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Through March 4, 2007 at The Museum of Latin American Art (MoLAA), Long Beach

by Daniella Walsh

Three suitcases appear to have been left behind in one of the galleries.  A cheery blue, they are a make and model that is reminiscent of times when travel was adventurous or even glamorous.  But these are not three pieces of mere baggage:  Distinguished by painted rows of coffee cups, women’s dresses and baby bassinettes, they form an installation by Ernesto Pujol symbolizing the onset of a Cuban Diaspora that has sent thousands permanent exile.  While such departures were officially sanctioned at first, those adverse to Fidel Castro’s revolution could leave with no more than $100, three changes of clothing and no valuables, including family mementos.

This allusion to upheavals that began roughly 40 years ago is a part of  “Unbroken Ties: Dialogues in Cuban Art,” an exhibition comprised of art by Cubans still residing on the island and others who have emigrated or fled outright.  The show has been organized by the Museum of Art in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida and curated by Jorge Santis, a Cuban-born curator of the Museum’s collection of Cuban art.

Luis Cruz Azaceta, "Dead Rafter II,"
1994, mixed media, 71 x 62".

Raúl Corrales, "The Militiaman's Wedding,"
1962, silver gelatin print, 12 x 8".

Santis assembled works by 39 artists (16 of whom still live in Cuba) on the thesis that, even though his compatriots are scattered, a common culture, patriotism, family ties and artistic sensibilities unite residents and émigrés.  In short, that everyone’s blood is thicker than the water surrounding the island.            

Not surprisingly, resident Cubans offer scant social criticism, save for some cautious editorializing as seen in Tony Mendoza’s contrasting photographs of a well-kept mansion (“Government House,” 1996), and the dilapidated dwelling of an average citizen (“A Citizen’s House,” 1996); or Carlos Garaicoa’s photograph “Solarium” (1997).  Apparently architectural preservation is not high on the list of post-revolution priorities.

Manuel Piña, "Untitled" from the "Water Watelands' series, digital color print, 49 x 102 1/8".

Manuel Piña is represented by two of the more thought-provoking photographs in the lineup: “Untitled (from the series, Water Wastelands” (1992-2001) shows a young man plunging headlong into the waves while wearing nothing but a bathing suit and sneakers.  Is he fleeing into the unknown without even the clothes on his back, or is he a contented comrade merely guarding against cutting his feet on sharp rocks?

Santis said that he divided the show into three sections to suggest a Greek Tragedy.  “Paradise Lost” centers on Cuban locales and the more mundane aspects of daily life seen through a lens of remembrance.  Tomás Sánchez’s huge painting “Riverbank” (1995) shows a dense jungle, apparently unchanged since the time of the conquering Spaniards.  Lydia Rubio’s surreal landscape, dominated by a paper airplane and Christo-like wrappings and ropes, suggests that strong ties to one’s birthplace can be a mixed blessing.

This section also offers glimpses into life at the dawn of revolution.  The late Korda (Alberto Diaz Guierrez) photographed a man perched on a lamppost during a large public rally (“Don Quixote of the Lampost,” 1959), while Raúl Corrales trained his camera on youthful militia soldiers.  “The Militiaman’s Wedding” (1962) shows a couple walking under a canopy of tank guns festooned with flowers while his comrades cheer him on.

Raul Cordero, "Black and White Dreams of the Emerging
Artist," 1999, oi/polyester resin on canvas, 56 x 119 1/2".

The section “Risking Life and Limb” is best exemplified by Luis Cruz Azaceta’s dramatic “Dead Rafter II” (1994), a multi-media painting focused on a man’s head trapped in an inner-tube.  A roughly rendered cross and collages of baked treats suggest that the man died at sea of hunger.  This neo-expressionist painting, along with Juan-Si’s (Juan Enrique González) assemblage “Nautical Compass” (1994) and Enrique Martínez Celaya’s painting “Boat Boy” (2002) are powerful testimonials to inventiveness and resiliency.

“Unbroken Ties: A New Reality” is first and foremost devoted to works by those who left.  Thus, the amount of text-based art using actual correspondences is not surprising.  There is a universal ring to Glexis Novoa’s grandmother’s plaintive query:  “Why haven’t you written?”  Novoa’s graphite drawing/installation, titled “You Left” (1994), is a poignant example of an artist approaching the realities of separation as well as the futility of ideological conflicts and hero worship.

Looking for a work that somehow sums up this provocative exhibition, one might select Sandra Romos’ “The Raft” (1998), a tribute to the boat people who crossed the Florida straits or died trying.  Surrounded by a school of sharks the raft, rendered in the shape of the island, symbolizes courage, hope and the fatalism that is unfathomable to those living in relative security.