Cuban artists are creating some of the most exciting and innovative contemporary art in the world. The best Cuban art can stack up against the best contemporary art being created in New York, Los Angeles, Paris, London or other world art centers, while still maintaining an essential Cuban spirit.
That's my observation after returning from the 12th Havana Art Biennial in June and spending a week visiting with some of Cuba's leading artists in their homes and studios.
The trip coincided with a tipping point in US-Cuban relations. A week after our return, the US and Cuban governments announced that after a 54-year schism, they are reopening embassies in each others' Capitals on July 20th, even though the US embargo of trade with Cuba remains in place and may only be lifted by an act of Congress.
"Cuba probably has more artists per capita than any country in the world," says Sandra Levinson, Executive Director of the Center for Cuban Studies and Curator of the Cuban Art Space, one of the few places where US citizens can purchase first-rate Cuban art without personally travelling to Cuba.
"I think Cubans are dreamers and poets from birth and put their dreams and their poetry into music and art," adds Levinson, who has been leading people-to-people visits to Cuba for decades. (She accompanied Jack Nicholson on a 2-hour visit with Fidel Castro.)
And I think Cuba as a nation recognizes the importance of art because Cubans are artists from birth, in the way they live, in the way they produce, in the way they construct their lives. They are not the most practical people in the world -- practical people don't make revolutions -- but they are super smart, and they relate to one another. That's allowed them to build a real community, and if you live in a real community you can accomplish miracles.
In addition, the multiple dualities in Cuban reality engender a creative tension which can lead to unique forms of artistic expression, found in few other countries in the world.
Cuba has been somewhat isolated from its nearest neighbor due to the 54-year-old US economic blockade; but at the same time, Cuban artists are highly educated, sophisticated and aware of what's going on the rest of the world in general and the art world in particular.
Cuban artists are still driven more by their own creative muses than by the dictates of the commercial art market. They often depict the creative tension between consumerism and Cuba's shortage of consumer goods. And their work often slyly, and not so slyly, critiques social conditions in Cuba. A lot of Cuban art includes strikingly contemporary takes on gender identity, race and sexuality.
As Levinson told me, "the arts, including visual arts, music and poetry may be Cuba's greatest exports."
Even the best Cuban art is inexpensive by market-driven world standards. Howard Farber, who probably owns the most valuable collection of contemporary Cuban art of any North American, thinks prices are ridiculously low, adding, "If you look at the prices of American contemporary art, you could have a great Cuban collection for what you would pay in sales tax in the U.S. for comparable work."
Prices are likely to increase as more Cuban art is exposed to the international commercial art market, and early buyers, as well as the artists themselves, are likely to benefit financially. There may still be a chance to discover the Cuban Picasso or Basquiat before the rest of the world does.
Will the temptations of the commercial market diminish the originality of Cuban art? Levinson remains generally optimistic. "Cubans have a great sense of self, and I'm betting on the great Cuban artists -- for the most part -- to keep their integrity. The lesser artists, not so much."
In any case, art was flowering all over Havana during the recently-completed Biennial. Havana was filled with participatory public art installations. Among them was an artificial ice skating rink, an ironic statement in Havana's tropical heat.
"It's cool to see common Cuban people interacting with the art," said Ayelet Ojeda Jequin, a curator at Havana's Fine Arts Museum.
But the heart of the Biennial was the Zona Franca (Free Zone) where 150 of Cuba's best contemporary Cuban artists each had an exhibition space.
One striking example was an interactive installation by Mabel Poblet -- whose work often focuses on self-reflection including gender and sexual identity -- but in this case consisted of a glass-like floor representing the sea over which viewers could walk, creating their own cracks in the floor.
As the catalogue states, "The sea as tragic and beautiful reference to many comings and goings; the sea as obstacle and bridge; the sea as space and time of life, of freedom, but also of death."
Another striking room contained ripped-from-the-headlines work by Michel Mirabel (whose work is owned by, among others, Muhammad Ali, Quincy Jones and even Donald Trump) filled with multi-media pieces consisting of newspaper headlines, splashes of paint and US and Cuban flags, commenting on the recent announcement of renewed diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba with a combination of optimism and irony.
Even more stimulating than the Biennial exhibitions was the opportunity to visit with some of Cuba's best artists in their homes and studios.
World-class Cuban artists are amazingly accessible. Can you imagine calling up, say, Julian Schabel or Jeff Koons, and telling him that you'd like to stop by his studio in a few minutes to check out his latest work?. But that was exactly the case with Kadir Lopez, to whom Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith paid a surprise visit last December and walked away with $45,000 in art. Although Mr. Lopez was out of town, his wife answered the phone and 30 minutes later we had a private tour of his home/studio.
Lopez makes striking multi-media creations, often constructed out of reclaimed 1950's signage from US corporations like Coke and Standard Oil (occasionally pockmarked by bullet holes) and photos of old and new Havana, with transparent coats of paint floating over them.
As one critic writes, Lopez's work
is inspired by a mediation on time: blurring the past, present and future, he criticizes the effects or progress or lack of it, and its spiritual, economic and political effects on society. While exploring the rich visual history of Cuba, he demonstrates that the mixture of realities has a long history in a country that fought for its independence and identity for most of the twentieth century.
