Cuban artists are creating some of the most exciting and innovative contemporary art in the world. The best Cuban art can stack up against the best contemporary art being created in New York, Los Angeles, Paris, London or other world art centers, while still maintaining an essential Cuban spirit.
That’s my observation after returning from the 12th Havana Art Biennial in June and spending a week visiting with some of Cuba’s leading artists in their homes and studios.
The trip coincided with a tipping point in US-Cuban relations. A week after our return, the US and Cuban governments announced that after a 54-year schism, they are reopening embassies in each others’ Capitals on July 20th, even though the US embargo of trade with Cuba remains in place and may only be lifted by an act of Congress.
“Cuba probably has more artists per capita than any country in the world,” says Sandra Levinson, Executive Director of the Center for Cuban Studies and Curator of the Cuban Art Space, one of the few places where US citizens can purchase first-rate Cuban art without personally travelling to Cuba.
“I think Cubans are dreamers and poets from birth and put their dreams and their poetry into music and art,” adds Levinson, who has been leading people-to-people visits to Cuba for decades. (She accompanied Jack Nicholson on a 2-hour visit with Fidel Castro.)
And I think Cuba as a nation recognizes the importance of art because Cubans are artists from birth, in the way they live, in the way they produce, in the way they construct their lives. They are not the most practical people in the world — practical people don’t make revolutions — but they are super smart, and they relate to one another. That’s allowed them to build a real community, and if you live in a real community you can accomplish miracles.
In addition, the multiple dualities in Cuban reality engender a creative tension which can lead to unique forms of artistic expression, found in few other countries in the world.
Cuba has been somewhat isolated from its nearest neighbor due to the 54-year-old US economic blockade; but at the same time, Cuban artists are highly educated, sophisticated and aware of what’s going on the rest of the world in general and the art world in particular.
Cuban artists are still driven more by their own creative muses than by the dictates of the commercial art market. They often depict the creative tension between consumerism and Cuba’s shortage of consumer goods. And their work often slyly, and not so slyly, critiques social conditions in Cuba. A lot of Cuban art includes strikingly contemporary takes on gender identity, race and sexuality.
As Levinson told me, “the arts, including visual arts, music and poetry may be Cuba’s greatest exports.” . . . .