(From Here and From There)
A couple of years ago, when Catriona Fraser and F. Lennox Campello (husband and wife and also co-owners of the two Fraser Galleries in the Greater Washington, DC area) began to discuss organizing a show of Cuban art, little did they imagine the work and issues that lay ahead of them.
The idea grew out of an invitation received by Campello, who also writes art reviews and criticism for several local and national newspapers and magazines, to an art show being hosted by The Havana Hebrew Community Center’s new art gallery.
“I did a little research with some local Jewish organizations and discovered that Cuban Jewry, like all Cubans, are going through desperate times,” recalls Campello. “The fact that they still had the energy and desire to start an art gallery in the middle of this crisis, showed remarkable courage and strength.”
And so Fraser and Campello decided to organize a show of contemporary Cuban artists and artists of Cuban ancestry from the Cuban Diaspora. The goal was to bring to the Washington area the work of artists who had seldom, if ever, displayed their work in the Greater Washington, DC area, or even the United States. A percentage of the sales, the couple decided, would be sent, as an unsolicited gift, to the Havana Hebrew Community Center’s Art Gallery.
“What a tremendous learning experience this has been so far!” admits Campello. “First of all,” he comments, “we had to go through and review all the legalities of the Cuban embargo, and we also wanted to deal directly with the artists and avoid any contact with the Cuban government.”
In 1991, New York’s Center for Cuban Studies spearheaded a successful lawsuit against the U.S. Treasury Department, which made the importation and sale of original art from Cuba legal. However, Campello and Fraser discovered that the task is still a laborious and intricate process.
“Trying to communicate with someone in Cuba is still a tricky process,” details Fraser. “Thank God for email!” she adds.
It helped immeasurably that Campello, an American who is the son of Cuban exiles, is able to read, write and speak Spanish fluently, and that many Cuban-Americans now routinely travel to Cuba (a trip generally forbidden to other Americans) to visit families.
“We began by working with curators, both here and in Cuba, and gallery owners here and abroad, to begin reviewing artists’ works. We then used a whole network of people visiting Havana and other parts of Cuba,” adds Fraser, “and I was able to get in direct contact with many Cuban artists.”
“We then discovered, to our amazement,” she continues, “that many of these artists have a worldwide reputation, have exhibited in major exhibitions, such as the Venice Biennale, and are part of the permanent collection of important museums, such as MOMA, and yet have seldom, if ever, exhibited in the United States and never in Washington!”“Not only did we put together what I feel is a superb, eye-opening show,” states Campello, “but we’re also planning and discussing several future solo shows by artists who could not participate this time – like Tania Brugera, perhaps the best known Cuban artist in the world.” “This show covers many subtle angles of Cuban culture, history and world impact,” says Campello. “For example, we included work that depicted many powerful Cuban issues such as exodus, racism and politics. And other key facts of being Cuban, such as music, Santeria, sexuality and society.” “As with many of our group shows,” states Campello, “we also wanted to mix it up between well-known artists, known to critics, to collectors and to museums, together with some lesser known, but talented Cuban artists who would then benefit from being in a show with internationally acclaimed compatriots.”
One such acclaimed artist is Sandra Ramos: Her work has attracted attention from Mexico to Tokyo and has been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and many others. As Miami art critic Fabiola Santiago puts it, “her art is not just remarkable enough on its artistic merit alone. But it is even more so because she's a vanguard artist inside Cuba, part of a generation that in the past decade broke through some of the constraints of censorship and made art, music, movies and authored works reflective of the starkness of Cuban reality.”
Ramos’ artwork touches on many taboo subjects of Cuban society: the trauma of emigration, the loss of childhood, the separation of families, loss of love, etc. Through the media of chalcography, and using an Alice in Wonderland image of herself as a little girl, she delivers powerful images that pronounce strong messages and indictments. In “Quizas Deba Partirme en Dos” (Perhaps I should split into two), the little girl is literally being divided into two parts: to her left is the symbols of Cuba: the palm tree, a childhood hopscotch game on the sidewalk and others. The girl, who is being split by a triangular image showing a Cuban independence figure, has a target painted on her breasts, and an arrow embedded in her chest. She looks to the West, represented by the leaning tower of Pisa, and her eyes shoots a flame with a question mark, while above it all, the bitter plane of exile cries tears of pain.
Ramos, who has never before exhibited in the Washington area, broke into the international art scene in the 1990’s. Mostly European curators and art gallery owners who traveled to Cuba for the Havana Bienal saw her work and began showing it in their galleries and promoting her art abroad such as Art Basel and others. "She's an artist who surrenders her biography, her most intimate feelings and her own body to discuss social, political and cultural problems," Cuban art critic and curator Gerardo Mosquera has said of her work. “She uses her portrait to personify the Cuban flag, the island, establishing a parallel between her personal situation and the suffering of her own country." Sandra Ramos has been recently selected to participate in the VIII Havana Bienal.
The exhibition also features the debut of leading Cuban digital artist Deborah Nofret Marrero, as well as photographers Marta María Pérez Bravo and Elsa Mora. While Nofret Marrero provides the sharp edge of digitalism for the exhibition, Mora and Pérez Bravo, like Ramos, use their photography as a visual weapon to reflect on the woes and highs and lows of present day Cuba.
In Elsa Mora’s “Perda do Sentido” (Loss of Reason) series, we first see Mora in blackface, her white skin buried in layers of blackness, with the Portuguese words for “Loss of Reason” written on her forehead, as her mouth is covered, in one instance by a speckled hand, and in others by an unidentifiable root-like implement that she constructed. The series, which is made up of six photos, then brings the next three pieces, where Mora’s face is painted in red and is slowly erased by a dark cloud.