Perhaps the highlight of our trip was lunch with Manuel Mendive at his rural home/studio surrounded by tropical vegetation.
Mendive, whose work appears in museums and private collections around the globe, may be the single most important living Cuban artist. Black, revolutionary and a practitioner of the ancient Afro-Cuban Santaria religion, Mendive greeted us with an easily approachable charm, but dressed all in white, with flowing white hair, his very being radiates spirituality.
Working in painting, sculpture, installations, performance art and video, Mendive's art often incorporates humans, animals and spirit-like figures.
Mendive's Afro-Cuban Santeria roots are most evident in his performance work in which he paints naked human bodies.
NYU Fine Arts Professor Edward Sullivan calls Mendive's work
daring, rebellious, unconventional and brave. He does not care about fashions or trends. His images, which so often incorporate and wildly transform the vestiges of African stimulus, do not appeal necessarily to those who seek the latest trend in the art world. Instead of intellectualized minimalism or hollow conceptualism, Mendive relies on the senses: thought, touch, breath, air and fire.
Robert Diago is a younger world-class Afro-Cuban artist whom we visited in his Havana studio/home.
Earlier in his career, Diago juxtaposed images with graffiti-like words and his work drew comparisons to the likes of Basquiat. But now his work is increasingly abstract and even minimalist.
His most recent series of paintings is mostly in black & white with occasional splashes of red suggesting marks from a slave master's whipping; even in his abstract work, slavery and Diago's Afro-Cuban roots is a theme to which he repeatedly returns, whether overtly or obliquely.
When Diago paints black faces, they are often without mouths, referencing his view that despite the efforts of the Cuban revolution, Afro-Cubans still often have less power than whites.
I bought a catalogue of his latest show, which he personally autographed. He then painted a picture of a mouth-less face on the inside cover and had it delivered to the nearby restaurant where we were having dinner. So for the price of a catalogue, I'm now the proud owner of an original signed Diago.
The young generation of emerging Cuban artists was evident in a visit to the home/studio shared by Marlys Fuego and William Perez. The space was given to them by the Cuban government if they would fix it up, which they've spent 3 years doing by hand, until it's hard to distinguish from a young artist's studio in Brooklyn.
William's work often consists of monumental sculptures for public spaces, including this rhinoceros which he and Marlys plan to accompany to California this August for an exhibition at the Museum of Latin American Art.
The 28-year old Marlys work is often erotically charged and comments on gender, like this 8 foot square work with Marlys standing next to it :
If you look closely, you can see an image of Marlys in the lower left-hand corner flying a kite that looks accidentally, or not so accidentally, like a vulva. Commenting on her own work, Marlys writes, "I use an ironic commentary, a touch of humor and absurdity. I'm trying to make clear that man/woman responds to culturally created codes and that these as such, are not set in stone." Speak about Cuban art being as contemporary as anything in the rest of the art world.
Cuban artists also create world-class photography, both documentary photography and extremely contemporary photography of a more abstract, and even conceptual, nature.
Iconic documentary photographer Roberto Salas greeted us in his home/studio with a hint of a Bronx accent, a reminder of his New York upbringing as the son of a Cuban-born freelance photographer who took pictures of everything from weddings to baseball legends like Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. In 1957, a young, clean-shaven, lawyer named Fidel Castro arrived in New York to raise money for his cause of overthrowing the right-wing Cuban military dictatorship and the 16-year old Salas's photo of the Statue of Liberty draped in a Cuban flag to generate publicity was published in Life Magazine. After the Cuban revolution, Salas returned to Cuba where his iconic black and white photographs introduced the world to Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and their fellow Cuban revolutionaries.
But Salas's amazing eye for light and composition elevated his work from photojournalism to the truly artistic, and as time went by, he enlarged his subject matter to include Cuba's first book of nude photography, computer-enhanced photos of Havana and extraordinary photos of ordinary Cubans which almost appear to be paintings by Dutch masters like Rembrandt.
Minutes after leaving Salas's home we were at the studio of contemporary photographer Ernesto Javier, whose work moves beyond the documentary to incorporate conceptualism, electric lights integrated into the photos and ironic social commentary.
Some of Javier's photos are imbedded in sewer pipes and fire hydrants and incorporate LED lights.
One of his works depicts a bar lined with liquor bottles "branded" with labels of the likes of Jim Morrison, Bob Marley, Adolph Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Che Guevara and 1920s Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci, overlaid with a neon bar sign ironically reading "Self-Service".
Although our trip focused on the visual arts, it would be nearly impossible to visit Cuba without being exposed to some incredible music. One night our group visited a jazz club to see the charismatic keyboardist Roberto Fonseca and his group.
Another night we sat outdoors on the steps of the town church in the provincial town of Trinidad where an Afro-Cuban music and dance group performed for a mix of townspeople and tourists drinking rum and beer.
And one evening most of our group hung out at the Fabrica de Arte (Art Factory) a combination dance club/art space packed with young Cubans out for a good time. Shortly before our visit, Questlove of The Roots had DJ'd a set there.
The vision of artists often runs ahead of the actions of politicians. As US and Cuban political leaders -- separated by 90 miles of geography but 54 years of antagonism -- inch towards normalizing relations, it may be the artists who are, literally and figuratively, the "avant-garde".