Cuba on canvas
Cuba’s diverse cultural voices can be heard through its contemporary art works, as LI-EN CHONG discovers.
JOSE Marti, one of Cuba’s greatest intellectual revolutionaries, once said: “To be cultured is the only way to be free.” New Route of Cuban Art, the contemporary exhibition at the National Art Gallery (NAG) in Kuala Lumpur, is a display of the diverse voices of expression in Cuban culture.
Fortunately, this is not a show to propagate rose-tinted notions of national identity. On display are many exciting works that reveal the technical finesse of Cuban artists and, on a conceptual level, exemplify aspects of daily life as well as social and political issues. It is interesting to compare this exhibition with the earlier Saksi: An Appreciation of Art of Historical Significance, curated by the NAG in August 2003.
The current display is a collaboration by NAG, the Embassy of Cuba in Malaysia, and the Fondo Cubano de Bienes Culturales (Cuban Arts and Crafts Foundation).
The country’s richness is idyllically illustrated by Hector N. Montaner in Paisag, which resembles a postcard promising paradise, with verdant grass, pristine azure sky and a composition-studied landscape. This oil and canvas work presents an almost-perfect vision of an Eden. It is easy to view this painting from afar and dismiss it as mundane. But upon closer inspection, we are treated to the unexpected.
This is no more than a stage prop: the canvas within a canvas is punctured into place by the palm tree in the foreground and the tenuous stitches holding the scene together are unravelling. It is perhaps telling that the royal palm, found abundantly in Cuba, is a national symbol. As the facile perception of a Caribbean utopia falls, what’s uncovered is a wedge of starry velvet black sky, lurking mysteriously beneath the surface. What the artist conveys to the viewer is: Do not judge by appearance alone, for real beauty lies in the unknown and unexplored.
The concept of true reality is carried further in To grow so much from so little. Given the idealistic title, we would expect an overtly patriotic painting. The immediate impression is that this is true, for a well-grown plant springs from a window box with little soil and space. This is possibly a metaphor for Cuba’s success. Look up and you see interlocking roof tiles which evoke partnership and the unity of working together.
Mario Portela captures his subject realistically, , bringing to mind a sepia-toned photograph. However, the brightly-garbed harlequin figure on the bottom left adds a comic touch. Seated nonchalantly between the balcony grills, he is a silent observer. This strange juxtaposition makes the viewer ponder: As observers, are we clown-like figures too? And do we automatically believe in the subject of the painting because of its realism? The artist prompts us to analyse the ways in which we determine the feigned from the genuine.
Angel Norniella’s fascinating sculpture from her Drive with Care series examines Cuba’s position in world politics. Crafted from glazed, heat-resistant ceramics, the ivory duck’s egg and wooden crate are recreated in direct parody of real life.
Details such as the stained wood veneer and rusted nails give the illusion that we are viewing a crate destined for shipment. The bold “FRAGIL” stamp is a reference to the country’s embargo-ridden trade status. One interpretation of the seemingly innocuous relationship between the egg and the crate is that severe American sanctions since 1961 have turned the country into a sitting duck. Reading into the title, we are reminded that all countries, not just Cuba, are required to tread carefully amidst the constant flux of recriminations and retributions that form the current global political climate.
Virgin by Alicia Leal approaches aspects of native life using symbols such as the palm tree and flowing water. Painted in bright naïve colours, the work is a reflection of Cuba’s vibrant African and Catholic heritage. As in Montaner’s work, the royal palm signifies national pride, dignity and elegance. Here, the maiden is bound to the palm with a white Madonna-like veil. The heart of the palm is, in turn, linked to a house, erected atop a mountain-river of fish.
Rich in imagery and references to Afro-Cuban culture, the water refers to the practice of ritual purification. Despite her pure snow-white garments, the maiden is only half dressed – her lower body is suggestively covered by a phallic-looking bird. The artist implies the integral role of women in society as maternal and reproductive nurturers.
Technical dexterity is the key to the sublimity of Arturo Montoto’s Postponed Labor. The sweet respite from the exertion of work is perfectly expressed by the tender, golden fruit. The mango has been partially peeled using a paint scraper; the tool provides a clue to the occupation of the owner. Here, the implied provides the human element to this still-life study.
The weathered and time-worn steps are like the gnarled hands of a seasoned labourer. Splendid realism is executed thoroughly, from the stained oxide yellow and raw umber concrete walls to the bruised golden ochre skin of the fruit. Light and shadow are harnessed to imbibe a sense of corporeality into what otherwise would have been a too-perfect studio study.
Events such as the Havana Biennale (launched in 1984) have formed a platform for expression in Cuba. But setbacks, such as those caused by the withdrawal of overseas funding in the latest event, are evidence of the fragile dependency of art.
Cultural control, in any form, does not have long-term benefit. Art
is a means to convey thought and communicate ideas; therefore, any form
of curtailment is detrimental. The honesty with which this exhibition is
curated, by Ercilia Argüelles Miret of the Havana-based Fondo Cubano,
speaks for itself. From the strength of this body of work, we can see the
great potential of contemporary Cuban art and society.
New Route of Cuban Art is on till April 25. The NAG is located at 2,Jalan Temerloh, Off Jalan Tun Razak, KL. Opening hours are 10am to 6pm daily. The gallery is closed on public holidays. For enquiries, call 03-40254990.
© 1995-2003 Star Publications (Malaysia)