“Perda do Sentido” was done by Mora as a reaction to the suicide of fellow artist Belquis Ayon, with whom Mora was closely working for a two-person show in Canada at the time of Ayon’s death.
As such, Ayon’s suicide had a profound impact on Mora and she states that the works are aimed at finding something about life and death, and fear. The painted colors reflect life (black) and death (red) and the odd implement used in the photos by Mora represent mystery. Ayon, who was black, was one of Cuba’s most acclaimed international artists, and according to Mora outwardly happy and secure. One must then ponder the uncertain question: Is Mora subtly or even subconsciously discussing the plight of Afro-Cubans in the surprisingly racist society of present day Cuba?
Elsa Mora has been selected to participate in the coming Havana Bienal.
Fellow photographer Marta María Pérez Bravo is another Cuban photographer who has a remarkable international audience for her works, and yet has never exhibited in the Washington area. “Getting her work over was one of the great frustrations of this event,” recalls Fraser. “Pérez Bravo’s key works are very large in size, and we really wanted to have them in the exhibition, as the size is part of the impact. Unfortunately, we could not justify the huge expense of having them shipped from Cuba, as they were all printed on Plexiglas and could not be shipped rolled, as many of the other pieces were.”
“In the end,” she continues, “we were able to get several earlier, smaller pieces for the show, and we hope to give Marta María Pérez Bravo a solo show in our Washington gallery next year.”
Painter Jacqueline Zerquera Tejada leaves little room for doubt in her visceral depictions of what it means to lose you freedom. In both “Sujeto I” and “Sujeto II” (Sujeto is Cuban slang for someone who has been arrested – it literally means “being held”) we have canvases where the near abstraction of the paint coalesces into photo realistic depictions of manacled hands and feet. The sheer terror of the bare extremities is palpable and foreign.
Fellow Cuban painter Aimeé Garcia Marrero is also included in the exhibition. Despite her youth, Garcia Marrero is one of Cuba’s most experienced international painters, and she is considered by many Cuban critics and curators to be among the leading painters of her generation, and at the tender age of 21 she was already exhibiting in two collateral exhibitions to the V Havana Bienal. It was there that her work caught the eye of several international gallery owners and curators.
Her work belongs to a genre where the most important issue is symbolism. Her employment of pictorial references to the classics, in a discourse of her own, and often employs elements that are not generally used in painting. Elements such as lead, hair, thread, photographs and others are sometimes used to finalize and cement the ideas being created by the artist.
Painters Andres Besse Montoya and Pedro Betancourt Montalvo are two generations apart, and yet their work, although visually different at first, have a common thread of Cuban life and Santeria.
Moltalvo depicts crowded, tight Havana landscapes that bristle with clues, signs and symbols that carry the hidden meanings and directions of Cuban Santeria. Besse Montoya’s works borrow heavily from Cuban master Wifredo Lam, and like Lam’s works, serve as a vehicle to marry Cuban Santeria with the traditions of western painting.
On the other side of the spectrum, the exhibition also features the work of artists from the Cuban Diaspora. One such artist is Washington, DC photographer Nestor Hernandez. Born of an Afro-Cuban father and an African-American mother, Hernandez grew up in the DC area knowing little of his Afro-Cuban ancestry and relatives. A few years ago, he began visiting Cuba and meeting and photographing his extended Cuban family. Using the camera as a powerful unifying weapon, Hernandez began to overcome his lack of Spanish to get to know his Cuban roots and re-discover a land and people that he didn’t know. His photographs act also act as a creative healing bridge between a people separated by ideology and history but always reunited by blood.
Elena de la Maza left Cuba as a child as part of the sad Peter Pan exodus, in which thousands of Cuban children, under the sponsorship of the Catholic Church voluntarily left Cuba and were separated from their parents, who were willing to send their children into exile rather than raise them in a Communist state where the children belong to the government rather than families. She has never returned to Cuba, but her heart longs for a land that only exists in her childhood memories. In “Jinetera” (Cuban slang for prostitute), Maza’s stark painting depicts a young black prostitute working in front of a decrepit, once elegant classical building, her face garishly painted to lighten her skin. It is a sad commentary on current state of young Havana girls, attracted by the tourist Euro and dollars to the ancient trade.
Andres Tremols was born in Washington, DC of Cuban parents and lived all over the Americas before resettling back in the Greater Washington area and re-discovering his Cuban roots. His artwork is now purposefully influenced by his deep convictions and desires to bring forth what the spirit of Cuba and Cubans means to him.
“De Aquí y de Allá” opens on Friday, September 12, with a catered opening reception of Cuban food, Cuban music, Mojitos and Cuba Libres. The works will be on exhibit until Wednesday, October 8, 2003. All work is for sale and the gallery is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 11:30 AM to 6:00 PM. The exhibition is free and open to the public and can be viewed online here - The gallery is located at 7700 Wisconsin Avenue, Suite E. Bethesda, MD 20814 and can be reached at 301/718-9651.
Artists in the Exhibition:
Roberto Acosta Wong
Andres Besse Montoya
Pedro Betancourt Montalvo
Aimeé Garcia Marrero
Niurka Iñurrieta Rodriguez
Deborah Nofret Marrero
Marta Maria Pérez Bravo
Jacqueline Zerquera Tejedor