Is a Cuba without one Castro a more open place for artists? Before anyone could get the question out this weekend, Cuba was already answering.
Cuban street artist Danilo Maldonado Machado, also known as El Sexto, was in a silent Havana early Saturday morning as news of dictator Fidel Castro’s death set the streets of Miami ablaze in celebration. Via a video posted on his Facebook page, the artist can be seen walking the nearly deserted Havana streets calling Castro a yegua, or mare, and calling on the public to celebrate Castro’s death.
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Shortly after, police forced themselves into his apartment and detained him as he shouted “Abajo Fidel; abajo Raúl” (Down with Fidel! Down with Raúl!), according to his girlfriend, Alexandra Martinez of Miami. He remains detained at a police station in Guanabacoa, a neighborhood in Havana.
Maldonado Machado was scheduled to attend the premiere of an HBO documentary, “Patria O Muerte: Cuba, Fatherland or Death,” by director Olatz López Garmendia in Miami on Monday as part of Miami Art Week.
The 15th iteration of Miami’s highlight annual art show, Art Basel, this week will play host to several other Cuban-based artists in town to exhibit their works, many of which feature subtle political undertones.
But their relationships with art and government, freedom and censorship, vary widely from Maldonado Machado’s at a time when Cuba seems to be in transition between a storied past that has been its cornerstone, and an open future in a new direction.
One had to be realistic and even though Castro has passed away, decades and decades of tyranny that have happened in that country are just not going to disappear because one man has passed away.
Nick Korniloff, director of Art Miami
Take Lorena Gutiérrez, a Havana-based artist who is part of a nine-artist delegation with Miami Dade College’s Museum of Art + Design. At Art Basel, she’s displaying a site-specific installation focused on white-collar corruption.
The piece already got exposure in Cuba, where it was exhibited at a state-sponsored gallery and approved by Cuba’s Ministry of Culture, she said, despite the subject matter. (Most galleries in Cuba are state-sponsored with only a few operating privately.)
She said she doesn’t feel censored in Cuba.
José Parlá, a New York-based artist of Cuban descent who has been traveling to the island for a decade, said most Cuban artists have a “pretty normal life comparable to what artists are doing here and in New York.”
“In general, when I speak to artists, what we all want more than anything is for Cubans to be united. It’s not about now starting to point fingers and looking again toward the past,” said Parlá, whose exhibition “Roots” at the YoungArts Jewel Box includes a painting that details the history of Cuba and its recent re-establishment of relations with the U.S.
Some censorship does remain, Parlá said, although its application is spotty.
In Cuba, it’s mysterious how some artists get away with criticizing the government more than others.
José Parlá, New York-based artist of Cuban descent
“Sometimes we think that artwork that criticizes the Cuban government, we think that’s heavily penalized,” Parlá said. “In Cuba, it’s mysterious how some artists get away with criticizing the government more than others.”
In general, there is some push-back from the Cuban government that results in discussions, said Humberto Diaz, another Havana-based artist with Miami Dade College’s delegation. But that has happened to him in other countries, too, such as Japan when he tried to exhibit a piece titled “Tsunami” following the catastrophic tsunami on the island, he said, for sensitivity issues. The majority of his more controversial pieces in Cuba still get exhibited, he said.
Overall, all Cuban artists the Miami Herald spoke to, regardless of their varying degrees of censorship on the island, could agree on one point: Castro’s death isn’t going to erode any remaining restrictions on freedom of expression.
“One has to be realistic and even though Castro has passed away, decades and decades of tyranny that have happened in that country are just not going to disappear because one man has passed away. There are certainly many others in power that would like it to remain the way that it is,” said Nick Korniloff, director of the Art Miami fair. “Part of that is to not open up any more liberal policies toward artists.”
Industry-wide, Cuba is perceived as an export art market, Korniloff said, with curators and museums visiting the island to find pieces. But the island itself hasn’t developed its own art industry.
“Galleries or artists aren’t bringing art to Cuba to be purchased,” he said. “Where is the market? Who is buying it? It doesn’t exist.”
Artists want diplomacy and peaceful union and for all this separation to stop. Art can be a bridge.
José Parlá, New York-based artist of Cuban descent
The questions mount after Castro’s death — which already comes at a time when the future of Cuba is blurred by a large question mark. While President Barack Obama’s administration opened Cuba and artists’ access to the outside world, President-elect Donald Trump’s administration promises to restore relations with the country — only if Cuba moves more toward democracy.
“Artists want diplomacy and peaceful union and for all this separation to stop. Art can be a bridge. Everyone is working really hard to create those bridges between the United States and Cuba,” Parlá said. “It’s a special time. It’s a time to reflect right now more than ever.”
El Nuevo Herald staff writer Abel Fernandez contributed to this report.