by Eric Newill
Throughout the world, most artists struggle to achieve recognition, let alone acclaim and riches. A mere handful can depend upon the plush support of a Medici or a Peggy Guggenheim, a Leo Castelli or a Larry Gagosian. To that list of blue-chip backers, however, must be added Fidel and Raúl Castro, who perhaps alone among international state leaders have placed artists at the top of the government food chain.
In Cuba, those who paint or sculpt are often treated like emperors, rewarded for their contributions to the Revolutión by personal wealth, liberal travel allowances and the enjoyment of a standard of living far above that of the typical citizen. The fact that these artists, we hear, annually bring in 268 million dollars into government coffers from international sales is not to be looked upon lightly. Indeed, many are sent abroad as cultural ambassadors, as was seen recently when the artist Kcho (pronounced KAH-cho) swirled the pro-Castro July 26th flag and shouted, “Viva Fidel!” at the recent opening of the Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C.
The Jeff Koons of Cuba, Kcho maintains an impressive factory in Havana, making monumental objects with the aid of myriad dedicated worker bees. In a compound behind gates wrought with his name, works such as a pile of suitcases with HAV luggage tags and fanciful rafts sporting mechanized singing birds are constructed by a team of devoted assistants. (The irony is palpable: Symbols of escape and travel—on the surface a reflection of the populace’s desire to leave the island—have allowed Kcho to live a life undreamed of if he defected. Thus he remains a national celebrity, tacitly sponsored by the government in its support of the arts.)
Such ironies are everywhere, as we observed during a recent trip organized by Miami-based LAACS Travel (Latin American and Caribbean Studies) to experience the Cuban Biennial. Notwithstanding its name, the fair occurs every three years, a bit of surreal logic that somehow makes sense in this land that is frozen in time.
And speaking of things frosty, one of the most discussed and photographed temporary installations of the fair was a working ice-skating rink mounted on the legendary seaside boulevard the Malecón. Mere yards from the balmy Caribbean, and baking in 90-plus temperatures, the rink was the brainchild of New York artists Duke Riley and Kitty Joe Sainte-Marie, who sprayed water on plastic acrylic sheets to create the illusion of a winter activity up north. The squeals of the delighted participants could be heard clear up to the penthouse of the Hotel Nacional.
Meanwhile, across the bay of Havana, the Morro (ca. 1589) and adjoining Cabaña (ca. 1774) fortresses served as the site of the fair’s premier exhibition. Where once Che tortured his enemies is now the Zona Franca, a series of spaces dedicated to the work of prominent Cuban artists, many of whom are represented by LAACS’ gallery arm, PanAmerican ArtProjects. There one encountered the faux-naïf sculptures of Abel Barroso, who plays with the ideas of globalization and technology by crafting whimsical iPhones and such out of wood; a massive pile of letters, papers, books and ephemera by José Manuel Fors, representing the evaporation of Cuban patrimony as a loss of collective memory; the painting of Roberto Diago, who deals with issues of race and identity; and the 16-foot installation Ave Maria by husband-and-wife team Meira Marrero and José Toirac (toe-EE-rac), comprised of 55 virgins of multiple media, origins and seriousness. (Some date to the 19th century; others are cartoon-like trinkets made in China. “The number five and its multiples are attitudes of Ochún,” say the artists, referencing not only Catholicism but also Cuban Santería.)
Of course, the world outside the island’s boundaries is always subtly present. In the middle of a working-class village named Casablanca, across the bay from the city, we stumbled across an amazing silver-encased edifice on a hill. Like many structures in Cuba, it was on the verge of collapse, until its restoration was undertaken as a Biennial project by Peruvian architect and artist Cesar Cornejo. With a splendid view of the water, and owned by the family whose long-time launch concession to Havana (a tropical Staten Island Ferry) was confiscated by the government, the house is now an exhibition center and source of neighborhood pride. On its façade, however, Cornejo placed a gargantuan, eye-catching swooping silver sculpture: It is meant to evoke not only a ship’s sail, a nod to the family’s interests, but also the undulating curves of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao. Even here, on a quiet street where a dog lies lazily in the shade and no noise disturbs the tranquility, the long arm of international sophistication is finally shattering the membrane of Cuban isolation.