Artist and writer Coco Fusco grew up in a New York City home filled with the music, poetry, jokes and food of Cuba. Arguments about island politics floated through the air. Everything American was treated as foreign and suspect.
Raised by Cubans who had different ideas about parent-child power dynamics and how young women should act, she taught English to cousins, translated for adults and was constantly bombarded with questions about Fidel Castro from Americans.
“I lived the drama of the revolution every day,” said Fusco, who was born in 1960, the year after Castro took power.
The internationally recognized artist and writer is the subject of “Swimming on Dry Land/Nadar en Seco,” a solo exhibition up through Dec. 18 at St. Olaf College, where she will present a public lecture Oct. 29.
Fusco has won a Guggenheim Fellowship and her work has been included in the Venice Biennial and two Whitney Biennials, to name just a few accolades.
The modest exhibition — which includes three videos and one installation featuring works on paper and books — focuses on the politics of the Cuban revolution. More broadly, though, Fusco’s work interrogates power relationships, colonialism, gender and race.
Whether she is investigating intellectuals targeted by the Cuban revolution; taking a course from former U.S. military interrogators to understand how people are coerced to share information, or exploring the role of photography in the FBI’s hunt for black-power activist Angela Davis, Fusco takes on the politics of power.
In a lit gallery at St. Olaf’s Flaten Art Museum, visitors will find a series of 21 re-creations of official Cuban documents from 1971, outlining the government’s methodologies for censoring publications by intellectuals labeled “anti-Cuban.” A glass case contains a selection of Cuban editions of books by said intellectuals, including Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Visita a Cuba.”
In a darkened gallery space, the stories of people whose lives were radically altered or shaped by those documents play out in three videos by Fusco.
“Vivir en Junio con la Lengua Afuera” (“To Live in June With Your Tongue Hanging Out”), a 25-minute video she made in 2018, begins with the artist making herself a fresh batch of piping hot Cuban coffee — essential for storytelling — as she reflects on the Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas, whose books are still banned on the island. He held secret poetry readings in Havana’s Lenin Park, so in the video Fusco returns there with several contemporary artists and poets who had spoken out against the government.
They committed Arenas’ poems to memory, then walked about the park, reciting them — a haunting convergence as the poets of today discover the poet of yesterday.
Fusco takes on similar themes in “La Confesión” (“The Confession”), a video work in which she reflects on the 1971 forced public confession by poet Heberto Padilla that he was a counter-revolutionary.
“They saw all the contradictions of the Cuban revolution from the very beginning and spoke of them in their works,” said Fusco of these poets.
To many Americans, Cuba is “the equivalent of going to a forbidden island lost to time,” writes Cuban-American Chris Vazquez in his article “Havana is Not Your Hipster Playground” for the Havana Times. To Cuban-Americans whose family members left the island, it is a nostalgic place they’ve heard about through stories.
Fusco sees the bigger picture. She’s been traveling to the island regularly for decades, forging ties with artists, trying to make sense of it all.
“Visitors to Cuba invariably arrive because they are obsessed with its past,” Fusco writes in the show’s artist statement. “For Cubans, however, there is an ongoing struggle, both to shape a vision of a post-revolutionary future and to address suppressed events from the past and present. My work is part of that effort.”