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La Cabaña: Ground zero for the best in Cuban art

La  Cabaña: Ground zero for the best in Cuban art

Home (The 2012 Havana Biennial Art Exhibition )   
If in previous Havana Biennials, the organizers had zealously made sure that the presence of Cuban artists was not excessive in relation to guests artists, this time Cubans, resident in the country or not, were given free rein, becoming therefore the protagonists of the most important visual arts event in the island, despite the much advertised presence of major international figures of contemporary art. Proof of this is the extensive overview of Cuban art shown at the tercentenary San Carlos de La Cabaña Fortress. Unable to review each of the solo or group exhibitions, I have preferred to comment briefly on the ones that especially caught my attention.

Six rooms dedicated to Alexis Leyva, or Kcho as he is better known, welcome the visitor. Although, in my opinion, it falls below his recent retrospective at Havana’s Gran Teatro, it nevertheless allows a glimpse of the work of one of the most sought after Cuban artists. He set up a full-fledged workshop so that the public could become acquainted with his working tools—wood, hammers, nails, saws, brushes and a host of other instruments that he uses to make his ingenious assemblages. In front, you see the result—a “conversation” among boats of all sizes; sharks clothed for winter, perhaps with the remains of their victims; a propeller that seems to transmit an endless coded message; a boat whose sail is the frame of a grand piano. In the words of the Cuban poet, narrator and ethnographer Miguel Barnet, “The artist, who also possesses a metaphorical world of his own, assumes an ideological discourse that is known, repeated, and hackneyed in the twists and turns of life, but often absent in the media. There lies the intrepidity of his art, and creative and transgressive capacity.”

With similar detail and also related with the sea, although with a different connotation, Tamara Campos’s La marea, made up of around 700 bills carved in wood with engravings and hanging translucent threads, refers to the effects of commercialism, of uncertain trading transactions.

Seemingly detached from immediacy, in Sin torres ni abedules, Cirenaica Moreira envelopes us in a surreal atmosphere, at times dreamlike, common to her own forms of expression, although this time with a surprising extension of mediums, as she goes from self-referential photography to volumetric shapes, but keeping the intricacies of the universe, spirituality and women’s moods as the center of her examination.

Another surprise in store for visitors to La Cabaña is La mitad de mi vida in which Ernesto Rancaño, the painter of virgins and goblins who are shrouded in mystery and fantasy, opted for a conceptual installation using only the halves of everyday objects, which complete themselves almost imperceptibly with their reflection in large mirrors that are attached to these halves: Parallel worlds? A relativization of what we hold as absolute? Is completing virtually what we lack in real life a viable solution?

Meanwhile, René Peña in Beauty Things also makes use of common, everyday objects—a comb, a pin, a plastic bag, yet oversized to discover their visual potentials from careful attention to lighting, which polishes surfaces and enhances textures. Like the famous singer Teresita Fernández, Peña seems to say, “put a little love into unattractive things.”

Humberto Díaz Pérez’s Nothing Inside, based on the contradictory duality of the real and the apparent, is one of the most popular pieces in this large-scale gallery of national art. Almost levitating horizontally, a 22-meter royal palm tree receives us within a black-lined room. The palm is hollow and empty, but this attribute of Cuban identity, included in our coat of arms, gives out light from within.

But not all is serious in this plethora of artists and art work. Humor, irony and even sarcasm prevail in several exhibitions, such as Reynerio Tamayo’s Gangsters en La Habana, immersed in the daily bustle of the city and making obvious references to the everyday life in the island, like José “Pepe” Luciano, a nuclear physicist who drives a 1952 American car—“almendrón”—with a Romanian jeep engine and runs on gasoline, oil, liquefied gas, perfume, rum or nitroglycerin, among other unconventional “fuels.”

In Quejas y sugerencias—excellent catalogue, unfortunately marred by inexplicable typo errors—along with his customary Cuban flags whipped by the wind, tattered, detached from their natural roots, divided by the absence of some of the many children that they give shelter to, Michel Mirabal presents a piece that inevitably grabs the visitors’ attention: an aggressive mailbox intended for receiving complaints and suggestions from citizens, but whose slit shows bloody and paralyzing fangs. Mirabal’s exhibition is one of the most visited and talked about, boosted no doubt by a prior performance-concert at the Acapulco theater with the participation of controversial hip hop musicians, the Van Van band and the founding member of the “nueva trova,” Vicente Feliú, plus actor Jorge Perugorría of Fresa y Chocolate fame as emcee.

