Café VI and Café VII: The Journeys of Cuban Artists
“Throughout the twentieth and into the present century Cuban art has played a central role in the international discourse of aesthetic evolution in the western hemisphere. In speaking of the formation of modern Cuban art we must engage both with work produced by artists living on the island as well as that done abroad.”
Edward J. Sullivan
Latin American Art Critic
It was the winter of 2000. During one of those unusually cool nights in the tropics, Leandro Soto, and Cuban artists Yovani Bauta and Israel León, were sipping Cuban coffee in a sidewalk café in Mérida, Yucatán, while discussing the possibility of presenting an exhibition about the painful experiences of the so-called Cuban rafters crossing the Florida Strait, thus addressing the distressing issues of displacement and exile. A year later, in February 2001, Israel León did the curatorial work for the exhibition of both Yovani Bauta and Leandro Soto at the Centro Cultural Olimpo de Mérida, thereby launching the first international exhibition of “Cuban American Foremost Exhibitions (CAFÉ): The Journeys of Cuban Artists.”
That same year in Miami, Soto gathered a group of artists interested in his ideas. The group enthusiastically agreed to participate. Upon returning to Massachusetts, Soto got to work on the project, creating the first show of “CAFÉ: The Journeys of Cuban Artists” in the United States in October 2001. This exhibit took place in Augusta Savage Gallery at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Soto started putting together the next exhibition almost immediately. This second show took place in the Gallery of Contemporary Art at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, in October 2002 under the coordination of Cuban-American scholar and Director of Ethnic Studies at CU-Springs, Dr. Andrea Herrera, author of a critical volume on the exhibit, CAFÉ: The Journey of Cuban Artists. (Austin: University of Texas Press, forthcoming).
Thanks to the prestige Leandro Soto enjoys among Cuban-American artists and collectors, the third edition of Cuban American Foremost Exhibitions began to take shape right away, and was exhibited in the Interdisciplinary Arts and Performance Gallery at Arizona State University West, in the fall of 2003. That year, as part of the celebrations of Hispanic Heritage Month, I invited Dr. Andrea Herrera to present her book Re-Membering Cuba: Legacy of a Diaspora, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001). This book compiles the testimonies of political and cultural displacement of a group of Cuban-American artists, poets and scholars. Herrera’s book is a valuable work that shares common grounds with CAFÉ, since it is the written corroboration of the concepts expressed visually in the CAFÉ series.
In 2005 CAFÉ IV was exhibited at Estrella Community College as part of an outreach program to revitalize the local Hispanic community in the West side of the valley. CAFÉ V took place also in 2005 at the Tempe Public Library as part of an art project portraying various communities in displacement now settled in the city of Tempe.
This fall of 2007, Cuban American Foremost Exhibitions (CAFÉ) is presenting two exhibitions simultaneously in two different locations. CAFÉ VI is being exhibited in the Union Gallery at University of Arizona in Tucson, and is dedicated to Cuban visual artist José Ygnacio Bermúdez, who for many years resided in Paradise Valley until his death in 1998. Café VII shows in the IAP Art Gallery at Arizona State University West, and is dedicated to the late Pedro Alvarez, a young Cuban artist who suffered an untimely death in Phoenix in 2004.
These exhibitions encompass an ample range of contemporary Cuban art, showing master artists like René Portocarrero, Guido Llinás, Umberto Peña, and also artists from the famous group ¨Volumen Uno,¨ an art group pivotal in changing Cuban art during the early 1980´s.
Cuban art critic Lynette Bosch emphasizes in her book of recent publication Cuban-American Art in America (2004) the role that Cuban-American artists have played in creating a particular strand within contemporary art, which draws on both the Latin-American Neo-Baroque movement and international postmodern tendencies. Visual artist and curator Leandro Soto takes this notion and focuses specifically on how Cuban artists deal with issues of nostalgia, uprootedness and creativity, not only in Miami or the rest of the US, but in other cultural contexts as well.
The uniqueness of these exhibitions does not lie in grouping styles, generations, media, or even themes. Their individuality is rooted in the artists’ experiences of being in displacement and exile, an essential element in the weaving of “Cubanidad.” This particular aspect of ¨Cubanness¨ has created a longing, an unrelenting trait that has shaped Cuban poetry, music, literature, and the visual arts since the early 19th century. To mention but a few examples of artists in exile during the 19th century, we can bring to mind poets Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, José María Heredia, and José Martí exiled in Spain, México and New York respectively; Cirilo Villaverde, author of the first foundational Cuban novel exiled in New York City; visual artists Esteban Chartrand, Federico Martínez and Guillermo Collazo exiled in New York, and lastly, poet and visual artist Juana Borrero, a child prodigy who died exiled in Key West at the age of 19.
The interesting feature here is that this peculiarity of “being-out-of-place” could happen also to artists living in the island. The alienation created by a political system that rendered Cuban artists wordless within their own land of course has something to do with it. However, geography might have some implications as well. I remember a woman poet native of Puerto Rico alluding once to the unpleasant condition of being completely surrounded by the ocean in one of her verses “in this island, all streets die in the sea.” This drawback instigates the sentiment in Cuban artists that life is always better somewhere else. This space containment gives rise to the psychological perception of being cut off from “the place,” (wherever this place might be) where apparently everything “happens.”
