About the Project
For over twenty years, the 13 acclaimed artists represented in this exhibition have ingeniously expressed their experiences of life in Cuba. They have survived cultural politics, difficult living conditions, and resource shortages that limited their access to the most basic materials, like paper. Their creative responses range from romantic reverie and nostalgia to humor and irony.
The exhibition gathers over 120 books, maquettes for unpublished projects, related prints, and printed objects. The books were designed for Ediciones Vigía, a collaborative artists’ press founded in 1985 in Matanzas. The only press of its kind in Cuba or perhaps anywhere, it began with a mimeograph machine and a borrowed typewriter. Its limited editions of works by leading Cuban authors as well as García Lorca and Rimbaud are designed and illustrated primarily by Rolando Estévez. Many are collaged with cloth, leaves, or wood scraps, making them unique; some are made as scrolls for hanging.
The opening of “Cuban Artists Books and Prints:1985-2009” will coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, but the intense independence of the works reveals the artists’ creative resilience and imaginative power to negotiate the political, social, and cultural difficulties and paradoxical privileges ruling their careers over the past two decades. Cuban cultural production in the 1990s disclosed a gaunt and threadbare state, and its newly adopted capitalist markets and greatly expanded commercial tourism required all citizens to navigate official social and economic policy changes as well as moral dilemmas. These works comment on daily existence, reflect awareness of international art currents, and draw on Cuban history and its traditional and popular cultures. Adaptation means making art despite privations, especially since the dissolution of the Soviet Union ended subsidies to Cuba.
Through Ediciones Vigía, young artists and writers took production into their own hands and, out of the need to make art, turned a very humble project into an elaborate production of sophisticated books. This exhibition is a visual feast. Remarkable formal invention, poignant poetry, and technical mastery of print media, especially with found materials, unite these delicate handmade works, which include books by once-censored or controversial national and international authors as well as children’s books and musical compositions. In one, made of paper with sand, feathers, and eggshells, Nancy Morejón, the well-known Afro-Cuban poet, pays homage to Ana Mendieta, the revered Cuban video and performance artist, who died under mysterious circumstances in New York City in the 1985.
Other rare books include the first version of Senel Paz’s screenplay for the legendary gay comedy Strawberry and Chocolate (1993), directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, which caused a sensation in Cuba and achieved international renown. There are also early works by José Antonio Ponte, an infamous writer barely tolerated by the government, and illustrated works by Ana Akmatova and Pushkin.
Most of the artists represented here graduated from Cuba’s prestigious art academies, including the Higher Institute of Art (ISA) and the San Alejandro Art Academy, while a few went to technical or regional art academies. Their excellent, state-sponsored education and relative freedom to travel and sell works abroad are at odds with their sometimes critical commentary on life at home. Contributing artist Danilo Moreno was trained in Trinidad, Cuba, and graduated from its Oscar Fernández Morera Academy of Arts in 1999. His handmade “My Book” converts printed matter into a dress that is just as easily worn as read. His larger-than-life light-bulb sculpture is composed of soldered coins with the face of José Martí on them. The title, “Soldado”, which means both soldered and soldier, refers to the formal act of uniting metals and pays homage to the emblematic 19th-century hero of Cuban independence as an intellectual as well as a soldier.
Prints by Ibrahim Miranda and Sandra Ramos offer romantic, nostalgic views of the island or ironic interpretations of patriotism. Miranda superimposes fantastic beasts on old maps of Cuba. For her book Jabberwocky, Ramos mixes excerpts from Lewis Carroll’s text and John Tenniel’s images for Through the Looking Glass with her own on pages facing foldout mirrors (where they must be read). Other prints combine photographs of herself as a child with her illustrations of contemporary Cuban life, suggesting its fairytale quality, sardonically sketching the quotidian, and voicing her sense of loss.
Carlos Estévez, Rocío García, and Olympya Ortiz are among those who print words and images on objects to express interior worlds of escape and refuge. On a doll whose clothing is printed with his texts, Estévez reflects on the artist’s journey to the core of the soul. Crafting inscribed, “bullet-proof” garments, García illustrates how perilous love seems, while Olympya prints on umbrellas to poetically shield the artist from the public in an intimate realm of solitude and alienation.
The brothers Yoan and Iván Capote’s sculptured “CD” book from a paperback version of Cuba’s history in Chinese, titled “Rewritable,” is a metaphor for the constant rewriting of Cuban history in the face of ever-changing realities and complexities.
Tonel (Antonio Eligio Fernández) crafts an autobiographical account with acerbic humor and irony. I Spent Most of the Winter in Rhineland Writing These Boleros: A Fully Illustrated Winter Book combines lithographs and bolero lyrics to comment on the compromised material world in Cuba while exposing the loves and adventures of a Cuban artist living abroad in the 1990s.
Inside a book-sized matchbox, René Bravo Quintana’s matchstick character Spark comments sardonically on the 1990s “Special Period,” when the government required rationing and energy-saving practices to stave off economic collapse. Spark’s irreverent humor suggests that the revolution has lost some of its spark due to repeated setbacks and scarcities and weary spirits. René Peña produces text and photographs on a scroll tucked inside a sculptured film canister. His “Pictures and Stories” illustrate young Cubans’ drive for more independence in expressing their alternative worlds.
José Angel Vincench focuses on elections by printing ballots on official newspapers and enclosing them in metal envelopes pierced with barred windows. He also evokes the myriad religions at this crossroads of Catholicism and Afro-Caribbean faiths in his pop-art collages.
Sandra Ceballos of the Aglutinador Gallery narrates an ambiguous and erotic story about a medical operation. She and René Bravo Quintana used pages collaged with pills, nails, bandages, X-ray charts, and other materials to create pages, tucked inside a rusted metal box. As a group, these artists and artisans expand the definitions of the book to express their fluctuating Cuban identities. Most of them have exhibited in Europe or Canada, but their work is little known in the United States, and their prints and books have been never been exhibited together, here—or anywhere.
Program: A symposium at MoMA will feature Cuban artists and Cuban specialists from lending institutions. Following its New York debut, the exhibition will travel to Wake Forest University (Winston-Salem, NC) in fall 2009.
Contact: Linda S. Howe, firstname.lastname@example.org
Lenders include the Museum of Modern Art, the Grolier Club, Wake Forest University; Holly Block, Leslie Garfield, Linda S. Howe, Szilvia Tanenbaum, Ben Rodríguez Cubenas, Carole and Alex Rosenberg, Robert Ruben, and participating artists in show. Sponsors and Collaborating Institutions: The Reed Foundation, Inc., New York, NY; The Cuban Artists Fund, New York, NY; MoMA, New York, NY; The Grolier Club, New York, NY; and Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, NC.
Guest curator: Linda S. Howe, Professor of Romance Languages, is author of Transgression and Conformity: Cuban Writers and Artists after the Revolution (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), numerous articles on Cuban culture, and several English and Spanish translations of fiction and poetry. She founded and directed Wake Forest’s summer academic program at the University of Havana, 1997-2005. In 2005, Professor Howe curated an exhibition for the San Francisco Center for the Book, titled Journey to the Source: Handmade Books from Cuba and presented a workshop about Vigía books to students from area universities. In 2007, she presented a show at the Kohler Art Library of the Chazen Museum, University of Wisconsin, Madison.