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YUDINELA ORTEGA

Neither Stick nor Root: Cuban Art in the Shelter of the Palm Tree.

 

 

Every shape is a face that looks at us.

SD

 

I could also write about how the city is destroyed in the midst 

of a strange war where there are no

 gunshots, trenches, bombs or enemy armies.

Abilio Estévez

 

I want, in the shadow of a wing, to tell this story in full bloom.

José Martí

Tomas Sanchez_Basurero.jpg

Tomás Sánchez 

b. Aguada de Pasajeros, Cuba, 1948

Basurero (Dump), 1991, Acrylic on canvas

Collection of Susie and Mitchell Rice

As long as there is life, there is hope, says the popular saying, in an attempt to remain optimistic in the face of the visible wear and tear of a country and its history. The poisoned candy of a possible change for Cuba has been passed down from generation to generation. It has permeated the practice and exegesis of generations of artists and historians who have tried to link the revolving wheel of the de/construction of a nation and the history of its art.

 

Visual production on the island in the last decade has gone through moments of splendid flourishing -if we're referring to commercialization- as a result of an opening and rapprochement with its natural collecting market par excellence: the United States. In the context of a hopeful 2015, we were able to witness the changes in the cultural landscape, especially in the capital city, a context that welcomed the opening of artists' studios, "private" galleries, and alternative spaces for the promotion and sale of artworks. However, that fertile opening of a welcoming scenario for the Cuban art market was gradually reduced with the change in the U.S. presidency, while the influx of tourists susceptible to collecting became scarce again, or in some periods, null. It is no secret that collecting art for the average Cuban is practically impossible. It's no secret that an artist residing in Cuba has little or no chance of marketing his work professionally, except for the unfortunate hand of the institution or some occasional collector residing inside the island -almost always a foreigner as well.

 

This introductory note, factual and scarcely poetic, is fundamental to understanding the relevance of the most recent Cuban artistic production, the existence of collectors and collections that begin in a neophyte way, for mere pleasure and empathy towards a sector of society -the artistic one- and are maintained over time, professionalizing their work and specializing in themes, generations, techniques and problems that swell the recent and historical production of Cuban art. The careers of many artists are then accompanied by a humanistic vocation that expands and evolves hand in hand with people who, seduced by the magic of a culture rich in production and meaning, strengthen the possibility of subsistence in the practice of collecting. Precariousness and idleness are the main evils faced by those who try to make a contemporary approach to the reality of the Cuban cultural scene. With few exceptions, it is languishing traumatically as I write this text. In this way, the act of "possession" is transformed into the giving of opportunities to the various aspects of a committed, rebellious, undervalued art that is sometimes out of the institutional magnifying glass because it is daring or problematic.

 

Vara en tierra or echar raíces are also two colloquial expressions typical of Cuban popular slang. However, what they both mean has been denied to us. It has also been denied to those who are persecuted or questioned for the symbolic value of their creation: ARTISTS who have found, under the spell of the palm tree, a place in the sensitive map of our insularity.

 

Since last July, the Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida has been hosting the group exhibition Under the Spell of the Palm Tree: The Rice Collection of Cuban Art (1). A project that is the fruit of a decade of collecting Cuban art and the reflection of a family's respect and love for the culture of a nation. The Rice Collection began to swell its holdings in 2013 when they visited the island for the first time. Since then, the legacy that Susie and Mitchell Rice have bequeathed to their family has allowed two generations to share the complicity and responsibility of accompanying the artistic processes of creators from Cuba and its diaspora.

 

The zephyr that protects the essence of what is Cuban becomes a decoy to build a morphological tour through the exhibition. And there is no shelter from the hurricane, no reed root on the shore that can stop the force with which the narratives displayed in a group show that celebrates the Rice Collection's decade-long commitment to the island's art and artists. The family's commendable work of research, outreach, and accompaniment, Susie and Mitchell Rice's contact not only with the art object but with the lives of the more than seventy artists who are part of their collection, has dynamited how the intricate nexus of subversive historiography and its consequent artistic effervescence is perceived from the "outside".

 

The collection traces a temporality from the 1940s to the most recent Cuban art and already holds two hundred and ninety-nine works of multiple manifestations such as painting, sculpture, photography, mixed techniques, artists' books, prints, etc. With this gala presentation, the public can walk through a selection of seventy-nine works by fifty-four artists chosen by the curators of the exhibition: Gabriela Azcuy and David Horta.

