Made in the U.S.A.: Art from Cuba

Art in America, April 1986


In the Caribbean, not only races and ethnocultures were fused, but men and women from different stages of an historic social evolution. The Caribbean was a kind of time machine that united in the same environment people belonging to primitive communities, from the so-called Asian mode of production, from feudalism, and from the beginnings of capitalism. There they mixed. Each one brought not only the race and the mores associated with his or her ethnocultural identity, but the inherent consciousness belonging to his or her moment in historical evolution. That is the reason for the very natural presence of mythological forms of thought, alive and integrated with the “Western” pragmatic rationality that corresponds to modern life.

—Gerardo Mosquera


WHEN I WAS IN Cuba in 1981, I was amazed to meet a group of young artists whose work was as “avant-garde” as anything shown in the New York galleries. In 1980 they had a show called “Volumen Uno” (Volume One) and the next year they held “Pintura Fresca” (Fresh Paint) in the Centro de Arte, a small but elegant storefront in downtown Havana. That show had, indeed, a “freshness”—in both the street and ordinary senses—that I had not expected to find in an isolated, still relatively poor, fiercely nationalistic, socialist society.

This informal, but selective, group of some 15 artists (all male in 1981, tentatively integrated now) might even be called a “movement.” The artists are mostly in their 20s and early 30s, meet regularly, and show together in various permutations. Their work ranges from Photo-Realism to lyrical abstraction, to Conceptual, performance and installation art. They are championed by Gerardo Mosquera, a poet, writer and art critic some ten years their senior, who is well traveled and extremely knowledgeable about the history of modern Western art and theory. In 1981, the artists I met were familiar with some North American and European models, albeit erratically, due to the U.S. blockade and the scarcity of educational materials. Since that time, some of them have traveled and all of them have become more familiar with the international avant-garde.

In February 1985, three of the original group—José Bedia, Ricardo Rodríguez Brey and Flavio Garciandía (born respectively in 1959, 1955 and 1954) arrived in the U.S. for a four-month stay. As artists in residence at the State University of New York at Old Westbury, they exhibited at the Amelie Wallace Gallery there last April, and the show is now traveling in the Northeast. The work shown was made during the artists’ stay at Old Westbury. Thus it is a unique hybrid—”New Art in Cuba,” made in the U.S.A.

[pq]Brey is concerned with the structure of myths—colonial, contemporary, Afro-Cuba. Bedia’s subject is spirits and pays direct homage to indigenous American culture.[/pq]This event is strange enough at a time when travel to and from Cuba is severely restricted and surveilled, and the country is vilified daily by the U.S. government and press. Stranger still are the bedfellows that spawned the visit. Uruguayan artist Luis Camnitzer, a professor at SUNY Old Westbury, selected the three artists and applied for a Ford Foundation grant to bring them to the university. To his amazement, the grant came through, the State Department and the Cuban Ministry of Culture cooperated, and Bedia, Garciandía and Brey arrived. They made art, visited classes, discussed Cuban art and fielded some aggression as well as warm welcomes. The whole affair was such a success in cultural dialogue that Camnitzer is going to push his luck and apply to bring another three Cuban artists next year.


RICARDO RODRÌGUEZ Brey’s work is concerned with “the structure of myths”—colonial, contemporary and Afro-Cuban (he has Nigerian blood): “I try to discover my own continent and its history, and myself and my biography and the exact link of both, where they connect.” His book-sized sheets and roughly tied bundles of handmade paper, covered with semi-legible handwriting and overprinted with images of the flora and fauna of Latin America, are inspired by the voyages of the 16th-century Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano, and by the diaries and notebooks of German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt’s five years in South America (1799-1804). Arrows, flowers, nuts, birds, fish and animals represent nature seen between the lines of science, or culture. For Brey, Humboldt is a metaphor, “a mythical figure more than an historical one, and I can manipulate that figure for my purposes.” Similarly, he appropriates the technique of Robert Rauschenberg’s photo-transfers and applies it to specifically Latin content.

