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Marlena Donohue


Ernesto Pujol, "Death:
Cross, Soul, Angel," oil on
linen, 36 x 54" each, 1996

Raúl Corrales, "La Habana,"
gelatin silver print, 1960.

Korda, "Caballeria",
gelatin silver print.
Maybe it was the media circus of Elian Gonzalez, or our fascination with the only remaining communist experiment in our hemisphere (some stats place Cuban literacy above ours). Maybe it was the irony that Cubans still put their kids in inner tubes to send them elsewhere, or the greater irony that expatriates from Castro's brave new world come here to become Republicans.

Whatever the impetus for our renewed interest, the net effect is a rapprochement with Cuban arts and letters that is more authentic then what we saw in the brisk art sales of the late 80’s. (I will never forget living in Santa Barbara then and having a ultra-wealthy matron describe with glee a Texas gala celebrating Latin Art sales which featured flaxen haired, busty college girls painted with caricature single brows across their foreheads, dressed in Frieda Kahlo ribbons, and parked the cars of oil barons buying up million dollar Riveras. . .talk about cultural ironies. . .)

We seem of late more willing to contend with the unravel-able complexities-- racial, psychological, cultural, literary, economic--that comprise the Cuban creative ethos specifically and Latin culture generically. We seem willing to accept that after 500 years of imperialism, the inevitably exotic, the native, the folkloric are fused at the hip with the classical and European, like Siamese twins who shouldn't be connected but can't be separated. Further, we seem more interested than ever in looking at the inextricable link evident yet today in Cuban arts between creative life and social ferment (writing during the 80’s, the Corcoran Gallery of Art's Jane Livingston asserted that in Latin America, culture is revolution). Americans also seem more willing to contend with a Latin tension that fuels much Cuban art, which is a fierce independence sitting right beside an almost reflexive acceptance of hierarchy-imposed or indigenous, tribal, Catholic, communist, or white fat cat economic authority.

These complex realities have been subtly brought to light in a string of venues past and planned across media. Over the last few years there have been a string of mostly excellent shows of contemporary Cuban art at gallery venues such as Track 16, Couturier Gallery and Iturralde Gallery, where artists like Pujol and Corrales remind us that the Cuban sensibility can run from the rigorously intellectual to the technically astute.

Beyond visual art, in the mid 90’s Ry Cooder and Wim Wenders collaborated on the now well known documentary, Buena Vista Social Club chronicling a group of aged, immensely gifted Cuban musicians who had seen their heyday in the pre-Castro Cuba of the 1940s and 50’s. The once legendary musicians were eking out an existence until Cooder and Wenders noticed the hypnotic, comforting and exhilarating sound. The musicians were reduced to poverty in a Marxist regime that deemed their art degenerate, and we were reminded by Wenders of the convoluted, ironic historical connection between brave new worlds, repression and creative exploration.

Perhaps more haunting than the film itself were the movie stills by Wenders and his wife Donata, exhibted last summer at the Rose Gallery at Bergamot Station. In the photos we saw a Cuba, irreversibly Afro-Euro-Latin in essence, caught in a time warp of 50’s cars and cracking, grand colonial buildings, once hotels for rich foreign capitalists, now brightly painted rundown tenements covered with Revolutionary slogans.

Coming in April to LACMA will be Shifting Tides: Cuban Photography After the Revolution, a comprehensive look at the Castro era from an economic and artistic viewpoint. Intimately related to this renewed interest in non-patriarchical looks at Cuban/Latin creative history is the second part of the current Getty show, Mexico: From Empire to Revolution, Part II, which explores the relationship between political upheaval and art production in the leftist environment of Rivera's Mexico. There, in the late 20’s, just as in Castro's Cuba of the 70’s, the forces of liberation became the forces of repression, thus setting in motion that subversive dialectic of an avant garde with which the U.S. has no real first hand experience (the brief scrimmage between Helms and Mapplethorp notwithstanding).

Finally and most recently in the public eye is Julian Schnabel's brilliant film, Before Night Falls. I thought I would never take Schnabel seriously after that self indulgent bit of influence peddling he called Basquiat. But in the sensitive, astute and poetic Before Night Falls, he manages to capture in real time, through a retelling of recent history, all the Cuban complexities laying between the extremes of idealistic innocence and self-destructive license. These issues are addressed in one heavily symbolic scene during which a "liberated" Cuban intelligencia engage in a long night of drinking, cross gender sexual liberation, poetry reading, modern dance, and painting in preparation for the next day, when a few lucky dissidents will fly in a half baked stolen air balloon across the sea to freedom. The poet/protagonist eventually gets to the promised land of Manhattan, where his nights are spent in dreams of tropical winds and where he dies in obscurity. This truly beautiful film, rife with irony and constructed like a series of well considered canvases, hits on the contingencies and conflicts that give rise to the notion of an avant garde, not just in Cuba but anywhere repression and freedom keep each other in a tenuous checkmate.

All these venues open up for our scrutiny the idea of a Latin American avant garde as a subversive, rule testing crucible, part insistence on an individual voice, part desperate effort to join a global arts fraternity--this was the active creative ferment out of which we used to think true invention arose.

As stated in the smug, self-congratulatory Presidential acceptance speeches, Americans are a people who effect often radical social change without great upheaval. So we forget that revolution was at the very heart of deconstructive discourse--our favorite catchphrase these days. Post-modern deconstructive discourse, as we like to call it, rests on heady theory, wordy models, an underpinning of keen analysis, but not action. The essential risky act of challenging the status quo when it is not safe to do so, an act upon which deconstructive models are ultimately built, is not well understood in America.
A selection from Los Angeles
County Museum of Art's upcoming
"Shifting Tides: Cuban Photography
After the Revolution":

José Figueroa, "Vedado," from
the series "Projecto: Habana",
gelatin silver print,
8 5/16 x 12 3/8", 1992.

María Eugenia Haya (Marucha),
"Sin Titulo", from the series
"En el Liceo", gelatin silver
print, 8 5/8 x 12 7/8", 1979.

Rigoberto Romero, "Sin Titulo,"
from the series "Consuder de
Millionario," gelatin silver print,
12 1/4 x 9 3/8", 1975.

MOCA hosted a show in 1998 called Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979, which hinted that free wheeling, hard thinking conceptualists changed the face of academic art by "taking it to the streets" so to speak, linking creative process in forceful ways with real-time experience. But those actions were taken in a politically safe-guarded environment. Quintessential creative protest is, I would venture to say, alien to me and most of us Yanks (yes, even Robbie Conal) who are more accustomed to these ideas as conceptual tools.

Maybe we are newly attracted to Cuba because we are reminded of both the urgency and fallacy behind notions of an active avant garde. Or maybe we are drawn to beautiful Cuba because no matter what else we say, there is something poignant about that country's cultural predicament--hinted at in Donata Wender's sultry movie still of a young woman, maybe a hooker, huddled in a public phone. One writer referred to Cuba as a beautiful woman in desperate need of rescue; in these non-paternalist epochs we may not be so audacious as to call Cuba a "her," or to presume we can "save" her, but it is clear we want to know the Cuban creative spirit better.

--March, 2001