For those artists in the diaspora, the situation reverses: the notion of having lost a “precious paradise” of sorts is an imminent and recurrent theme. This reality worsens by the fact that the regime does not allow anyone who leaves the country to return to live in the island again.
Leandro Soto conceptualizes these exhibitions as games of chance. Nothing is planned ahead; reality and quantum meaning encounters are welcome in the process of preparing an exhibition. Magic and non-predictable happenings are welcome doors to walk through.
The way Leandro Soto curates this series is one of its kind: wherever he goes, he contacts Cuban visual artists, writers, musicians, dancers, filmmakers, and poets. He is well aware that diasporic Cubans are everywhere. He informs the artists that the subject of the exhibit is displacement, and then he allows the artists to select their own pieces for the show. This network helps him to study how a particular geography, history, time or space can modify, transform or create new expressions in Cuban art.
These exhibitions however, are not only the result of his individual effort, but the contribution of an entire community of artists and art collectors, such as Dr. Arturo Mosquera, who owns one of the best private collections of Contemporary Cuban Art in the US.
The artists´ individual experiences of displacement and exile take precedence in the Café series. It does not take into consideration generations, movements, or art styles in order to gather a group of artists for a particular show. Consequently, Café encompasses a broad selection of drawings, videos, paintings, performance art, photographs, prints, and mixed-media installations portraying diverse styles and artistic trends. Their participants, spread out in different American cities as well as in many countries, belong to various generations and movements expressing the widespread vistas of 20th and 19th C. Cuban Art.
Cafe VII features prominent conceptual installation artists José Bedia (Miami), Gustavo Perez Monzón (México), Ruben Torres (Miami), and Leandro Soto (Phoenix) from the now legendary group Volumen Uno, so crucial to the transformation of Cuban art in the early 1980´s. There are also recent arrivals to the Phoenix art scenario: the ¨populista¨ (as he likes to call himself), artist Alfredo Manzo, famous for his tribute to Andy Warhol. Thanks to the collaboration of private art collectors, there is also a piece on exhibit by painter Pedro Alvárez, (Cuba 1967 – Spain – Phoenix 2004) from the so called ¨nomadic generation” of the 1990’s. Various well-known artists will also be represented in this exhibition: Nelson García Miranda from the group ¨Vanguardia of the Revolution¨ with his surrealistic representations; the pioneer of abstract expressionism, Guido Llinás (Cuba 1923 – Paris 2005) exiled in Paris for more than 40 years; René Portocarrero, (Cuba 1912-1985), one of Cuba’s foremost contemporary artists. He belonged to ¨Grupo Orígenes,¨ a renowned group of Cuban artists and intellectuals. Portocarrero was famous for his colorful portraits of women in tropical settings. One piece from his series ¨Floras¨ can be seen in this exhibition.
Lynette Bosch also studies in her book the importance of Cuban and Cuban-American art in making Miami an important artistic meeting place for artists, galleries and collectors from the US, Latin America, the Caribbean and Western Europe. Cuban and Cuban-American artists who have lived in Miami for the last four decades have contributed in one way or another to the success of this enterprise. The name “Miami Generation¨ originally referred to a group of Cuban-American artists who were doing their art in Miami in the early 1980´s, and were participants in a famous exhibition promoted by the Cuban Museum of Arts and Culture in 1984.
Today the name “Miami Generation” remains, but the concept has broadened considerably, welcoming wave after wave of exiled artists. Many of them have joined the Café series and continue to do so. They are no longer “a generation,” since its members encompass various age groups and decades of artistic endeavor.
Among the contributors of this so-called “Miami Generation” to Café VII there are painters Connie Lloveras and Yolanda Sánchez; media artists Ramón Williams and Alejandro Mendoza; video artist Frank León, and painter and installation artist José Urbein.
There are also other artists scattered around various US cities and other countries: performance artist and poet Nestor Díaz de Villegas (Los Angeles), painter Ana Flores (Italy), and performance, media and installation artist Alejandro López (New York City).
There is also a famous Argentinean artist by birth, and Cuban by choice, invited to participate: sculptor Geny Dignac. To conclude, American photographer and media artist Mary Odom will also be showing a piece in Café VII in collaboration with Leandro Soto.
These successful series could be perceived as a large metaphor of all diasporas, exiles, and migrations connected to the human condition. Many mythologies, narratives, and sacred books of various religions and cultures begin with the idea of humans being displaced from paradise. Perhaps they are metaphors of a primeval state of well-being, which we, as specie, somehow lost.
Artists are to society what the nervous system is to our bodies. This series of exhibitions offers a good laboratory to observe and study how artists deal with distressing issues of displacement and exile. Through their images a viewer can bond to the collective unconscious of Cuban culture, and thus read and experience specific moments in time encapsulated in a multidimensional way, in a manner that offers us a specific means of gathering knowledge.
Dr. Grisel Pujalá
Department of Language Cultures and History
Arizona State University West