She is the Patroness of Cuba, a symbol of national identity on both sides of the Florida Straits, venerated for centuries by the troubled and the downtrodden, the powerful and the powerless. Cuba’s fighters for independence prayed to her, as have the many balseros who have taken to the treacherous seas on inner tubes in search of freedom.
Now, four centuries after her appearance in the Bay of Nipe, a month-long art exhibit features works inspired by this most recognizable of Cuban religious icons, La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, affectionately known as Cachita, a nickname that implies the intimate relationship that Cubans, regardless of faith, feel for this Madonna.
The installation, Cachita: The infinite lightness of being , exhibited at the Olga M. and Carlos Saladrigas Gallery at the Ignatian Center for the Arts, features 18 artists of different styles and different eras, including pieces by such well-known names as Tomas Sanchez, Jose Bedia and Margarita Cano and younger up-and-coming stars exemplified by Ariel Cabrera and Carlos Caballero.
“Each of the artists renders tribute to La Virgen de la Caridad in their own way,” said curator Janet Batet. “But they are also connected by common cultural ties that go beyond geography or time.”
To understand the significance of Our Lady of Charity, it is important to know a little of her history and how it is inextricably tied to the island’s own. The virgin is said to have first appeared sometime between 1608 and 1612 to three Cubans, brothers Rodrigo and Juan de Hoyos and their slave, Juan Moreno, as they prayed for salvation when a sudden storm began to rock their tiny boat off the northern coast of Oriente Province in Cuba. As the winds calmed, the trio spotted and salvaged a wooden figure atop a board that had the inscription, “I am the Virgin of Charity.” She held a gold cross and a baby Jesus.
A shrine was built for her in El Cobre, but it wasn’t until 1916 that Pope Benedict XV declared Our Lady of Charity as the Patroness of Cuba at the request of the veterans of the wars for Cuban independence. Today she is worshiped both on the island and in exile. In fact, on the 400th anniversary of her feast day in September 2012, thousands attended a Mass in her honor at the American Airlines Arena in downtown Miami, just a few miles from La Ermita de la Caridad, her permanent shrine on Biscayne Bay. A similar celebration took place in Cuba.
“Whether you’re a believer or not, in Cuba or elsewhere, La Virgen is a unifying factor for all of us,” said Leo Nuñez, director of the Ignatian Center for the Arts at Belen Jesuit Preparatory School in West Miami-Dade. “Cachita is Cuba.”
Don’t expect, however, to find a religious undercurrent in the wide variety of pieces. “Some,” warned Nuñez, pointing to Carlos Caballero’s oil that depicts a man’s head with the tattoo of the virgin on his neck, “may even be considered heretical.”
Of course it depends on the definition of heresy. Batet, who selected the pieces in the exhibit, points out that sometimes the connection of these works to Our Lady of Charity is very obvious. Nuestra Señora del Cobre , 1986, by the late Eduardo Michaelsen, one of Cuba’s most well-known primitive painters, features the virgin front and center, as does Margarita Cano’s Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, 2009, a mixed media.
Others are more subtle, such as Ruben Torre-Llorca’s Protegenos del mercado de arte , or “Protect us from the art market,” a paper on paper piece that surrounds Our Lady of Charity with other cultural icons, including a boxer, an astronaut and Alice in Wonderland.
Some of the pieces were loaned by private collectors. Others are owned by the artists and a few were painted for the exhibit itself. They range from the small — 10 by 13 inches — mixed media on cardboard, Untitled, 1978, by Tomas Sanchez to the Glexis Novoa video installation La luz permanente , or “The permanent light,” and the Angel. R. Vapor sculpture, Altar de Mar .
This diversity is exactly what Batet sought. “I didn’t want the same vision of the virgin,” she said. “I wanted to find different interpretations because all Cubans, every one of us, has our very own image that we carry with us.”