 

The curatorial panorama extends in six directions: The Language of Forms and the Forms of Language; The Dream of the Prophet; The Great Journey: Archives; Sensory Landscapes of Memory and Desire; The Reflections of Narcissus; and The Spirit of the Real, the Reality of the Spirit. The curatorial approach breaks with the hierarchical and chronological criteria of the more traditional exhibition design presentation by basing the bifurcations of these major thematic fields. It highlights the continuity and transformation of Cuban art, offering an eloquent perspective on how the diaspora has influenced the personal experience and how these creators launch their most visceral and lyrical questions to the world. Through the lens of an accessible, wink-laden tour, we are captivated by the quiet reflection and ardent fervor we discover in the chinks and crannies of cosmologies as diverse as they are authentic.

 

Five years have passed since I last lived on the island. I could say that since then, I consider myself - because I am completely wrong - the only person in the world who lives in two places in the same timeline. I have faith in that belief and so I build parallel lines of my life inside and outside Cuba. The same model I use to organize the events that I hope will inhabit future Cuban art history books. It sounds pretentious because it is. The fact is that in that dual journey -initiated by the Rice Collection- through the visual production of the homeland, almost all the most representative names of the history of Cuban plastic arts resound.

 

The words also resonate:

 

Diaspora, Exile, Territory, Sea, Encounter, Dialogue, Survival, Terror, Vigilance.

 

Resistance, Freedom, Love, Uprooting, Rhetoric, Journey, Homeland.

 

Land, identity, insularity, mirror, journey, protection, obsession, Cuban.

José Ángel Vincench 

b. Holguín, Cuba, 1973

Pintura de acción #2 (Action Painting # 2), From the Series “El peso de las palabras” (The Burden of Words), 2015

Gold leaf on canvas

Collection of Susie and Mitchell Rice

1.

The whispers of representation can be heard through The Language of Forms and the Forms of Language (2). Pieces of impeccable workmanship demonstrate the debt owed to the referents who took care of the materials with which the artistic object was created, and from there traced the evolution of a movement that represents the gains of seventy years of abstraction. In the evolution that went beyond the limits of forms to express topicality, analytical thought, and ascetic cleanliness, the clarity with which later artists honored their predecessors can be felt. Never has an idea been so dangerous as when it is taken as alienating or frivolous. The organic forging of a taste for abstraction among the acknowledged pioneers of Cuban modernism set a standard that lives on to this day. Generations of artists have been able to update the excessive neatness of the forms that once defined Cuban concretes. Symbol and cadence unveil those political references that, hidden under the cloak of the formal, passed unnoticed by the eyes of the censor.

 

2.

As long as The Prophet's Dream (3lasts, the flame of poetry will be kept alive. Dilettante interventions, daughters of a failed utopia, are part of this section, which diagrams the presence of a group of artists who have manifested with their work the possession of a social-political conscience and a commitment to their time. Different promotions of creators formed after the Cuban Revolution have had in common the concern for expressing the cadence and lyricism of a context that appeared stable and cheered the citizen welfare with the benefits of a unique form of government. The doctrines that promulgated national values and a revolutionary sense of belonging were replaced by other fictitious realities, other imagined concepts, and the longing for a possible dream. Utopia receded as it approached the horizon, anointed by the ambiguous intertwining of "homeland and political system", until it finally evaporated. The prophets grew old and the siren songs that sweetened the ear of the new man were extinguished in the jaws of predestination to be what cannot or should not be... Sooner or later, the rhetoric of homogeneity dimensioned the meanings of all the secondary characters that inhabited the incoherent story of history. The art created by the writers who give this section its body continues to be a tool to expose the nonsense of a doctrine that is torn to pieces before the eloquent version of the others.

 

3.

