Sunday, August 28th, 2011

“The Psycho-Historical Backdrop”: New Cuban Art of the 1980s and ’90s

Rachel Weiss’s To and from Utopia in the New Cuban Art

Armando Mariño, De Koons à Duchamp, 1999. Acrylic on Canvas, 68-1/2 x 74—1/2 inches. Courtesy of the Artist
Armando Mariño, De Koons à Duchamp, 1999. Acrylic on Canvas, 68-1/2 x 74—1/2 inches. Courtesy of the Artist

Rachel Weiss´s book addresses the ´New Cuban Art´ in a twenty-year period, from the landmark Volumen Uno exhibition in Havana in 1981 to around 2000. Slightly earlier in the 1980s than the YBA (Young British Art) phenomenon, Cuba witnessed an explosion of contemporary art that (again, like the YBAs) presented itself as unrelated to its modernist precedents. Weiss has been travelling to and writing about Cuba since 1986.  Period flavor is lent to her book by generous and telling use of photographs. Group pictures of the Volumen Uno protagonists, who included José Bedía, Flavio Garciandía, Ana Mendieta, and Ricardo Brey, create a sense of a scene.

Weiss relates artistic events to what she calls their ´psycho-historical backdrop.´ In the case of Volumen Uno, for instance, this entails the Mariel emigration of 125,000 Cubans in April 1980, and the ensuing ´loss of political innocence´.   Weiss opens her discussion of ´the orishas´ (Yoruba deities) in relation to the New Cuban Art by quoting Wifredo Lam: “I refused to paint the chá-chá-chá”.  She goes on to discuss the afro-Cuban and indigenous American interests of Bedía, Brey and others.  Bedía worked consciously in the vein of Fernando Ortiz´s early twentieth-century ´social anthropology´, which (though Weiss does not mention this because it is outside her new remit), had also informed Wifredo Lam and other mid-20th-century Cuban modernists.

The ´New Cuban Art´ was not a stylistic movement so much as an energetic phenomenon. Its twists were rarely predictable, and often surprisingly counter-intuitive.  In the 1980s, for example, when all Cubans were acutely aware of perestroika and concerned about its implications for their country, there was a strong flowering of artistic collectives that invoked Cuba´s guerrilla heritage: Arte Calle, Grupo Provisional, and Grupo Art-De (Arte Derecho). Some of Art-De intervened with the large painted “MEDITAR” in Havana´s Plaza de la Revolución; others left Art-De in protest at such a neutral-sounding message.

Los Carpinteros, Estuche (Jewelry Case), 1999. Wood. 87 x 51 x 51.  Courtesy of the Artists
Los Carpinteros, Estuche (Jewelry Case), 1999. Wood. 87 x 51 x 51. Courtesy of the Artists

Many of the artists who emerged in the `80s marked an end to the relatively utopian phase in the new Cuban art when on 29 September 1989 they organized the event La plástica cubana se dedica al béisbol (Cuban art dedicates itself to baseball): the implication of their baseball game — that conditions for team artistic activity were unraveling — proved prescient.

By  1990, when Fidel Castro announced a “Special Period in Time of Peace”, the ´psycho-historical backdrop´ was the end of the special relationship with the USSR, and Cuba´s resulting economic, ideological, logistical and psychological implosion.  Many artists left Cuba in the Special Period.   For those who remained, conditions were ´not conducive to collectivism´.  Pedro Álvarez painted phantasmagoric works such as Cinderella´s `53 Skylark Buick.  Armando Mariño broached the hitherto taboo topic of racism in his ´corrosive historical fictions in which Cuban and European-Western art history crash into each other´.

The Havana Biennial, inaugurated in 1984, peaked in 2000, and has continued with a few hiccups (the 10th was in 2009), providing an international forum for many Cuban artists. Weiss gives a brilliantly concise history of the Havana Biennial, and its transformation from populist Third World event to international art fair.

In the 90s, circumstances forced Castro to reopen Cuba to tourism. This, combined with the efforts over the preceding decade of Havana city historian Eusebio Leal, motivated  the restoration of crumbling baroque Old Havana.  Hence, from late 1994 the Cuban state backed ´artisan skills … put to social use´.  Los Carpinteros played with artisanry´s unexpected prestige in their Estuche (Jewellery Case), a functioning piece of furniture in the form of a hand grenade:

From 1993 until at least the mid 2000s, the most compelling Havana-based artist was Tania Bruguera, whose underground newspaper Memoria de la postguerra launched in November 1993 was suppressed by the following June. Weiss reproduces full-page facsimiles of the front page of the first Memoria de la postguerra with its dripping, horror movie title-reminiscent letterhead, and a of the page where, under the tongue-in-cheek heading “INTERNACIONALES”, Bruguera listed 106 artists who had left Cuba during the Special Period.  Weiss also provides vivid accounts and photographs of Bruguera´s performances of the later 1990s, including El peso de la culpa (The burden of guilt), performed nude with a lamb carcass tied around her neck.

My only quibble with Weiss´s excellent book on the New Cuban Art is its pre title ´To and From Utopia´. A word of English origin (coined by Thomas Moore in 1516) seems inappropriate to the homeland of Latin America´s most influential anti-Anglo ideologist José Martí.  Arguably, Cuban art´s most idealistic productions having been its posters of the 1960s, Cuban revolutionary art has thereafter moved further and further from its early ideals: a point of view compatible with Weiss´s observation of ´the loss of political innocence´ around 1980. The main collectivist artistic project of the 1980s was that of ´TELARTE´ textiles: 2 million metres of textile with designs by 150 artists were printed between 1983 and 1991. Some ´telarte´ fabrics are very beautiful, notably the afro-Cuban designs made by Manuel Mendive, of the preceding generation.   Weiss focuses closely on her post-1980 subjectand thus mentions Telarte but not Mendive´s starring role in it.  Weiss perhaps accepts too unquestionably New Cuban Artists´ reticence about their Cuban antecedents. This is the only respect in which Weiss´s fascinating and beautifully illustrated book on the New Cuban Art and the ´psycho-historical backdrop´ of late twentieth century Cuba can be criticized as too narrowly focused.

Rachel Weiss: To and from Utopia in the New Cuban Art (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.) 322 pages; 130 col., 30 b/w photos. paper ISBN 978-0-8166-6515-0. cloth ISBN 978-0-8166-6514-3. $34.95?/$105.00

Cover of the book under review
click to enlarge