As relations with Cuba warmed, a flurry of Minnesota arts groups trekked to Havana. Now, Cuba is coming here.
A massive exhibition of Cuban art unlike anything the United States has seen in 70 years will arrive at the Walker Art Center in November 2017. “Adiós Utopia” boasts more than 100 works by dozens of artists — offering a complex portrait of life on the island since 1950.
The exhibition is coming at a key moment, said Olga Viso, the Walker’s executive director. “There’s really no better time to give audiences across the country greater understanding of Cuban art.”
The exhibition’s paintings and photographs, sculptures and posters examine how Cuba’s artists viewed the revolution of 1959, when Fidel Castro seized power, and its aftermath. That perspective has largely been absent in U.S. galleries and museums, which because of icy relations and trade restrictions have been more likely to feature works from Cuban émigrés than artists who stayed, Viso said.
“The United States’ understanding of the Cuban experience is mostly through the lens of the Cuban exile experience,” said Viso, who was born in Florida to Cuban émigrés.
The exhibit will challenge the notion of a paradise frozen in time, Viso said, highlighting artists who were in sync with international vogues. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, for example, Raúl Martínez painted Cuba’s leaders and icons in colorful pop-art fashion.
His work could have easily been a part of the Walker’s 2015 summer show, “International Pop,” Viso said this week. “But you know, the work is just not readily available.”
These artists might have had “more recognized, international careers,” Viso added, “but didn’t because they were emerging in the midst of the revolution and Cuba’s closing off to the United States and parts of the world.”
The Walker and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston partnered with a Miami-based foundation and three Cuba-based curators to assemble the show. It was in the works long before President Obama’s announcement, in December 2014, that the United States was restoring diplomatic relations. But that news gave the project “an incredible boost,” said Mari Carmen Ramírez, the Houston museum’s curator of Latin American art. (The exhibition will start in Houston, running there from March to May.)
“It made it all the more topical and all the more important,” Ramírez said Thursday, “to be the first institutions to pioneer this kind of effort.”
Since the diplomatic thaw, Minnesota artists — including the Minnesota Orchestra, which played in Havana last year — have been among the first to land in Cuba, reporting back on its sophisticated art and culture.
While some Cuban artists have traveled internationally, especially in the 1980s and ’90s, the art shown in the United States tends to be recent. Earlier this year, the Art Museum of the Americas and the Organization of American States hosted an exhibit in Washington, D.C., heralded as one of the largest group shows of Cuban art. The exhibit showcased the work of 15 artists, most in their 30s.
The last major showing of modern Cuban art was in 1944, when New York’s Museum of Modern Art presented “Modern Cuban Painters.”
Miami-based art collector Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, who was born in Cuba, came up with the idea for the new exhibition, which will be accompanied by a book printed in both English and Spanish. After brainstorming with curators in Cuba, she contacted Viso and Ramírez, experts in modern Latin American art who have known each other for decades.
“She wanted this exhibition to be seen in the United States,” Ramírez said, “and was convinced that both the Walker and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston were the right ones to bring it here.”
The European arm of the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation played a key role brokering deals made more complicated by international politics. Relaxed travel rules helped, but other things remained tricky. Among them — crates. Preparing the art works for travel in crates was “very much an issue,” Ramírez said, because of the scarcity of materials on the island and the U.S. embargo, which prevents the wiring of funds from U.S. institutions to buy materials.
Getting the right wood is “still an obstacle,” she said.
She hopes that this project will clear the way for other artistic exchanges, making it easier for art to cross the 90 miles of water that separate the two countries.