The group show of young artists, En mala forma, makes way for “our daily” kitsch, for certain “aesthetic symbols” of economic power, for “nice” things, while it seems to ask the shocked viewer, “And who are you to judge?”

Meanwhile, in Sin papel, Cesar Gustavo Echevarría (Cuty) makes use of his usual devise of placing his characters, usually women, in “awkward’ situations, since, according to the artist himself, he prefers to capture “moments of intimacy, everyday attitudes and actions that are usually performed behind doors, such as the act of urinating, bathing, nudity, poses, unusual and private behaviors (in which eroticism may be included).

Esperando que caigan las cosas del cielo o Deporte, by Arlés del Río, may be described as a sort of monument to irony. With this impressive installation, which is based on detailed reproductions in bronze of the bones in the arm, attached to a concrete base and ending in old baseball gloves, the author confesses he has wished to make reference to “something that is happening in the country and the world. We just stay standing there, motionless, waiting for luck to play with us without fighting for what we want.”

From his extensive generic arsenal, Jorge López Pardo enhanced installation art in Capital humano, presided by a huge crate in which bodies are stacked for transport, and, borrowing a phrase that has saturated the Cuban official language, he calls the attention on the conversion of man into pure merchandise.
Another installation that refers to freedom and to the seductions that may be used as strategies for their limitation is young Lorraine Gutierrez’s Condenados, with an impeccable neon cage in the middle of a room that is lined with silver-colored vinyl.

Other artists have achieved remarkable exhibitions without departing from their usual artistic course.

Using an almost impressionistic blurred brightness in Vacío, Luis E. Camejo contrasts images of populated cities and inanimate images, with no human life; another reality whether imagined, desired, or dramatically real.

Inserted within a group of artists whom a critic, with more fortune than precision, called “post-medieval,” in Mi arca, Rubén Alpízar maintains his disturbing and virtuous re-appropriation and re-contextualization of a symbolic universe with which he visits present-day issues and concerns—his almost scenographic representation, with mixed media on wood, of buildings at whose windows/niches each figure seems to tell or live a different story, makes reference to a microcosm that is reproduced in modern society on a large scale.

Affiliated to “neo-historicism,” which relates him to Alpízar, in Rutas al descubierto, William Hernández uses painting, engraving and sculptural objects to delve into the subconscious and the most pressing materiality of Cuban and universal beings.
Meanwhile, in Permanecer en la tierra, Santiago Rodríguez Olazábal exhibits a very different aesthetic, whose strong expressionism, firmly seated in the ancient wisdom of the Yoruba religion, aims to “signify the ephemeral sense of perception of time and the many instances that the act of waiting immobilizes memory and the pace of the silences of this irretrievable treasure—time—which can break, one way or another, the entire existence,” and is confirmed as one of the most interesting figures across the spectrum of Cuban art.

Intimate, sincere religious roots, alien to “folkloric” opportunism, are transpired in Reparto Flores vol. 2, by Carlos Quintana, one of the most admired Cuban artists who live abroad, thanks to his violent and enigmatic work, which, paradoxically, establishes an effective communication with the viewer.

With Strawberry Fields Forever, Joel Jover has summarized in seven paintings concerns and anxieties that have permeated his work over several decades, hoping to “testify to the meaning that art had to an artist at a given moment in time.”

Several group exhibitions are worthy of consideration here at La Cabaña.

Galería 79 is a group exhibition of recent graduates of Havana’s University of the Arts (ISA), who show a marked preference for three-dimensional forms and the valorization of the materials which they work with.

Flyers includes the work of renowned artists such as Flavio Garciandía and Raul Cordero, as well as young artists who have not yet gained great visibility, plus a selection of video art by Cuban and international artists under the premise of absolute creative freedom.
Haciendo presión favors engraving done in Cuba by artists trained during the past fifteen years—with a number of guests such as the ubiquitous Sandra Ramos—and shows the diversity of languages ??and techniques.