At Old Westbury, Brey’s room of rough-edged, “aged” papers, hung in long, regular rows, was varied by a dimly lit floor sculpture called The Structure of Myths—a white “rug” of salt extending almost six feet from the wall below a single, dark, fetishized “page.” The triple line of “offerings” or auguries laid out on the rug included a bundle of “ancient” manuscripts (recalling the books of Michelle Stuart), short, fat candles with white saucers with ritual oblations—some overturned, some symbolically marked with melted wax or ashes. These referred specifically to the ceremonies of santería, a native religious synthesis of African deities (Yoruba Orishas), Catholic saints and magic.

Mosquera has pointed out that Brey’s interest is in the “intellectual relationship between man and nature, rather than [in] nature itself,” and has called him “a unique case of romantic pop.” 1  An aura of scholarly, poetic mystery and melancholy pervades all of Brey’s work. He is artist as armchair explorer, using ancient references to find his place in history by reproducing the past in the present. Through this overlay he is able to comment without polemicizing on Latin reality (symbolized by indigenous nature) and imposed European culture, thereby forging emblems of national identity. “We need this kind of poetization,” he says, speaking, I assume, for his country as a whole.


CUBAN ART HAS always identified with European culture—so much so that Cuban artists have had little interest in the Mexican mural tradition. Flavio Garciandía has traveled to Canada and France, speaks good English, and has developed his current work through a series of modernist styles. At age 23 he won a national first prize in drawing for a colored portrait of Lenin, and in 1978 his work was already represented in the Cultural Patrimony (the national art collection) by a large, close-up portrait of a young girl lying in the grass, looking up intently, her hand over her mouth, a sexually provocative image of innocence painted with meticulous skill.

Influenced by British Pop artist Peter Blake, and later by David Hockney, Garciandía made a series of portraits of Cuban pop music starts in the ’70s. Around 1981, with a borrowed airbrush, he distorted his portrait style into oneiric generalizations and finally into “cosmic” abstractions, at the same time that the first Cuban sailed into space on a Soviet craft. In the last few years, he has become more interested in the content of form, particularly the “bad forms” of Cuban kitsch, or picuo. Not such a derogatory term as “kitsch,” picuo rather fondly refers to the corny extravagance of vernacular decoration—at the moment a focus for many Cuban artists.

Garciandía takes picuo as a starting point. He enjoys putting “non-cultural elements in a cultural context,” using material familiar to many Cubans, but not to reinforce any socio-esthetic hierarchy. The erratically shaped, roughly painted and luridly colored masonite reliefs he made in the U.S. for this exhibition continue a series begun in Cuba based on local proverbs. Garciandía’s fanciful forms are wittily countered by the literalness of the words and images (recalling Ree Morton’s proverb series from the mid-’70s, also inspired by life in “the provinces,” where she came to genuinely admire mass-acculturated modern folk art). [pq]When North Americans visit Cuba, their pleasure at the breadth of expression visible is often tinged with disappointment that a “more uniquely Cuban” art has not emerged.[/pq]

Most of Garciandía’s sayings translate badly into English, though a few are familiar—”a bird in hand,” or “a chip off the old block,” for example. To pick “the lowest mango” is to take the easy way out, and “the sleeping shrimp is taken by the current” might have political innuendos. Garciandía’s section of the exhibition includes a version of Swan Lake [also shown at the First Havana Biennial; see A.i.A., Dec. ’84]—a sculptural centerpiece of gaudy cutout swans and palm trees about two feet high basking on a blatantly artificial, gridded square “pond” decorated with a buxom chicken, space ships, flowers and a hammer-and-sickle wittily tucked away in the “foliage.”

