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"Contemporary Art From Cuba: Irony and Survival on the Utopian Island"
2000-02-25 until 2000-04-22
Grand Rapids Art Museum
Grand Rapids, MI, USA United States of America

The work in this exhibition is by eighteen Cuban artists who grew up in the Cuban Revolution that came to power on January 1, 1959. The oldest is thirty-nine and the youngest is twenty-four. Of course, the references in their work are frequently Cuban. And while it enriches the experience of the work to know some of the cultural and historical references, it would be a mistake to read these works simply as messages about Cuban reality. They are works of art and, for that reason, are multiple in reference and open to a multiplicity of readings.

But for an outsider, the context of the work, contemporary Cuba, is riveting. Its culture is rich in complexity, with many ethnic sources; and its history includes invasions by the Spanish, English, French, and Americans. Cubans talk politics and speculate on it constantly. Jokes are about politics. Food is political. So are the buses, electricity, gas, and water. This exhibition is not intended to further any political position.

The artists in this exhibition are too young to have taken part in the heady days of optimism during the initial struggle of the Revolution. They missed the years of idealistic sacrifice. But they have heard about these events throughout their lives, and the verbal and visual iconography from that time is ubiquitous still. The artists, like many Cubans, are often cynical about, weary of, or ambivalent about those heroes in the school books and pictured in the ever-present carteles. They may be tired of hearing about those whose noble deeds on behalf of the people are reiterated on the State-run television stations, or they may deplore the commercialization of heroes such as Che Guevara, whose visage can be found even on ashtrays. Through over-exposure, the real heroism of these figures is vitiated. They read about the deeds of the heroes in Granma, the newspaper named for the boat on which Fidel Castro and his band of guerrillas sailed from Mexico to Cuba in 1956, the event that marks the beginning of the active battle to overthrow the dictatorship of Fulgencia Batista.

Three ideas resound again and again throughout the exhibition: the special condition of being an island; inventando or making do in a place where shortages are virtually normalized; and the rhetoric of history. Most of the work touches on more than one or even all of these tendencies. Further, the complex of influences includes elements as different as Afro-Cuban religion, which forms a network across other thought, whether one is a practitioner or not; and American pop culture, which bobs persistently to the surface like a subconscious thought.

The embargo of Cuba by the United States was initiated in 1960 in reaction to the nationalization of American investments on the island. US-Cuba relations deteriorated further with Cubas declaration in favor of a socialist economy and the forging of an economic and military relationship with the Soviet Union. For the next thirty years, and to this day, Cuba has been distanced from the United States by the embargo. But the proximity between the two-- it is only ninety miles from Havana to Key West, Florida–and the establishment of the largest community of Cubans outside the island in nearby Miami kept the two in informal or even illicit contact. The two countries share a love-hate relationship characteristic of the polarization of the era of the Cold War. Many of the works in the exhibition reflect that relationship.

-- Marilyn A. Zeitlin, Director, Arizona State University Art Museum

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