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Zona Franca: megashow of Cuban art

Zona Franca: megashow of Cuban art

Hyped as the largest Cuban art show of all time, Zona Franca takes over La Cabaña as it did at the 11th Biennial, but this time the curating is more thought-out and intentional. The organizers have announced several central themes: identity, memory, the building of history, territory, communication and thought on art history itself. There aree over 240 artists showing their work, covering the widest range of esthetics, philosophies, techniques, dimensions and media.

As René Francisco’s performance forecast, the prospects, doubts and questions opened up by the announcements made by Presidents Obama and Castro last December 17 to open up relations between Cuba and the US are translated into several artistic manifestations. Among them is Gilberto Frómeta’s A volar [Let’s Fly] although the artist insists that it’s an homage to children with their paper boats and planes, and Michel Mirabal’s Carrera de relevo [Relay Race] who has added to his usual subject matter of Cuban flags made from grains of rice, American flags, bullet shells and a significant request for help to a sculpture of Our lady of Charity—the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, the patroness of Cuba.

The conflictive relationship with history (both Cuban and world history) comes to the surface over and over again and again from Joel Jover’s series called Generación del Titanic [The Titanic Greneration] within a sort of “philosophy of disillusionment,” right up to David Velázquez’s Ensueños recurrentes [Recurrent Dreams] that has also been shot full of the mistrust and expectations for the new era that appears to be opening up for Cuba. We see a man standing in front of the water with open arms full of buckets (Súplicas [Plea], 2015) and it makes us wonder what he is awaiting, what he is wants, what he is asking for.

A different look at history, this time from a stance in the future, is the one portrayed by Luis Enrique Camejo who renounces the luminous quality of space, oil and acrylics and has created well-defined drawings of the ruins of today’s emblematic sites, like the National Library, the University of Havana or the Coppelia ice cream parlor) and he has fun with three-dimensional representations of objects discovered and explained by hypothetical archeologists based on those future ruins (Ruinas futuras). Alan Argüelles’ series called Atlas (costa norte de La Habana) [Atlas (Havana’s North Coast] is a dramatic remembrance of the lives lost at sea in attempts to reach the US coast. The oil on canvas appears to show the wave-tossed sea, but as light is shone on the surface, we can make out a long list of names that the invisible ink did not let us see at first glance.

Meanwhile, Reynier Leyva Novo’s El peso de la Historia [The Weight of History] (inked rectangles on the wall, but actually an estimate of the weight of the ink and calculation of the surface it occupies, based on books and documents essential to world and Cuban history); Duvier del Dago’s Con la historia no se juega [There’s no Fooling Around with History] and La historia es de quien la cuenta {History Belongs to Those Who Tell It] all announce with their very titles the artists’ interest in the wrenching, contradictory and worrying events that eventually go to Academia crystallized as History. This concern goes beyond national elements in Agustín Hernández’s and Reynerio Tamayo’s installation The Drone Wars; in Frank Martínez’s startling Halloween, proof of how powerful suggestion can be; and in Andrés Serrano’s supportive approach to the summum of “people without history” of his excellent photographs of street-people called Residents of New York.

Abstraction, a chapter in Cuban art that insists in demonstrating its vitality, is represented at the group shows Gritos del silencio {Shouts in Silence}, where several generations come together, and Quiero ser lo que puedas ver [I Want to Be What You Can See] (photography), and in solo shows by Pedro de Oraá (Abstractivos) and Rigoberto Mena (RAKA 200)m just to mention two artists who possess completely different esthetics.

Freely reinterpreting the “classics’ of art history is an amusing game and makes us think of Babel, “medieval” tableaus by Rubén Alpízar. It is composed of two- and three-dimensional pieces in which Mondrian is inserted onto a zebra, Jesus performs miracles as a self-employed businessman (permit included), and Munch’s powerful The Scream becomes the Creole “¡Alabao!” true stage productions that Cubanize Western art. In a similar vein, Zenén Vizcaíno inserts characters from The Anatomy Lesson or The Death of Marat into unexpected contexts in Ángeles caídos [Fallen Angels].

Other works that revolve around the subject of art itself include Octavio Irving Hernández Jiménez’s Dime con quién andas… [Birds of a feather…];Tomás “Johnny” Núñez’s Renaissance; Jorge Luis Santos’ Work in Progress, installations of a painter’s studio or workshop in full activity; and another installation, El peso leve de todo lo creado [The Light Weight of All that Is Created] by José Manuel Fors, who reduces a large part of literary and artistic creation into bundles of recyclable paper.

Many artists persist in their usual modes of creation, such as Flora Fong who proudly exhibits her work together with the efforts of her two sons; Mario García Portela and his interiorized landscapes A dos tiempos [Two-strole]; Eduardo Roca (Choco) and Santiago Rodríguez Olazábal, who veer away from the folksy flavored and superficial view of the African presence in the Cuban identity; Kcho with his monumental Pensador [The Thinker} taken outside,; Roberto Fabelo, the erotic creations of Cuty; Abel Barroso’s splendid wood prints; Eduardo Ponjuán’s lighthearted Gone to Beach, and the always striking photographs of René Peña. Meanwhile a group of enfants terribles warns us: No temas a los colores estridentes [Have no fear of strident colors].

Other artists present us with some surprises, like Arturo Montoto who, in his Jardines invisibles [Invisible Gardens], encloses landscapes behind disquieting fences, or Carlos Guzmán, who mixes video art, painting and installation in his Toda tristeza es una demolición [All Sadness is a Demolition], whose combination of a dentist’s chair and a ship’s propeller in an authentic beautiful wooded landscape, reminds us of the chance encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine placed on a dissection table in the Surrealist Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror. Meanwhile, Ernesto García Peña seems to hint at Carlos Enriquez’s Eva saliendo del baño [Eve Coming Out of the Bathroom] in his paintings on doors.

Contemporary media and strategies for communication grab our attention, for example, those by Jacqueline Brito, who engages in a play on the meanings of the word “navigate” in her show called Redes sociales [Social Networks], Guillermo Rodríguez Malberti’s lovely piece Colonial Windows, and Enrique Báster’s abstract work Overwhelm in which exclusion and censorship rear a hairy ear in his ingenious Esquema del criterio suprimido [Scheme of Suppressed Opinion].

The early closing of a few of the exhibition halls prevented me from doing all the rounds and not having a remote control to activate the video left me without taking part in Mabel Poblet’s mirror game (almost as soon as I had arrived I had “missed” that opportunity with Rachel Valdés). As a farewell bonus, I was rewarded with an extensive show al fresco: the slide by Stainless, ingenuous fountains, figurative, abstract, playful and charming works… Described as “collateral” to the Biennial because it doesn’t share the “street” spirit of the event’s curatorial plan, Zona Franca is an important representation of the most recent Cuban art production. It leaves one’s soul ready (even if the body is exhausted) for the next art marathon. That will be another story.

June 2015 This article formed part of the june 2015 issue of What’s On Havana The definitive monthly travel & culture guide to Havana Download our current issue of What’s On Havana, your definitive travel, culture and entertainment guide for all things happening in Havana, Cuba’s bustling and enigmatic capital city. We include features from around Cuba written by the best international travel writers covering Cuba. Our monthly online digital magazine is also available in Spanish and French.


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