Garciandía was born in Caibarién, a small town whose local decorative style of re-Latinized neo-Latinisms epitomizes picuo. (Garciandía has passed off photos of hometown artifacts as Frank Stellas.) He is currently working on a project with Mayito (Mario Garcia Joya), a leading Cuban photographer whose interest in the creations of Caibarién’s inhabitants has been expressed in an ongoing photographic series and in an installation (a collaboration with Cuban Pop-influenced painter Raúl Martínez) that was a hit at the 1984 Venice Biennale. As Max Kozloff has pointed out, Mayito’s interest is neither in anthropology nor in camp; instead, he celebrates the pride of the owners of extraordinary collections of bric-a-brac, a pride that cuts across class and milieu. 2  However, this attitude did not come easily, as Mayito himself concedes:

People there [in Caibarién] have a particular feeling for adornment, they’re always trying to dress up the last inch of their rooms with the most incredible objects, using anything, record jackets, dolls, paper flowers, plastic flowers, and the wan-like fauna you see everywhere [which are] perhaps a synthesis of the ducks and flamingos that live around the town.… [They have] a notorious taste for repeating the same patterns and overloading open space.

When I started this work, I was trying to say it was ugly, bad taste, but I … suddenly realized that I had assumed the viewpoint of the conqueror, the colonizer, trying to impose my Havana esthetics on the people of Caibarién. I was criticizing their taste because it wasn’t mine. I was not seeing that our esthetic experiences are different. So I started watching the parrandas, a sort of mardi gras with competitions for floats, and so on, among all the different neighborhoods. Many of the townspeople are real craftsmen who know how to work in papier mâché, making flowers and painting the cars that they use for the celebration each year; sometimes it looks as if these people had moved their homes to the mardi gras floats, or perhaps it’s the other way around.…

Popular culture of the sort found in Caibarién—which can be oversimplified as “primitivism” combined with the artes populares that range from handicrafts to mass kitsch—is the base of the most interesting new Cuban art. Rather than condescending, Greenberg-style, to a “misguided” segment of the population that simply consumes ready-made schlock, Cuban artists see picuo as a valid creative expression.


LATIN AMERICANS, and the Caribbean nations in particular, are proud of their multiple cultures. The tiny, powerful island of Cuba may be the crucible for an authentically American esthetic that has, in the visual arts, so far escaped most of Latin America. Neither richer, more sophisticated cities like Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, with their strong ties to Europe, nor culturally awakening countries like Nicaragua and beleaguered cultures like Guatemala’s, have achieved this degree of synthesis.

José Bedia, whose work is about American prehistory, offers a parable on the “heterogeneous appropriation” of Cuban culture: a santería altar requires ducks as an offering; they can be hand-carved in wood, but they can also be plastic kitsch objects bought in a store. “The deity will accept either as long as it is a duck.”

An archeology and ethnology enthusiast, Bedia first made Pop renditions of Mayan motifs. The pieces of his that I saw in 1981 parodied the “scientific” presentation of ancient cultures by using the conceptual framework of pseudo-museum displays, perhaps echoing a local frustration with the paucity of existing information about Cuba’s Tainos and Caribes, indigenous peoples thoroughly extinguished by the Spanish. With faked shards, arrows, feathers, beads, photo-transfers in glass cases and the gridded maps of archeological excavations, Bedia commented on cultural destruction and reconstruction.

His recent work has moved toward a more emotionally direct homage to indigenous American culture, and a grander scale. In the current show, the symbolic Indian is from the North American Plains rather than from Latin America. (Bedia and Brey visited reservations in South Dakota under the aegis of Native American artist Jimmie Durham, who has used Bedia’s name for his imaginary explorer investigating the future remains of the “Plain White People.”) Bedia’s Profile of a People (Homage to the North American Indians) is a six-foot-high outlined profile of a head with a feathered headdress; incorporating photo-collage, it is mounted on fabric and installed across two walls that meet in a corner. Directly below on the floor, a pile of straw echoes the shape of the profile (which might also be a self-portrait) like a shadow.

Bedia’s work emphasizes the cross-cultural approach that is so important to this group of artists. I prefer “cross-cultural” to the term “trans-cultural” used by Benjamin Buchloh in the “New Art from Cuba” catalogue because it implies an equal exchange between cultures rather than a transcendence of differences. The standardized “universal” or melting-pot concept, as we have seen so clearly in the U.S., usually obscures “other” cultures in favor of the dominant one. Two Continents is a striking two-part drawing on shaped canvas. In the part labeled “La Montaña Camina” (The Mountain Walks), an “Indian” male figure, radiating power in the form of knives and arrows, strides toward “La Gran Madre” (The Great Mother)—a symbol of nature and femaleness shaped roughly like the Latin American continent—to which he is connected by a real, fine-linked chain.