The Great Journey: Archives (4) has also been a great consequence. This is how the artists in this section represent the trauma of the void; the absence of the mass without return crossing the Florida Straits on any sunny day. The land has been orphaned for tomorrow because no one has stayed to document the tragedy. The memory of national exile and the experience of personal exile are two truths that cross transversally the framework that is Cuban migration. Memory, safeguarding, and connection are the premises of the creation that consoles the sparrow of the homeland far away. The departure, the escape that the Cuban nation has experienced for sixty years, is captured by the voices of artists who, both inside and outside the geographical limits, have transferred their daily life to connectivity in order to recover the contact that can be cured from abandonment through critical exercise. Exile returns to beat in these works as a reflection on loss and the search for identity in distant lands. The territory, with its symbolic charge of belonging and loss, becomes a conceptual canvas where the artists explore the complexities of the relationship with the homeland. In this sense, the exhibition becomes a space of encounter between different perceptions of the Cuban territory, from nostalgia to the redefinition of what is one's own identity.

 

4.

Sensory Landscapes of Memory and Desire still exist. They open a oneiric slope towards the game of representation. This section stands as a capricious voice that mixes folklore and surreal dynamics in stories anchored in childhood nostalgia, life in Cuba, and travel as a reinvention of the unconscious. The emotional undertow intertwines with the most intimate longings to activate the playful component of the work. With a few exceptions, the visual landscape is the protagonist of a world plagued by bucolic scenes and personal insomnia. Human presence is almost never present. It is as if, in this eagerness to sweeten desires, the accumulation of truncated aspirations had forgotten forever the tropical idyll that destiny had in store for Cuba. Benevolence, astonishment, and the desire for freedom remain a rebuking force. The watchtower resists the silence in the midst of a rural landscape, forgotten, but crying out to protect the forms of its time.

 

5.

Sisyphus was aware that he was dragging his condemnation towards the stream, he looked down from the top of the peak through which he thought to free himself from its weight and discovered that those waters in which he was trying to wipe away his punishment already belonged to another imprisoned reflection. Without slowing his effort, he could hear the whispering of The Reflections of Narcissus. Self-referentiality and self-representation are ways in which artistic discourse materializes the use of the self, the body itself, or the remnants of its existence to create discourses that question reality. This has been the case in Cuba, especially at times when artists have felt the need to use themselves to delve into the effect that human relations have on their environment. Since the eighties, self-contemplation and the conversion of the carnal reservoir into a catalyst for the creative process allowed some of these creators to conceive other voices to express their nonconformity with the country's reality. The Cuban eighties was the beginning of a trend that pondered the self as a tool that deconstructed a vision of the world constrained to the materiality of the work when the moment demanded the sharp constancy on what was badly done. Thus, before his own reflection, Narcissus sometimes opened the mirror to escape and other times invited Sisyphus to continue dragging his stone, dreaming of possible freedom. With an exegetic audacity to speak from the body, the artists featured in this section have made use of wit, humor, and sharp irony to position themselves as demiurges in their own territory.

 

6.

Fascinated by The Spirit of the Real, the Reality of the Spirit, we come to the encounter with the divine. Fascinated by The Spirit of the Real, the reality of the spirit, we approach the encounter with the sacred. The cultural roots of an island that blends Congo and Carabali with Catholic religious tradition have resulted in a polyphonic atmosphere of beliefs, myths, and practices anchored in the consciousness of the spirit. It is precisely from a spiritual dimension that the artists who preside over this section have conceptualized their worldviews of the real world and their dreamed universes. Works that emanate a plurality of complex references to Afro-Cuban religion; esoteric and spiritual practices; root traditions passed down from generation to generation, such as Palo Monte, or explicit representations of the Sikán Myth within the Abakuá Secret Society. Among other more emphatic references in religious imagery and cosmology in various extensions and meanings. All are directed to engage in dialogue around the human being as the common axis that sustains them. Dreams, premonitions, or evocations that warn how to face the immediate future, are transmuted into containers of wisdom to narrate, through allegories and symbols, the images that describe the Decalogue of an ancestral world in the factual and chaotic life of the Cuban being. The sensations we experience in this section connect the visuality of the works with the spiritual essence of Cuban culture and subtly but powerfully reveal the relationships between the earthly and the transcendent, and the irreversible fusion of matter and the soul.

Exhibition View

Harn Museum of Art

Bajo el Hechizo de la Palma transcends a mere contemplative proposition; it is a crucible where the heterogeneous voices of Cuban art converge, resonating beyond geographical and political limitations. Within each stroke or texture, the shared history of the artists is inscribed, along with their interactions with a Cuba that, though physically distant, remains the underlying heartbeat of every creative expression comprising the exhibition. The showcase also transforms into a canvas portraying the struggle for survival, political tensions, and surveillance narratives that have defined the Cuban experience. These intertwined themes, woven into the artworks, offer a penetrating window into the complexities of contemporary Cuban life.

