US Welcomes Cuban Artists

Rene Peña, Untitled, 2010, inkjet print, 40 by 52 inches, in “Queloides/Keloids” at the Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh.


When nations do battle, the arts suffer. The ongoing embargo and travel restrictions between the United States and Cuba have for years made cultural exchange extremely difficult. But under the Obama administration, frosty relations have begun to thaw, and the border has become more porous. Among those Cuban nationals recently issued visas to enter the U.S. are nine visual artists, eight of whom were to begin residencies in mid-September [shortly after this issue went to press] at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh, where they are creating site-specific installations for the exhibition “Queloides/Keloids: Race and Racism in Cuban Contemporary Art” [Oct. 15, 2010-Feb. 27, 2011]. The ninth artist, Yoan Capote, is traveling to New York for his first U.S. solo show, at Jack Shainman Gallery [Oct. 14-Nov. 13]. In 2006, Capote received a Guggenheim fellowship but was barred from entering the U.S. to accept the award. Now, four years later, he has been granted an extended visa allowing him to stay in the U.S. to undertake the fellowship.

The lifting of travel restrictions is part of the Obama administration’s plan to expand U.S.-Cuba exchange opportunities for artists, academics and other cultural ambassadors, which is in keeping with the People to People Program established by President Eisenhower in 1956 as an international tool of cultural diplomacy. The recent policy change (essentially in effect but not officially announced at this writing) follows upon Havana’s agreement in July to free 52 political prisoners, a deal that was brokered by the Catholic Church with the stipulation that the prisoners would be exiled to Spain. By late August, 32 of the inmates had agreed to the terms and were freed by authorities.

People exchanges with Cuba, which President Clinton expanded in 1999 with an increase in travel licenses and the introduction of direct passenger flights to the island, was intended to promote good will through culture, despite the ongoing U.S.-imposed trade embargo. In 2003, travel restrictions were again tightened under President Bush in response to the arrest of 72 Cuban dissidents; that December, the U.S. stopped issuing Cuban people-to-people travel licenses.

According to University of Pittsburgh professor Alejandro de la Fuente, who co-organized “Queloides/Keloids” with Cuban artist Elio Rodríguez Valdés (also in the show), “the policy has been changing in practice under Obama. In fact, several Cuban artists and intellectuals have been allowed into the U.S. recently, including some very visible ones like [songwriter] Silvio Rodriguez in June. That was unthinkable just a few years ago.”

The political atmosphere today is vastly different than in 2004, when 10 Cuban artists—including René Francisco, Glenda León, Sandra Ramos and José Toirac—were denied visas to travel to Pittsburgh to complete museum residencies and to create an exhibition of site-specific installations at the Mattress Factory. In response, the works were produced by the museum’s staff following instructions sent from Cuba via fax, e-mail and mail. As a gesture of protest and to ironically signal the absence of the artists, the Mattress Factory retained the original exhibition title, “New Installations, Artists in Residence: Cuba.”

“Queloides/Keloids” premiered at the Wifredo Lam Center of Contemporary Art in Havana last spring [Apr. 10-May 30] with works by Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, Alexis Esquivel and Marta Maria Pérez Bravo, among others. The show’s title is a reference to scar tissue that forms from a deep wound, a metaphor for issues of racism and social injustice in Cuba. The subject of racism is a politically sensitive one for Cuban authorities, and de la Fuente’s role in bringing the controversial topic to public attention may have led to his being denied entry into the country in June. The exhibition was greeted with official silence by Cuba’s state-run newspapers.

Although the Obama policy would allow an increased number of artists into the U.S., the lack of cargo transports between the two nations—which precludes Cuban artists from shipping work directly to the U.S.—often requires that artwork be routed through a third country, typically Mexico or Canada. U.S. embargo regulations are complicated, and even if a commercial gallery is able to obtain a license from the U.S. Treasury Department to purchase and import art from Cuba, a dealer cannot commission a new work of art or finance future projects by artists living on the island.

When asked about the difficulties of shipping new work to the U.S. for his Shainman show, Capote responded by e-mail from France, “I moved to Europe for the summer because from here I can make better crates, use the foundries and ship the work directly to the U.S. Complications are normal for me. I always try to find an innovative way to overcome obstacles.” Quoting Cuban writer and poet Jose Lezama Lima, Capote added,