Bedia’s subject is spirits-spirits of the dead, spirits of indigenous ancestors, spirits of nature, spirits of good and evil, and, implicitly, the spirit of revolution. His simple line drawings on walls or paper are firmly awkward but never pretentiously dumb. While his room at the Old Westbury exhibition contained several works, they seemed all of a piece, an homage to what José Martí called “Indo-America,” a concept integrating criticism of “Yankee-America” and a hopeful homage to the future of hemispheric culture—Nuestra America.


[pq]Cubanía—Cubanism—has among its sources the revolution’s emphasis on national identity and historical analysis, as well as a sheer pleasure in place—now encompassing outdoor art.[/pq]WHEN NORTH AMERICANS visit Cuba, their pleasure at the breadth of expression visible in a whole spectrum of traditional and modernist art styles is often tinged with disappointment that a “more uniquely Cuban” art has not emerged. The Cubans reply that “it is much easier to take over the means of production than to restructure cultural conditioning” (artist Felix Beltrán). According to Alfredo Guevara, Cuban representative to UNESCO in Paris, “We are beginning a long struggle in the direction of real cultural transformation.…Making a hero revolutionary is only changing the sign. Deeper change will have to change the language. The best revolutionary artist won’t simplify, but complicate.”

And indeed, would we Yankees know Cubanía—Cubanism—if we saw it? North Americans recognize elements in the new Cuban art that are already familiar-and we see them as “ours.” But the unfamiliar elements, the truly Cuban character, is harder for us to perceive.

The Cubanía of this new art has its sources in the revolution’s emphasis on national identity and on the quality of everyday life, on historical research, cultural and political analysis and a sheer pleasure in place, now encompassing outdoor art. The expansion into nature was influenced by the Cuban-born artist Ana Mendieta, who in 1980 returned to her native island after 20 years in the U.S. IN 1981 she became the first “outside” Cuban artist to receive support from the Ministry of Culture in order to work there. Mendieta stayed for a month in the small mountain town of Las Escaleras de Jaruco, carving sensuous, abstracted female figures in to the walls of nearby caves. (These “rupestrian sculptures” were exhibited in photo form at New York’s A.I.R. Gallery in November 1981.) In a letter, she wrote that she felt “very close to generations of Indians of Cuba, the Tainos, who worked in this region 3-4,000 years ago.” Elsewhere, Mendieta said that in her work she was “reliving my heritage. My sources are memories, images, experiences, and beliefs that have left their mark in me.” 3

When she first returned to Cuba in 1980, Mendieta immediately became friends with the artists in the “Volumen Uno” show, and they visited her the next year in Jaruco. There is little question that her site work, with its earth-body-history references and passionate identification with the Cuban land, have left their mark on new Cuban art.

Gustavo Perez Monzon, for example, works in the Jaruco landscape with schoolchildren, and Marta Perez Bravo (one of the three artists Camnitzer plans to invite to the U.S. next year) works directly in the landscape, subtly reaffirming nature according to personal memories and local superstitions. In her “Waters” series of 1984, Bravo created waterfalls of white shredded paper strips on dry sites. In a farm field, she made a performance installation consisting of a series of crosses outlined on the earth with the shredded paper. This piece was accompanied by a brief narrative: “My mother was very frightened when she saw a storm forming or approaching: I remember she would send her children to the patio, each one with a pail of ashes; we had to make three crosses with the left hand; when we finished we finished we had to leave the place without looking back.”


WHILE THE VISUAL vocabularies of the new Cuban art may share a good deal with those of the international mainstream, they have been cultivated in very different ground. The educational and distributional contexts for art in Cuba are nothing like those in the United States. Garciandía compares our system’s educational focus on individual development with Cuban art schools which are “designed to form an individual who serves society.”

