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Cuba: Art and History from 1868 to Today, ed. Nathalie Bondil (The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts/Prestel, ISBN 978-2-89192-323-1, 424 pp)

Review by Nicholas Laughlin

First published in The Caribbean Review of Books, August 2008

On 10 October, 1868, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, a wealthy landowner from eastern Cuba, assembled the slaves on his hacienda, told them they were now free, and made a proclamation that has come to be known as the Grito de Yara: a declaration of independence for Cuba. It was the start of the Ten Years’ War, the first of three wars against the Spanish colonial powers that finally ended, after yanqui intervention, in Cuban independence. In some versions of the narrative of nationhood, therefore, 1868 is the birth-year of modern Cuba. It is also the zero point for Cuba: Art and History from 1868 to Today, a major exhibition of Cuban art that ran at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts from January to June 2008, and its massive eponymous catalogue.

Cuba is the indisputable heavyweight of the Caribbean art scene. One reason for (and also consequence of) this status is the strength of the country’s state-funded art institutions. Cuba: Art and History drew mostly on the collections of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (supplemented by loans from other museums and private collectors). Even in the era of Fidel Castro’s supposed retirement it’s impossible to imagine any US institution collaborating so intimately with Cuba’s art establishment. Canada has been a far friendlier trade and tourism partner, and it’s hard not to think of Cuba: Art and History as a lavish act of cultural diplomacy on the part of the Museum of Fine Arts. Far fewer people saw the show than if it had opened, say, in New York, but the gorgeous catalogue (which reproduces over four hundred works) offers the prospect of a long afterlife.

Almost the first works we see are three paintings by the Canadian artist James Wilson Morrice, who travelled in the Caribbean in the early twentieth century. (Uncannily, Morrice’s oil paintings stylistically prefigure the later work of Peter Doig, the Scottish-Canadian artist who currently lives and works in Trinidad — at a quick glance The Pond, West Indies (1921) could pass for a Doig.) But this glimpse of Cuba-as-seen-by-visitors is quickly succeded by a selection of topographical landscapes, portraits, and academic studies of local festivals and “types” by native sons (not yet daughters) — engaged, the catalogue text suggests, in “finding ways to express a nation.” They look suitably antiquated to our eyes, but the first stage of incipient nationhood, political or cultural, is perhaps necessarily reactionary. Two monumentally scaled historical paintings by the padre-hijo pair Armando and Augusto García Menocal hint at subversions to come. Bobadilla Sending Off Columbus (1893) depicts the expulsion from Cuba of the former Admiral of the Indies; I Don’t Want to Go to Heaven (1930) takes its title from the defiant dying words of the Taíno leader Hatuey, refusing conversion to Christianity as he was burned at the stake by the Spanish. The symbolic weight of both moments is no less poignant for being obvious.

These older works are an edifying prologue to the more celebrated modernists of the so-called vanguardia who emerged in the 1920s, inspired equally by radical politics, the European avant-garde, and a searching exploration of creole and Afro-Cuban culture. They broke into the consciousness of the international art world in the 1944 show Modern Cuban Painters at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The key figure missing from this seminal event was Wifredo Lam, up to this day considered the major Caribbean art historical figure (and the one against whom painters of a certain generation and style are still measured — haven’t you heard Leroy Clarke described as the Trinidadian Lam, or Philip Moore as the Guyanese version?). Lam didn’t want to be pigeonholed as “Cuban.” His ambitions were global, even if his “exotic” origin was a key element of his fame. (It is a dilemma many Caribbean artists still face.) The catalogue grants him his own chapter, appropriately at the exact centre of the physical volume.

There are two interlacing narrative strands in Cuba: Art and History, made explicit in the title. Each chronological section of artworks opens with a selection of scene-setting documentary photographs, many borrowed from the Fototeca de Cuba in Havana. (Some of these are works of art in their own right; see the photos shot in 1933 by the American photographer Walker Evans and lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) Nowhere does this “history” and “art” alternation work so seductively as at the start of the section “Within the Revolution, Everything, Against the Revolution, Nothing”. Cool geometrical abstractions of the 1950s suddenly give way, at the turn of a page, to a seething parade of revolutionary cavalry, followed by Alberto Korda’s iconic portrait of Che Guevara, marching militia, Fidel declaiming to a crowd of tens of thousands, and a close-up of The Beard.

An essay on post-Revolutionary artists of the 1960s and 70s is demurely titled “Rediscovering Identity”. Well, to say the least. The works that follow are louder, more aggressive, more overtly ideological. “The clear, incredible force” of the Revolution, writes Liana Ríos Fitzsimmons, “was manifested in a sense of justice and freedom that ... broke with the motivations behind and norms of the abstract art that went before.” Perhaps the period is best exemplified by the technicolour political and cinema posters reproduced here, and the faux-naïf Cuba Colectiva Mural, famously painted overnight on 17 and 18 July, 1967, by an assortment of international and Cuban artists at the Salón de Mayo.

“The renewal of the arts that took place in Cuba beginning in about 1979 ... brought with it a total change in the cultural landscape,” writes Corina Matamoros Tuma in an introduction to the catalogue’s final section. “A whole new generation side-stepped the prevailing aesthetic.” She identifies key elements: the influence of conceptual art, and a new engagement with popular culture and “Cuba kitsch”; the appearance of artists’ collectives, installations, and “found” art; and the launching of the Havana Biennale, which drew the Cuban capital into a reconfigured international art circuit. The collapse of the Soviet Union, and the withdrawal of its subsidies to Cuba, was a decisive moment for these artists. In the consequent economic and social upheaval, many chose exile and access to new opportunities in North America and Europe. Today they are established players in the international art economy, if not quite in the major league.

The arc of the narrative that unfolds in these pages has many parallels in the separate art histories of the Caribbean. The singular experience of the 1959 Revolution aside, Cuban artists’ early attempts to adapt the ideas and techniques of international modernism to local subjects, to create works of art that shape and reinforce specific notions of national culture, and their ongoing, fruitful, often anxious negotiation between outside influences and inside circumstances, “home” and “away,” are familiar to artists and art historians of the wider region.

The poet Robert Frost summarised the European settlement of North America in a famous line: “The land was ours before we were the land’s.” For most of us in the Caribbean, our experience was the exact opposite. We were the land’s — plantation-bound, with little choice in the matter — long before we could conceive of the land as ours, whether that possession means physical real estate or territorial independence, political self-determination or cultural self-realisation. Cuba: Art and History is the story of five generations of artists trying to define, understand, and assert ownership of their place in the world — to own it and belong to it — even as their country does the same. +