuban art has become stagnant, viewers and collectors bear at least part of the blame. Gallerists, curators, and collectors have commodified Cuba through its art, drawing the boundaries of what is saleable and, therefore, what is “valuable,” what is showable, and indeed, what Cuban art “is.” The Cuba and la cubanidad in Cuban art reflects, at least in part, the life that we imagine Cubans live: a life romanticized by the narrative of ingenuity and resolve amidst poverty, of yearned for and frustrated escape, of predictable, recognizable symbols.

The message to Cuban artists, then, is that to be of interest and to sell abroad, their work must incorporate these elements and reinforce the narratives that people who don’t actually live their reality–their realities–have written for them. How to revive the creativity and range of thematic exploration in Cuban art, then, depends at least as much upon the viewer as the artist.

When and how the conditions will change that shape the viewer’s concept of Cuban art may be even more interesting and explosive than any shift on the part of Cuban artists.