Graduating art students repay the state for their tuition-free educations by working for two or three years as instructors in provincial centers. There are state-organized Hermanos Saiz Brigades for the young, and Círculos de Interés for amateurs. Cultural Centers are going up everywhere, catering not only to professionals but also to aficionados, thereby beginning to create an involved and knowledgeable audience for those who choose art as their primary work.

[pq]Mayito’s interest is neither in anthropology nor in camp; instead he celebrates the pride of the owners of extraordinary collections of picuo, of Cuban kitsch.[/pq]I assume this is what Bedia had in mind when he said (in an interview in the show’s catalogue) that artists alone can’t take on the task of audience-building because it is part of a whole social mechanism. So far, as Mosquera has noted in a recent article on the social function of the plastic arts, the changes in that function have been primarily quantitative: “That is, there are more people who paint, make prints and sculpt, there are more people who are learning how to do it, there are more people who distribute, more museums, more galleries, more—perhaps too many—events, but the operating mode, the functional aspect of the plastic arts in society for the most part remains the same [as in the rest of Western culture].”

Though there are few commercial outlets for art, young Cuban artists are relatively secure economically (the three exhibiting here teach and restore art; others do graphic design). They are also relaxed about outside influences. Ricardo Rodríguez Brey, for example, claims “a certain lack of scruples,” and says that his generation is totally open to seeing things and incorporating appropriate elements to their own ends. This bricolage strategy, initially born of necessity, has been an integral part of Cuban technology and culture since 1959. 4

Many Cuban artists visualize a fusion of the cultural dimension with everyday life. They see culture as a second wave in the literacy campaign that transformed their country after the Revolution. Bedia, Brey, Garciandía and the rest of their group were raised with an approach to the “political” in art which diverges from ours; their approach has rarely included activism. Whereas “political art” in the U.S. almost always means art in opposition to the “system,” to the erosions of democracy currently encouraged by the Reagan administration, in Cuba it means an art integrated into the system.

In the early 1960s, Fidel refused to accept Soviet strictures on the arts, saying “our enemies are capitalists and imperialists, not abstract art.” He said this at the same time that he was laying down the law about oppositional culture: “Within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing.” This famous dictum can be interpreted as censorship of counterrevolutionary culture, or, as most Cubans prefer to see it, as a positive, all-embracing and supportive view: everything made in a revolutionary context is revolutionary art whatever its subject and style. When Newsday critic Karen Lipson asked Garciandía if openly oppositional visual art was possible in Cuba, he replied that the situation simply wouldn’t arise: “It’s very difficult to explain. I—or any artist—would not do something like that. We feel obligated to what is happening there, but we feel responsible for the solution of those errors” (Newsday, April 26, 1985).


MOSQUERA HAS developed an important theory about mestizaje, the mixed culture that is bursting through the cracks of dictatorship and colonialism throughout Latin America and which is so much a part of Cuba’s “creative nationalization.” Remarking “the common and organic existence of magical-mythological thought in individuals formed within ‘Western’ parameters,” he distinguishes between the classical modern artists celebrated in MoMA’s recent “Primitivism” show, who were attracted by the forms of traditional “primitive” arts but knew nothing of their content, and today’s “informed primitivists,” who are educated in anthropology, history and archeology, and are sensitive to the processes and values of the societies from which they borrow.

Mosquera envisions the development of a new generation of Latin American artists who will be unique in their “genetic preparation” for a synthesis of “primitive” and “modern,” due to the radical and cultural hybridization of the Caribbean. Unlike North Americans, Cubans need not break intellectually with their own society to embrace an exotic “other.” “It will not be like studying a foreign language,” Mosquera writes. “Primitivism will be familiar, a daily experience, since it remains alive in the people of their own environment.”


“New Art from Cuba” was first shown at the Amelie Wallace Gallery of the State University of New York at Old Westbury [Apr. 2-28, 1985]; it then traveled to SUNY at Purchase [Oct. 1-15]; Massachusetts College of Art, Boston [Nov. 4-24]; and the Montserrat School of Visual Art, Beverly, Mass. [Dec. 8-19].