Fifty years after the revolution: art reveals complexities of Cuban life
August 28, 2009
For many years, there have been two primary images of Cuba, cigars and Castro. With a collection of handmade books, prints and objects created by 13 Cuban artists and writers, a Wake Forest University professor and more than 60 students provide a window into the complexities of modern Cuba.
“Cuban Artists Books and Prints: 1985-2008” opened at the Charlotte and Philip Hanes Art Gallery on the Wake Forest campus Aug. 26 and runs through Oct. 6. It was first shown at the prestigious Grolier Club in New York City this spring with a related symposium hosted by the Museum of Modern Art.
The show features about 120 pieces, including handmade books and other objects created by contemporary Cuban painters, sculptors, photographers and printmakers.
The 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution is a good time to reflect on what has transpired historically and culturally and to observe how Cuba’s legacy is interpreted, says Linda Howe, the professor of Romance languages who led the project that has brought together artists, a small Cuban press called Ediciones Vigía, and dozens of Wake Forest faculty, staff and students.
“It is also an occasion to celebrate a vibrant culture,” Howe said. “These artists have survived cultural politics, difficult living conditions, and, at times, resource shortages that limited their access to the most basic materials, like paper.”
Designed to provide an inside look at Cuban culture and to go beyond stereotypes, the bilingual show is the result of a multi-year, multi-faceted project. Under the direction of Wake Forest professors and staff members, Wake Forest students have developed a documentary film, business plans, a traveling exhibition, a Web site (www.wfu.edu/cubaproject/), a symposium on Cuban history and culture, and lesson plans for K-12 teachers around the country.
Wake Forest students enrolled in the class “Entrepreneurship in Art Education and Educational Outreach” worked with Howe and other faculty and staff to organize the exhibit’s content and coordinate its installation and travel. Other students wrote descriptions for all the books in the show and helped prepare a bilingual exhibition catalogue.
“My goal for this project was to convert my students into travelers rather than tourists, people who see beyond the headlines and make a sincere effort to understand another culture,” Howe said.
Many of the books in the show were designed for Ediciones Vigía, a collaborative artists’ press founded in 1985 in Matanzas, Cuba. The only press of its kind in Cuba, it began with a mimeograph machine and a borrowed typewriter. Its handmade limited editions of works by leading Cuban and foreign authors are designed and illustrated primarily by Rolando Estévez. Several of these unique books are collages with cloth, leaves, sand, craft paper and wood scraps.
Though most of the artists still live in Cuba, some of their work is critical of the system. Inside a book-sized matchbox, René Bravo Quintana’s matchstick character Spark comments on the 1990s “Special Period,” when the government required energy-saving practices to avoid economic collapse. With a touch of humor, the book suggests the revolution may have lost some of its spark.
An umbrella, a large kite-shaped print, and a dress are among the works of art that provide clues about Cuban culture and insight into the artistic imagination. Some pieces present routine Cuban activities in a fanciful way. For example, in Sandra Ramos’s Alice’s Last Trip, Alice in Wonderland and friends join Cubans to wait in long lines for endless hours to catch a bus. In “I Spent Most of the Winter in Rhineland Writing These Boleros: A Fully Illustrated Winter Book,” Antonio Eligio Tonel (Antonio Eligio Fernandez), reveals his trails and tribulations as a Cuban artist living abroad in the 1990s. Carlos Estevez, who now lives in Miami, created a doll with a set of clothes covered with elaborate philosophical writings.
“The doll is my favorite work in the show,” said Lauren Gray, a 2009 Wake Forest graduate who worked on the project last year. “It made me search for the details of each piece to find the realities, complexities, and ties to Cuba that I knewwere present in every work. It made me think about what was important in my life, how my life was different from many of the artists' involved in the exhibition, and how experiences shape us all and affect our perceptions.”
In 1997, Howe founded Wake Forest’s summer academic program at the University of Havana and directed it until 2005, when the U.S. government restricted student travel to Cuba During the trips, the student groups helped Vigía Press translate and fabricate the books. Howe also conducted research for her book, “Transgression and Conformity: Cuban Writers and Artists after the Revolution.” As a result, she established strong relationships with artists and writers.
The exhibit will travel to The Fleming Museum in Vermont and then to Latino Arts, Inc. in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, after the conclusion of the Wake Forest show.
The project is sponsored by Wake Forest University; The Museum of Modern Art; The Grolier Club; InterAmericas/Society of Arts and Letters of the Americas, a program of The Reed Foundation; and The Cuban Artists Fund.
Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For information, call 336-758-5585.
Symposium: “Archipelago of Dreams: Cuban Culture, History and the Business of Art” Sept. 24 from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. in Scales Fine Arts Center’s Brendle Recital Hall. Free and open to the public.
The screening of a 17-minute documentary showing the artists working in Cuba produced by students and Max Negin, lecturer in communication, will open the symposium. Two of the artists whose work is represented will speak. Antonio Eligio (Tonel) will give a brief history of Cuban art and Carlos Estevez will discuss his artwork inside and outside of Cuba from the 1980s to 2009. Cristina Garcia, bestselling Cuban-American author of “Dreaming in Cuban,” will speak about the Cuban condition and will read from her works. Milan Hughston, chief of library and museum archives at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) will talk about the museum’s collection of Latin American art and the business of collecting art. Howe will describe her experiences working with Vigía Press and well-known Cuban artists.Emily Wakild, associate professor of history at Wake Forest, will discuss Cuban history since the Revolution.
Reception: Sept. 24 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. in the Hanes Gallery. Free and open to the public.