Sunday July 24, 2016

On the Personal Side of “Dialogues in Cuban Art”

Encounters among Lázaro Saavedra, Rubén Torres-Llorca, María Martínez-Cañas, and other artists

Points of origin: Group members with the map of the Island on Cuban Memorial Boulevard.

Photo: Ana Clara Sliva, courtesy Dialogues in Cuban Art 

We began our conversation with Elizabeth Cerejido, organizer of the “Dialogues in Cuban Art” project, with a general description of the week-long artist exchanges that took place in Havana last year and Miami this past spring. Here, Cerejido describes the exchanges on a more personal level, and looks ahead to the project’s next phases.

Let’s talk about the activities you scheduled for the Havana group in Miami this spring. Give us an example of a studio visit.

One visit we made was with María Martínez-Cañas. In my estimation, she is one of Miami's most important artists—the recipient of numerous prestigious awards, represented by established galleries and in major museums around the world—whose work is deeply rooted in Cuban history, and whose cultural identity is profoundly Cuban American.

With María, you have the merging of various narratives that everyone shared, though in distinct ways. It was of interest to everyone, as artists and cultural producers but also as Cubans. 

María provided a detailed, well-prepared presentation about her work and processes. At my request, she showed the group the intricate, collaged negatives from which she printed much of her best-known work from the 1990s, like the Totems.

María Martínez-Cañas, center, shows the group some collaged negatives from the 1990s.

Photo Daniel Correa, courtesy Dialogues in Cuban Art 

She also shared materials from the José Gómez Sicre collection, which she is in the process of cataloguing and documenting. This trove of information includes photographs and letters that fascinated the group. All of this was thrilling, and exactly the type of dialogue that this project aimed to provide.

Martínez-Cañas displays some of the materials in the José Gómez-Sicre collection, which she is documenting.

Photo Daniel Correa, courtesy Dialogues in Cuban Art

How would a visit like that fit into the overall schedule? Could you describe a typical day for us?

A bus would wait for the group outside the hotel at 9 a.m. sharp. Gathering the troops always proved to be a fun, if at times frustrating endeavor. (Here I have to credit our wonderful logistics person, Ana Clara Silva, for rounding everyone up and keeping us on track.) Many times, our itinerary for the day took us into the evening hours. 

I’ll give you one day as an example. There was a tour led by César Trasobares that included visits to public art works that have become iconic in Miami, such as the Ed Ruscha permanent installation at the main library downtown and the Claes Oldenburg in the same area. César is a former executive director of Metro Dade’s Art in Public Places Program, and he was able to talk to the group about the inner workings of such a program—how it’s funded, and what the political and logistical issues are. It was fascinating.

César Trasobares talks about public art in Miami near a sculpture by Claes Oldenburg.

Photo: Daniel Correa, courtesy Dialogues in Cuban Art

After downtown Miami, we went through Little Havana and had lunch at a typical Cuban café, El Rey de las Fritas. (Many didn’t know what a frita was—it’s part of Cuban “exile” cuisine.)

Lunch at El Rey de las Fritas

Photo: Ana Clara Sliva, courtesy Dialogues in Cuban Art 

We ended up at the Cuban Memorial Boulevard. César talked at length about Ana Mendieta’s work, carved on one of the boulevard’s ceiba trees, and also put her work in the context of the politically charged space in which it resides. Along that avenue is the “Casa del Preso Politico,” for example, but also where Afro-Cubans leave offerings—at the base of that very ceiba tree, or the statue of a Virgin not far from the tree. It is the closest the Cuban exile community has to a plaza that monumentalizes and immortalizes its painful political history.

César Trasobares with the group near the statue of the Virgin on Cuban Memorial Boulevard.

Photo: Daniel Correa, courtesy Dialogues in Cuban Art

From there we went to PAMM (the Pérez Art Museum Miami), where César led a tour of an exhibition he curated of the ceramics and objects of the late Carlos Alfonzo. Ending our tour there was most appropriate since Alfonzo, who fled Cuba through the Mariel boatlift in 1980, came of age as an artist in Miami, and was a close friend of César’s. 

So the schedule was quite full. And it sounds like the bus was a real factor in the whole scenario.

