Among the many US citizens who visited Havana for the first time during the Biennial were a group of Cuban-American artists participating in the Dialogues in Cuban Art project. The organizer, Miami-based curator Elizabeth Cerejido, talks about the trip, the Cuban artists coming to Miami next year, and what it means to confront “the Havana-Miami binary.”
In a conversation with Cuban Art News New York editor Susan Delson, Cerejido explains her vision for the project, the artists involved, and where she sees Cuban art over the next five years.
Let’s start with a quick outline of Dialogues in Cuban Art. What are the elements you’re working with?
The initial structure is a basic formal exchange that happened in late May, with group of Cuban-Americans going to Havana, meeting their counterparts, and being able to present their work in a public and official manner. That happened at both Casa de las Américas and at the Ludwig Foundation.
I plan to duplicate that experience by inviting a group of Cuban artists, art historians, and curators here to Miami. I envision renting a bus, and having them go from studio to studio and venue to venue, the way one does in Havana. The talks would be sponsored by the Cuban Research Institute.
The third component is an exhibition in Havana and Miami. The work in the exhibition would specifically address the experience of exchange, either through collaborations among two or three artists, or individual works that were born from that experience.
There’s also an idea of a publication. Originally I had wanted the exhibition to be accompanied by an exhibition catalogue, but in talking to Mia Leonin, who’s part of our editorial team, we thought about a publication that more closely resembles this idea of exchange. There would obviously be essays that address the more scholarly aspects of the issues surrounding the project, but it could also the place for personal voices—a narrative of how these artists experienced this project.
How did the idea for the project occur to you? How does it fit into your own trajectory as someone involved in contemporary Cuban art?
I’m really interested in issues of cultural identity, both from a personal perspective as a Cuban American and also from a professional perspective as a historian and curator.
I myself participated in a cultural exchange program in 2002, and I’d been toying with the idea of taking group of Cuban Americans to Cuba. It really jelled after I came back from a trip with students from the Art Institute of Chicago, led by Rachel Weiss. The students’ encounters with the artists, and the conversations that came out of the studio visits, prompted me to think that the ideas we were discussing would have even more resonance for Cuban Americans—specifically, Cuban-American artists.
Between my trip in 2002 and the Art Institute trip, I traveled periodically to Cuba to do research on my masters thesis or my own projects. I felt that all of this was a preparation for this project.
How were the Cuban-American artists chosen for the first part of the exchange?
One criteria was for artists who had not been to Cuba or had not been following the Cuban art scene very much.
They also had to have strong ties to Miami. A big underlying issue is to confront the Miami-Havana binary directly, head-on. Because I think a Cuban American who’s been raised in Boston, for instance, is a very different Cuban American than someone who’s raised here in Miami and formed here artistically. I wanted this first group to be shaped by the very specific experience of Miami.
It was also important that they actively be involved in an artistic career and have had some success as artists.
I’d been very much in touch with different generations of Cuban-American artists. I personally sent emails giving them an idea of the project—this was way before I dreamed that the Knight Foundation would fund it. I met with them in person and spoke with them at length about my background, my interest, and why I thought it was important.
At the point when I knew the Knight Foundation was on board and [Miami philanthropist and art collector] Jorge Pérez gave us the matching funds, I formed a very small committee. Some members of the committee also suggested artists I had thought about but for some reason had not contacted. I’m specifically referring to Bert Rodriguez and Manny Prieres. They hadn’t received my emails, but through somebody on the committee they became more aware of the project, and they said yes.
I always wanted to keep it a small group, no more than eight to ten. The seven who came were those who ended up committing to idea and feeling like they were ready to have this experience.
Had you always planned to bring the artists to Havana during the Biennial?
Actually, I never wanted to go during the Biennial, because I thought it would be a distraction from what we were trying to achieve. We originally had a date in early March, but for personal and logistical reasons, the presentations got pushed to June.
I realized that we might as well go a few days early, so that by the time we did the presentations, the group would have had some sense of what Havana was like, and an opportunity to talk with some of the artists that they’d be engaging with at the talks.
What was the itinerary like?
It was quite packed. The first few days, we did conventional things. We went to the Museo Nacional, Factoría Habana, and also Galería Habana, because I wanted them to get a sense of how a commercial gallery works within a system like that of Cuba. We had a great conversation with the director, Luis Miret. We went to Ella Cisneros’s home—she was very gracious and met us there. We had dinner with Juanito Delgado, the creator of Detrás del muro, and a fascinating tour of ISA led by Felipe Dulzaides.
Then the schedule was heavy on studio visits. We met with Glenda León, Abel Barroso, and with Samuel Riera, who runs an interesting project of outsider Cuban art. We had a great studio visit with Ernesto Leal, an artist who tends to be outside the mainstream radar. The group really responded to his work.
We also met with Wifredo Prieto, who is one of the artists that the group was more aware of. José Ángel Toirac, who is a really engaging—they were fascinated by his work, and his ability to articulate the concepts behind it. We met with a really interesting female artist collective in Miramar, Studio 7ma y 60.
We also met with Javier Castro, who’s an up-and-coming artist, particularly in video—he has some really great work. Another young artist, Yornel Martínez, had a very well thought out, very intelligent intervention in a bookstore.
A couple of artists couldn’t meet with us but took part in the talks, like Esterio Segura. We had a really great exchange at the talks with Reynier Leyva Novo. Humberto Díaz as well. He was one of the artists who presented at Casa las Américas, and afterward the group had a good chance to talk to him.
What do you think was the trip’s greatest value for the Cuban-American artists?
The chance to experience Cuba for themselves, on their own terms, around a structure that resonated on a personal and a professional level. Because the idea of Cuba for them—for us, really—has been shaped by other people’s memories, by our parents, our grandparents, by political figures. There’s so much noise around what Cuba is. For them to get there and face that reality for themselves is really life-changing.
How about for the Cuban artists they met?
On the Cuba side, I kept getting comments from artists about how surprised they were to learn of the work that the artists are doing here.
One thing that gets lost in the Miami-Havana narrative is the work that Cuban artists do in Miami. There are several generations of artists, informed by vastly different socioeconomic and political experiences, who have made Miami their home. This adds to the complexity of the artistic production in the diaspora, which gets lost in that binary discourse.
And there’s a perception in Cuba that the worst thing for Cuban artists is for them to end up in Miami, that Miami is a dead end for them. I think this is fed by the art market, which exoticizes a place like Havana, and also because of the history of exile politics and its dominant ideology, which until very recently was seen as monolithic in tone and retrograde.
Artists from Cuba have been coming to Miami for some time now, exhibiting in galleries and producing work here. A kind of transnationalism was already taking place. What this project changes is the conversation about what happens in Miami artistically. In other words, artists from Cuba will want to become informed about, and engage more directly with Cuban American artists here who are representative of different generations.
There’s a perception in particular about the Eighties Generation, who came to Miami in the 1990s—that most of them faded. That’s a stereotype that keeps getting repeated, and is obviously not founded on truth.
So for the Cuban artists, it was really good to meet a group of Miami artists who have fresh ideas, who are innovative, who have a strong conceptual premise to their work, and who share some of the same ideas they’re interested in.
Next: The Miami part of the exchange, the exhibition, and where Cuban art is headed.