Abstraction is also present in the group exhibition De lo vivo a lo pinta’o with paintings by Enrique Ávila, Enrique Baster, Ramón Casas, Rafael Consuegra, Manuel Comas, Salvador Corratgé, Pedro de Oraá and Carlos Trillo, just to mention a few.

A final recommendation—in the maelstrom of proposals inside, do not neglect the interesting selection of large-scale pieces located outdoors, from the very entrance to the exhibition area.

Although some experts have observed—so far sotto voce—their dissatisfaction with the lack of a curatorial plan that would have given coherence to such a varied exhibition, and criticized some artists for giving preference to the more commercial aspect of their work with an eye on potential buyers, it is worth making a visit to La Cabaña for the most comprehensive exhibition on Cuban art ever held in the island.

La Cabaña: An opportunity for contrast by Ricardo Alberto Perez
The wide possibilities as an exhibition location that the Morro-Cabaña complex, on the eastern side of Havana’s Bay, provides has been demonstrated once more during the 11th Havana Art Biennial. The large, attractive outdoor spaces combined with many indoor spaces have served to exhibit the very diverse work of a considerable number of Cuban artists. I will comment here on two works that are being exhibited at La Cabaña Fortress—Samsara (dando sánsara de la India a Cuba) by Leandro Soto; and the other one from the project Paisaje Itinerante by Rafael Villares.

With Samsara, Soto’s extended absence from Cuban exhibition halls is happily interrupted. Born in the city of Cienfuegos in March 1956, he currently lives in India. He is considered one of the pioneers of performance art in Cuba and is a legendary figure of contemporary Cuban art. His work is part of important collections in several countries including the US and Mexico. The National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana has on display his piece Kiko, el constructor [Kiko, the Builder], which has had a great impact generation after generation.

Basing his discourse on the Hindu philosophical universe, which he contaminates with a strong parodic content, the artist revisits the topic of the diaspora. Everything happens through an amusing combination between the mediums chosen and the way he addresses the spirit’s journey through the different life cycles, and how the emergence of the external macerates the harmony supposedly programmed by a divine order that often prevails, although its survival at times becomes precarious.

Soto starts from a divided diaspora, in a sense invisible, which gives him free rein to his imagination. All of the pieces are painted on saris, garments that contain within themselves a significant force. The lightweight cloth accentuates the lightness of his work, which, among its implied provocations, can lead us to the pleasant illusion of levitation. Here, too, the almost always imagined link with the body—paradoxical suggestion that will have to face the higher concept of immateriality—steps in.

The island of Cuba is reinvented over and over from multitudes of beings from other latitudes, or from enigmatic boats, which, far from trying to sail, dialogue about the vital space. The sugar cane, so decisive in shaping the national imaginary and so defining in the formation of our identity, also invades these singular saris offered by Soto. In the center there remains a circle marked with color chalks, which lets itself be lined with rose petals that at some point in time will dry—waste or detritus of the artist’s presence, who during the opening interacted with the viewers in a somewhat nostalgic relationship with the past that gave him a place in Cuban avant-garde art.

The other work I mentioned before is Rafael Villares’s project Paisaje Itinerante [Itinerant Landscape], which began its journey in the open-air space of La Cabaña Fortress. Breaking away from traditional landscapes, it will travel around the city for one month. A profound debate over what remains static and urgently demands some kind of mutation or change is implicit in this paradoxical piece.

With the help of a crane, Villares’s landscape manages to rise slightly above the usual landscape giving a discrete privilege to the viewers and suggests that the ways of exercising power can be many and subtle, and may even become dependent on the spot from where one can extend one’s gaze. A link that has followed man practically since his origins, that is, his relationship with the immediate nature, is coerced or adulterated.

An object such as a flowerpot, in a large-scale design, acquires an unusual social connotation. A simple laurel (with the symbolic power it has managed to store over the centuries) and a park bench are enough to impact the routine of a city like Havana. May / 2012 Home (The 2012 Havana Biennial Art Exhibition )   

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