‘Picturing Cuba’ is a look at Cuban art and identity, will feature at Miami Book Fair

Like Cuban music, Cuban art has a rich history — but surprisingly few books have been published about it, even though visual artists are at the forefront of Cuba’s pro-democracy movement today.

That’s why one of the more notable works being presented at next week’s Miami Book Fair is “Picturing Cuba: Art, Culture, and Identity on the Island and in the Diaspora.”

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The book, featuring essays and more than 40 color plates of Cuban art spanning more than 400 years, is edited by anthropologist Jorge Duany. He directs Florida International University’s Cuban Research Institute and spoke with WLRN’s Tim Padgett about how “Picturing Cuba” came together — and what it says about Cuban identity, or cubanía.

Here are excerpts from their conversation, edited for clarity.

WLRN: Why do you think there are relatively few books out there about the history of Cuban art? You’d think the architecture in Havana alone would create a robust interest.

DUANY: That’s a good question. I mean, there are good works on individual painters like Wilfredo Lam and particular movements like the avant-garde in Havana in the 1930s and ’40s. But I think this is actually quite distinct because it covers the colonial period under Spain, the Republican period and then the Post-Revolutionary period as well as the Diaspora. So I think, to my mind, there isn’t anything as comprehensive as this book.

It may be that until now, it’s been difficult to access many of these, for example, old prints from the colonial period that we reproduce in our book; and then also to trace the historical development of collections that are now in Cuba — some of the works in our book are held in the Fine Arts Museum in Havana — or here in Miami and other parts of the world.

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Speaking of collections, you mentioned that one of the big drivers of this book was the donation of a major collection of Cuban art that Miami philanthropists Darlene and Jorge Perez made to FIU eight years ago.

Yes, I think that’s the beginning of the idea of holding several conferences on Cuban and Cuban-American art, which we did in the last few years for teachers of the Miami-Dade Public Schools. And then I thought that it would be a more lasting legacy of that collection to put together a book that would make it more available, more accessible.

READ MORE: Cuban Artists Are Captivating the World. But Can They Challenge the Regime?

But you’re an anthropologist, not an art historian, and you told me perhaps the book’s biggest driver was your own desire to understand how Cuba’s national identity has evolved through art. More than a dozen experts contributed essays to “Picturing Cuba.” What conclusions about cubanía — what it means to be Cuban — do you think they help us arrive at?

Yes, and also transnational identities — how people identify when they move to another country, like Cubans in Miami, And so I think the major conclusion is that there is no such thing as a fixed, an essential, Cuban identity.

Early on, landscape, especially Cuba’s tropical light, was a main theme of Cuban art. But later in the 19th century — as you can see in Victor Patricio de Landaluze’s beautiful painting, “Corte de caña,” or “Cutting Cane,” that’s on the cover of the book — Afro-Cubans are now represented during a time of political and economic unrest in Cuba. Then the avant-garde movement, or the School of Havana in the 1930s and ’40s that I mentioned, is when Cuban artists decided to focus on topics including Afro-Cuban culture, music and religion.

I think that’s one point in which you see a transformation of the perspective on what it means to be Cuban. In fact, that blending of African, European and Indigenous elements is one of the constants you can point to as Cuban art and identity evolve.

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Picturing Cuba (via Cernuda Arte)

“Figura en el balcon” by Cuban painter Wilfredo Lam

Does the book offer any surprising conclusions in that regard?

Yes, there are many. One essay by Maria Antonia Cabrera, which is quite original, deals with how the image of the olive green used by Fidel Castro’s guerrillas in the 1950s and 1960s became fashionable and even chic.

But then, by the 1990s, many Cuban artists decided to use that same theme to criticize the Cuban government and to associate that olive green with repression or authoritarianism and a military regime.

The blending of African, European and Indigenous elements is one of the constants you can point to as Cuban art and identity evolve.

Jorge Duany

One chapter on Cuban photography also shows that tendency. In the 1960s, most Cuban photography tended to be epic and supportive of the socialist experiment. And then by the 1990s, again — because of the economic crisis and the demise of the Soviet Union, among other reasons — now you have a more intimate effort to document daily life and ordinary characters.

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Picturing Cuba (via Ramiro A. Fernandez collection)

A 1962 Cuban communist youth poster featuring a photo of Fidel Castro by Alberto Korda that reads: Commander in Chief, Give the Order!

One of the essays in “Picturing in Cuba,” by Andrea O’Reilly Herrera, calls Cuba a “moveable nation,” and it includes an appraisal of Cuban art in the Diaspora. How important has Cuban art abroad, especially in Miami, been to the development of art on the island?

It’s been crucial. I mean, there are now several generations of artists who have been creating in Cuba, as well as in the United States and other parts like Spain. In the book, Lynette Bosch also talks about the Cuban-American vanguardia, or exile avant garde. These are artists like Humberto Calzada, who really have continued this tradition of blending Cuban culture with other cultures.

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Picturing Cuba (via private collection)

El Encuentro (The Encounter) by Cuban exile painter Raul Villarreal in ‘Picturing Cuba’

”Picturing Cuba” also hopes to correct how overlooked Cuban women artists have been?

Yes. Art historian Carol Damian, who used to be the chief curator and director of the Frost Art Museum here, looks at this issue. She mentions artists like Amelia Peláez, one of the leaders in the vanguard of the movement of the 1930s and ’40s; and there are many others she presents — María Ariza y Delance, Uver Solís — who deserve more recognition and more research into their work.

Jorge Duany will present “Picturing Cuba” in an online Miami Book Fair discussion with art historian Anelys Alvarez next Tuesday, Nov. 16, at noon.

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Jorge Duany

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