The bus became a itinerant space for choteo, fun, and sightseeing, but also for conversation and questioning. (It did much the same the Miami group in Havana, when they traveled around the city on the obligatory transporte de turismo.)

On the bus, Day 1

Photo: Ana Clara Sliva, courtesy Dialogues in Cuban Art 

It also became a space in which individuals were forced to share or interact with one another. There was a sort of “lateral exchange” within the group itself, which became an unforeseen extension of the program.

Many participants later told me privately that while they knew each other, or of each other, in Cuba, some of them seldom related with one another, and that this opportunity was also productive and enriching. 

I should add that, for the Miami group visiting Havana last year, it was interesting to see the work of such iconic 80s Generation artists as Rubén Torres-Llorca, José Bedia, and Glexis Novoa at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, or in exhibitions we visited in Havana (like Florencio Gelabert’s installation in Détras del Muro). It made them more aware of this generation, and more interested in seeking out these artists in their own Miami community.

What were you hoping to achieve with the week in Miami? How well do you think the project succeeded?

My main goals were for the Havana group to get to know (Cuban) Miami through a more nuanced lens, specifically concerning cultural production. I was interested in having the Havana artists specifically engage in a more intimate way with Cuban American artists, but also with artists who had been trained in Cuba—like the 1980s generation, and other more recent transplants like Javier Castro. In other words, the breadth of the diaspora in Miami.

I have to say that those expectations were not only met but exceeded the impact I had envisioned.

Studio visit with Rubén Torres-Llorca

Photo Daniel Correa, courtesy Dialogues in Cuban Art 

For example, the visit to Rubén Torres Llorca's studio was significant to each of the participants for different reasons. For the younger ones, like Humberto Díaz or Yornel Martínez, it was meeting an artist they had studied.

For someone like Lázaro Saavedra, it meant a reunion with an artist who was an integral part of his early artistic formation, and that decade’s zeitgeist, after more than 20 years.

Lázaro Saavedra and Rubén Torres-Llorca, "before and after"

Photo: Ana Clara Sliva, courtesy Dialogues in Cuban Art

The emotional charge was palpable. I think Ibis Hernández Abascal, a curator from the Centro Wifredo Lam in Havana and the Havana Biennial, felt the same way.

Similarly, the Havana trip was a powerful experience for the Cuban American artists. One participant, Bert Rodríguez, wrote that after the trip, “I understand who I am more fully and much more profoundly than I ever have.”

If you were planning another Havana-Miami exchange—in either direction—what would you do in the same way? What might you do differently?

This is something I’m actively giving some thought to. I think I would find ways to create more opportunities for exchange. That might mean extending the length of the trip so that more studio visits could be programmed, as well as more informal talks, so that more voices are included.

Along with the artist exchanges in Havana and Miami, Dialogues in Cuban Art includes an upcoming Phase III. Tell us about that.

Phase III involves planning and producing an exhibition that will challenge the existing notion of Cuban art as bifurcated by nation and diaspora. Artists across territorial boundaries, generations, and artistic practices will be set in dialogue with one another around different themes.

I’ll be co-curating this exhibition with Ibis Hernández Abascal. The actual curatorial methodology is still in the works, and we will have our first working session in Havana this summer. In terms of schedule, we have a commitment for a 2019 exhibition in Miami and are working on solidifying a venue in Havana for 2018. 

What else might come out of the project?

We have a lot of footage of the trips both in Miami and Havana. We fully documented all the talks, and have individual interviews with all participants. Some have been uploaded to the website. I am also working on making that information accessible in a way that generates more discussion on these topics. To that end, a documentary is also in the works.

At the de la Cruz Collection, members of the group pose with an iconinc work by Cuban American artist Félix González-Torres.

Photo: Ana Clara Sliva, courtesy Dialogues in Cuban Art

The project also has the potential to expand in many ways—for example, exchanges that focus on other disciplines. In general, I’m interested in seeing the project generate new scholarship and new ways of thinking about Cuban art and artistic production. 

Susan Delson has been the New York editor of Cuban Art News since 2009. A former member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art education department, as editor she has worked with the Museum of Modern Art, Asia Society, El Museo del Barrio, and other institutions. Her books include the film study/biography Dudley Murphy, Hollywood Wild Card and (as editor) Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals. As a magazine editor, she has worked at Forbes, Louise Blouin Media, and other companies.