 

An infinite Cuba breathes under the spell of the palm. The organizers' adept mobilization of diverse voices in a collective exhibition is not an isolated cultural event; it stands as the most significant gathering around a public art collection in recent times. The subject is the collection itself, incorporating works spanning several generations of artists, literally extrapolated to the context of Florida. This serves as the foundation for a discourse on two geographical spaces carrying the weight of the largest Cuban migration in history. Under the spell of the Palma is a gathering of works and artists celebrating the vocation and sensitivity of a collector family that has dedicated passionately and committedly ten years of their lives to supporting, helping build, and accompanying the recent history of Cuban art inside and outside Cuba.

 

In the profound exploration of tools to shape the world, the transcendence of concepts is revealed. Gathered within a relational map, these concepts outline the essence of creativity and the ability to transform reality through art. These conceptual drifts find their maximum expression in the vernacular, where authenticity and connection with cultural roots become catalysts for constructing a more meaningful world. However, as we immerse ourselves in this conceptual journey, we encounter the imposing presence of the grotesque, a disruptive force challenging established conventions and highlighting the inherent paradoxes of the human condition. Social criticism then emerges as an essential tool, a voice questioning injustices, challenging the rhetoric of a monolithic history, and dismantling the illusion of a society of equals. In this context, the gift of provocation emerges as a crucial element in dissecting the established version, challenging complacency, and igniting critical reflection.

 

Strategies of everyday survival become a necessary fabric to repopulate the voids of understanding and unravel the inherent contradictions in the social fabric of a saddened Cuba. Under the spell of the Palma orchestrates a symphony of poignant reflections and invites us to rethink and rebuild the world of Cubanidad, embracing the polyphony of our identity. This exhibition, in a certain way, challenges the status quo, establishing for itself and for all, the phrases of a spell that, in the shadow of a wing, tell their tale in bloom.

Exhibition View

Harn Museum of Art

  1. The title of the exhibition has been taken from the homonymous work of the artist Sandra Ramos, also present in the exhibition.

  2. Works by: Cundo Bermúdez, René Portocarrero, Juan Roberto Diago Querol, Pedro de Oraá, Antonio Vidal, Salvador Corratgé, José Rosabal, Enrique Riverón, Liset Castillo, Jesús Hdez-Güero, Ernesto Leal, Iván Capote Eduardo Ponjuán and José Ángel Vincench are part of the section: The Language of Forms and the Forms of Language.

  3. Works by: Esterio Segura, Lazaro Saavedra, Tania Bruguera, Sandra Ramos, Pedro Pablo Oliva, Jose A. Figueroa, Stainless, Carlos Garaicoa, Angel Ramirez & Jacqueline Maggi, Jose Bedia, Jose A. Toirac, and Chino Novo, are part of the section: The Prophet's Dream.

  4. Works by: Kadir López, Pedro Pablo Oliva, Sandra Ramos, Ernesto Javier Fernández, Abel Barroso, Esterio Segura, and Alexi Torres are part of the section: The Great Journey: Archives.

  5. Works by: Emilio Sánchez, Mario Carreño, Carlos Enríquez, Tomás Sánchez, Frank Mujica, Alex Hernández, Ricardo Miguel Hernández, Glenda León, Inti Hernández, Adrián Fernández, Jorge Lavoy, Alberto Lago and Roberto Fabelo are part of the section: Sensorial Landscapes of Memory and Desire.

  6. Works by: Roberto Fabelo, Pedro Pablo Oliva, Esterio Segura, Mabel Poblet, Alfredo Sosabravo, Lázaro Saavedra, René Francisco Rodríguez, René Francisco-Ponjuán Duo and Rafael Soriano are part of the section: The Reflections of Narcissus (Through the mirror and what the artist found there).

  7. Works by: Roberto Diago, Belkis Ayón, Ángel Ramírez & Belkis Ayón, Manuel Mendive, José Bedia, and Wifredo Lam are part of the section: The Spirit of the Real, the Reality of the Spirit.

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