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Cuban artists share history and cultural similarities at CIA


By Arooj Ashraf, La Prensa Correspondent


Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA) continues cultural enrichment and collaborative education through its Cuba Project Symposium as the second group of artists arrive for the Spring 2012 semester to teach, create, and open the window of possibilities for local audiences.

Cleveland Institute of Art hosts Cuban visiting artists in residence, José Toirac, Alex Hernández Dueñas and Meira Marrero.


On Feb. 11, 2012, the school held its second symposium welcoming husband-and-wife team José Toirac and Meira Marrero, who collaborate on paintings and installations, and painter and video artist Alex Hernández Dueñas. The keynote speaker for the event was Rachel Weiss, author of “To and From Utopia in the New Cuban Art.” 


“The fall Cuban artists-in-residence seamlessly integrated with the community. They widened our students’ perspectives on creating socially engaging work and how to present that work to an audience,” said David Hart, CIA’s associate professor of Art History and co-director of the Cuba Project.


The project is funded by the Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion initiative, which also supported the College’s exploratory trip to Cuba in the fall of 2010. During this trip, three CIA professors interviewed 44 Cuban artists to identify mid-career and emerging artists. In the fall, artists Osmeivy Ortega and Alejandro Aguilera became the project’s first artists-in-residence. 


Weiss, an art historian and professor devoted to study of Cuban art, founded the first art residence for Cuban artists in the United States in the mid eighties, of which Aguilera was the first recipient.


Much like Ortega and Aguilera, the recently arrived artists are eager to explore the possibilities presented by this fellowship.

What do they expect to take back?

“Lots of pictures,” says Toirac, and all three laugh.

“Wonderful memories,” adds Marrero.


It is only after seeing their work does one understands depth in such simple responses. Their collaborations unify historical facts, tainted with nostalgia, framed in reality.


While Cuban artists enjoy more freedom of expression than other professionals on the island, they walk a fine line – like a medieval court jester that can mock the royals and be safe but a minister finds himself beheaded for the same comment, says Toriac.


“You have to be very clear what you are creating is a piece of art and not a political statement, or go to jail,” he said. Even with that fine balance creativity is curtailed by the stringent ministry that can kill ideas by simply saying: “It’s not the right time.”


A statement the duo have heard many times, and often moved on to even greater ideas. One project featured portraits of the island’s governors throughout history, including U.S.  7th President, William Howard Taft, who temporarily became Governor of Cuba in 1906 to negotiate the end of revolt staged by General Enrique Loynaz del Castillo.


Toriac said the exhibition was a lesson in history for most Cubans who tend not to look at history through timelines of leaders but rather the collective community. All set to display in a room that overlooked the presidential palace, the exhibition was indefinitely delayed and the artists forced to use plan B.


Using Walker Evans photographs of the average Cuban people, suffering under a U.S. supported dictatorship of Gerardo Machado y Morales, imprinted and gold leafed on materials rescued like windows, doors and hinges of the era the exhibition paralleled the connections between the past and present.


Toriac said the irony of using gold leaf, which is impossible to find in Cuba, was they imported it from Spain. “So we used photos from U.S. artists, gold leaf from Spain’s city where the Spanish took the gold they stole from the Americas, to show people in Cuba.”


Hart said the most intriguing aspect of their works was the amount of research and investigation that goes into each project. “I am an art historian; everything we exhibit is in the public domain,” said Marrero, facts that can be verified.


The result of such extensive research uncovers details that often surprise them. During their recreation of the most iconic images of the revolution they discovered the photos were staged years later. “They did not have good photos, so they hired a professional photographer, and we thought if they can re-create the moments so can we,” said Marrero.


Their work also carries a mélange of ironic comedy, like a white wall covered in hash markings counting; “The number of times the enemy has tried to kill Castro,” says Toriac. This exhibition was celebrated rather than censored by the ministers.

He said artists in Cuba have the responsibility to provoke thought and finding the right balance between addressing the uncomfortable topics and pushing the limits.


Hernández Dueñas said he is humbled to be in the presence of artists like Toriac and Marrero and honored to share his work alongside them. Looking forward to teaching and painting in Cleveland he is keen to find the similarities between the two countries.


In 2007 he discovered family home videos exchanged from his family in Havana, Cuba and Miami, FL. For project ‘Inventario’ he juxtaposes the two videos on the same screen, as the narrators tour their homes, zoom in on Christmas decorations, and walk room-to-room to share their lives.  His silk paintings show the similarities in house structures, details of living rooms with identical elephants that his grandmother bought two of.


He emphasizes the individualization of mass produced figurines as they become aesthetics of each home’s individuality yet ties the two families through history and shared culture.


Another canvas work features the items for a lazy Sunday afternoon in the backyard, decked with lawn chair preparing for a barbeque a truly U.S. concept that is sent back to the island through family narration. “I like to explore the anthropology and static life,” he said.


Hart said the Cuban Project has launched much collaboration and discussion within Cleveland and various events will be held throughout the semester.

For more information visit www.cia.edu/cubaproject


Copyright © 1989 to 2012 by [LaPrensa Publications Inc.]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 02/14/12 19:08:37 -0800.





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