Before President Obama unveiled the historic opening of relations with Cuba in December, local curator and artist Elizabeth Cerejido had been envisioning a cultural opening on her own. A Cuban American, she had visited the island a number of times, interacting with artists there, and submitted a project idea to the Knight Foundation that would send more artists from Miami to Cuba and bring their Cuban counterparts here.
A month before the president’s announcement, Cerejido won a Knight Arts Challenge grant to start this exchange, called Dialogues in Cuban Art. The grant was matched by developer Jorge Pérez and his company, the Related Group. The distance between the two countries seemed to shrink all at once.
Cerejido picked out seven Cuban-American artists who had never visited Cuba before, or who had not returned since their childhood, and planned for a May trip. It turned out to be a powerful and momentous journey for many of those involved, with the artists relating intensely personal and political stories after their return.
“Since this trip, I feel something akin to being complete or whole,” says Bert Rodriguez, 40, a Miami-born conceptual artist who now makes Los Angeles home. “I understand who I am more fully and much more profoundly than I ever have.” Rodriguez, who was in the 2008 Whitney Biennial, said the artistic experience was transformative and hard to articulate, but nonetheless he did.
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“I have never felt more connected to a group of artists intellectually, emotionally, spiritually or otherwise in my entire life traveling the world for my work. There is something unique about the way these artists see through the world that I feel very tied to. I met some unequivocally great artists in the most genuine sense of that word,” Rodriguez said.
That’s the kind of experience Cerejido was hoping for. She knew the trip could be both painful and invigorating, but that the process of “identifying areas of cultural continuities and differences” had to begin in order to truly connect.
Many of the artists had strong, preconceived perceptions about life on the island. Some were upheld; others were dismantled.
What painter Marcos Valella, 34, knew of Cuba came from stories of earlier immigrants from his family, “but having the narrative of having never gone [himself], having no notions of 2015. All of this, I think, made it somewhat shocking. Everything felt more open, more accessible, less dramatic than I imagined.”
For Miami-born performance and video artist Antonia Wright, 35, the shock was how much the Castro regime lived up to its reputation.
“I was amazed at seeing how skilled the Cuban government is at propaganda,” she says. “When we first arrived, we ate lunch at a paladar that looked like it could have been by a beach in Rio de Janeiro. They gave us a huge menu filled with steaks, lobster, whole fish, etc. Throughout the course of our trip, we met many artists, and I was surprised at their lifestyles. They can travel, own multiple homes, make political artwork. … For the first few days, I believed things in Cuba had changed. But then I started really speaking to Cubans and found out there was still much control over the people.
“Cuba is like a Potemkin Village.”
Along with Rodriguez, Valella and Wright, the other artists included Leyden Rodriguez-Casanova, Manny Prieres, Juana Valdes and Ruben Millares. They were joined at times by Pérez and his curatorial art staff. They visited museums, art institutions and numerous studios in Havana, in a physical and psychological whirlwind tour.
Rodriguez-Casanova, 42, whose conceptual artwork often references his suburban Miami roots, found the trip stressful at the beginning. “There was so much anxiety and guilt after hearing about all the suffering and hardship” from his Miami family. And the poverty of Havana did stun him, but he also visited the house where he was born, and relatives were there to greet him. It moved him more than almost anything in his lifetime, he says.
As Wright suggests, artists in Havana live fairly privileged lives compared with their compatriots; art from Cuba is still a faddish commodity, one promoted by the government. But many of the Miami artists also found the artists in Havana to be confined by this status. “Almost every work I saw was overwhelmingly and unfairly burdened by the political climate that has plagued that country and all its people for decades,” says L.A.-based Rodriguez. “There were very few artists, almost all of whom were brilliant, that have been able to explore any ideas outside of that historical context and bring their work into a larger, more expansive dialogue.”
That impression was shared by Valella. “There is definitely less access to what’s happening globally in the arts,” he says. “There is a stress on the sociopolitical. It seems that all practices are connected to the identity of the island — all the work is read as ‘Cuban art,’ [whereas] in the U.S. we have the flexibility to separate ourselves from the place of our production.”
According to Patricia Garcia-Velez Hanna, Related Group’s art director, Cuban art production has its own, unique aspects. “The artistic production for a small island is incredible,” she says. “It’s strong and diverse. The artists are very articulate and relentless. Despite limitations in materials, they manage to continue to create very consistent work.”
As part two of the Dialogues in Cuban Art project, some of those artists will visit Miami sometime in the fall, and they likely will have stories of their own to take home about art and life in Florida.
Wright sums up her lasting impression this way: “We travel all over the whole world, and it has taken me 35 years to go to the country where my mom was born. There was so much emotional baggage, I think I was paralyzed into inactivity. There is a now a sense of before and after Cuba.”
Her partner and fellow traveler, Miami-born Ruben Millares, 35, sees a connection across the straits. “I didn’t think that Dec. 17 was going to have such a profound meaning to the Cuban people,” he says of the date of Obama’s announcement. “But it turns out that it is like the other major dates in Cuban history, which are constantly referenced and used to define their circumstances.”
For Millares, who is also a musician, his lasting impression was of sitting on the famed beachfront boulevard, the Malecón, at sunset. “It was an image I had seen my whole life, and when I was finally there, it was exactly like the photographs,” he says. “Obviously, it was more intense because it was live, and it felt like a coming-home of sorts, a rounding off or resolution to a long-chord sequence.”