Monday, May 15, 2017

Adiós Utopia Contemporary Cuban Art - Museum of Fine Arts, Houston - Essay


"...his guerrillas liberated them from that fire squad happy despot Batista, who..."



Adiós Utopia Contemporary Cuban Art - Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

It was in order to rescue his people that Castro established a Soviet-allied Marxist-Leninist regime. They should have realized this shortly after his guerrillas liberated them from that fire squad happy despot Batista, who unfortunately took with him the hundreds of millions he profited from theft, extortion and U.S. corporate kickbacks. Yet, Cubans were running away.
This would not do, so Castro made it a criminal offense for citizens to leave Cuba without permission. Similar to those killed by Berlin Wall border guards, large numbers of Cubans were killed by their fellow countrymen while they attempted to escape the island. A conceptual photo of a young man diving into the harbor by Cuban artist Manuel Piña represents this tragedy.
You can see Piña’s photo in Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, but you need to hurry because Adiós Utopia ends on May 21, 2017.
MFAH’s show thematically traces artistic response to Cuba’s social and political events, from the 1950s when the revolution offered utopian hope, through the subsequent decades of disillusionment in the face of failed ideology, government repression and economic collapse.
One can imagine there would be abundant sources of artistic inspiration, such as the restriction of movement that inspired Piña, to be mined from nearly 60 years of tumultuous history. Cubans saw their constitution suspended, property confiscated, farms collectivized, censorship, imprisonment, torture, assassination and profound economic devastation. Ponder solely the economic reality: an embargoed, de-incentivized, wealth distributed people were left in the manure after the breakup of the Soviet Union ended trade and subsidies, after which shrunk oil dollars disrupted that monkey Chavez’s magisterial pledge to bankroll Castro’s “democracy.” Cubans had insufficient food and fuel.
It is a large exhibition, over one hundred artworks by over fifty artists, with all of the predictable art forms, such as the poster art which propagandized the revolution, and the sculpture, installation and performance art which intoned ideological disenchantment. I was struck by a video which referenced Cubans fighting in Angola, and had actually forgotten that from 1975 to 1991, soldiers, many adolescents performing their mandatory military service, were conscripted to Angola.
Quite a lovely surprise to encounter colorful geometric abstraction in the show. During the 1950s, while Castro was being mentored by Che Guevara on revolutionary discipline and intermittently guerrilla-attacking Cuba, avant-garde Cuban artists influenced by Modernism were experimenting with non-objective art. Shortly after 1959 though, once Castro was the kahuna in charge, abstraction began to be considered useless. Non pictorial markings with meaningless language hardly served the revolution, and were out of sync with “state guidelines” on art. Pictorial narration became the dominant mode of expression in Cuba and abstraction was pushed to the side, where it might have become overlooked.
Except for Ella. Cuban born, Venezuelan raised Ella Fontanals-Cisneros’ foundation co-organized and partially underwrote the museum’s exhibition. At the preview Ella told us that when she began visiting Cuba, she realized artists were working there “without help, without people buying their art” and she wanted to participate and help, so she began purchasing and “getting it published.” Her foundation provided grants, arranged commissions, organized exhibitions, made sure artworks bounced around institutional venues, and importantly, oversaw scholarly documentation, which helped to rescue Cuban abstraction from obscurity.

I think Ella should run Cuba!



Images: Raúl Martínez, “9 Repetitions of Fidel with Microphones” 1968, Oil on canvas, Wallace Campbell Collection, Jamaica

Sandu Darié, "Sin título (Untitled)", c. 1960–70, Tempera on canvas, Ella Fontanals-Cisneros Collection, Miami.