Fidel Castro’s voice echoes through the darkened gallery: “Cien, cien, cien!” (“One hundred, hundred, hundred!”) he says with gusto, sounding louder each time. Except there is no audience, and Castro is nowhere to be seen. There’s just a black screen with white numbers flashing on it, counting upward, for nearly five minutes.
In “Opus,” an immersive video work by Cuban artist José Ángel Toirac, these numbers represent statistics — Cuba’s sugar cane production, the number of Olympic gold medals won by its athletes, the size of a 1995 potato harvest — spouted off during Castro’s notoriously long speeches glorifying the new Cuba, post-revolution. But here, they become empty signifiers.
Such a piece is characteristic of what to expect in “Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950,” a big exhibition at Walker Art Center that opens with a party Friday night. With 106 works by 63 artists spanning seven decades of creative production from the island nation, the show presents a different view from the Cuban exile experience that Americans are used to hearing. This is the history of modern Cuba, told through the artists who stayed or were born after the 1959 revolution.
It speaks to an idealistic spirit that was slowly whittled away as the country’s leadership shifted from nationalist to socialist to Communist.
“The show balances Cuba’s dreams and aspirations but also acknowledges the struggles that happened during different points in time, such as the [U.S.] embargo,” said Walker Art Center executive director Olga Viso. “That’s when the Soviet Union started to have an influence, and U.S. businesses started to be nationalized, and Catholic priests and nuns started to be deported.”
Viso was a key adviser on the exhibition. Known for her scholarly work on the late Cuban artist Ana Mendieta — who, as an exile, is not represented in this show — Viso herself is Cuban-American; her parents emigrated soon after the revolution.
“Adiós Utopia” was conceived in 2013 but added impetus for the show came in December 2014 when Viso visited Cuba with a group of 50 Walker donors, just days President Barack Obama eased relations. It seemed a perfect moment to bring greater clarity about Cuban art to American audiences.
Dodging the censors’ eyes
Although arts and culture are an important aspect of Cuban life, anything that might imply criticism of the government is subject to censorship. Artists have adapted by finding covert ways to question the regime, while pushing their creative work as far as possible.
“There isn’t really a formal cultural policy in Cuba in the way there was in the Soviet Union and in other [Communist] countries,” said Viso. “There was just sort of Castro’s dictum that freedom of expression is supported as long as it’s within the frame of the revolution — which leaves a lot to interpretation.”
Many works in the show suggest subtle critiques of the revolution. A young woman lying in the grass appears to be daydreaming in “Ella Está en Otro Día” (“She Is in Another Day”), a 1975 painting by Flavio Garciandía in the very first gallery welcoming viewers to the exhibition. To the censors, it must have looked like a beautiful woman’s profile. But really, she may be dreaming about life in another day, far away from Cuba.
In the same room is a piece by a much younger Cuban artist. In “Nueve Leyes” (“Nine Laws,” 2014), Reynier Leyva Novo displays what appear to be just nine sheets of variously sized black paper. Actually, each piece is composed of the exact amount of ink used in nine pieces of government legislation from 1959 to the present.
His work is positioned across from a three-panel black and white abstract piece by Loló Soldevilla in which squares, circles, rectangles and triangles do a non-linear dance together. Eduardo Ponjuán’s and René Francisco’s “Productivismo” (“Productivism,” 1992) features a character who looks like he could be a steelworker, gripping a large metal tool that comes off the canvas and turns into a paintbrush. Here the theme is artist-as-worker, considering the ways that the artist as a cultural producer was supposed to fit into the revolution.
Road to dystopia
Such a multigenerational smattering of artists in one gallery — and this show spans three huge galleries — is typical of “Adiós Utopia,” which continues through March 18.
The artist Francisco, along with Gerardo Mosquera and Elsa Vega, curated the show, organized by the Walker and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (where it first opened last spring) in cooperation with the Miami-based Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation.
The exhibition is divided into seven sections for a somewhat more digestible art experience. The first section focuses on geometric abstraction and concrete art of the 1950s and early ’60s, which paralleled abstract art movements in Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Venezuela and elsewhere. After the 1959 revolution, such art was deemed not quite radical enough and many of these artists left the island.
The next section reflects the romantic, triumphant moment after the overthrow of dictator Fulgencio Batista. Raúl Martínez’s “Rosas y Estrellas” (“Roses and Stars,” 1972) is an almost glowing oil-on-canvas painting that gathers Castro and Che Guevara with historical leaders of the Latin American independence movement. Nearby is Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez’s iconic 1960 black-and-white photo of Guevara as revolutionary visionary.
Retro-looking graphic designs and poster art, displayed in hallways around the show, employ a pop aesthetic and underscore the role of propaganda in post-revolution Cuban art.
Midway through the exhibit, though, the art begins to feel less idyllic. One section is devoted to 1960s-vintage cartoons by Santiago “Chago” Armada that raised philosophical concerns about the Castro regime; his work was regularly censored, and eventually he stopped making art altogether.
When the Soviet bloc collapsed in 1991 and Cuba was no longer able to rely on economic support from the Soviet Union, the island entered a period of extreme economic hardship known as the Special Period in Time of Peace. Works from the period in “Adiós Utopia” speak to this in a visceral way.
“Estadística” (“Statistics,” 1995-2000) suggests the limited materials available to artists during this time. Havana-based Tania Bruguera, whose work is often censored and has been under house arrest, created a version of the Cuban flag using ringlets of hair collected from her neighbors.
Similarly, Yoan Capote’s “Stress (in Memoriam)” is a rectangular bed of human teeth (where he got them we do not know) embedded in a concrete block on top of two chunks of wood. A log-like concrete shape is frozen mid-roll across the teeth, implying someone grinding their teeth, or just the weight of the concrete on them. But the teeth — these bones — do not break, just as the Cuban people keep on going past the expiration date of the Castro revolution.