12505 - 20170521 - "Adios Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950" in Houston - 05.03.2017-21.05.2017


On March 5, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, debuted Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950. The landmark exhibition of Cuban art is a project conceived by the Cisneros Fontanals Fundación Para Las Artes (CIFO Europa) and The Cisneros Fontanals Arts Foundation, CIFO USA. The exhibition is organized in partnership with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Featuring more than 100 of the most important works of painting, graphic design, photography, video, installation, and performance created by Cuban artists and designers over the past six decades, Adiós Utopia looks at how Cuba’s revolutionary aspirations for social utopia—and subsequent disillusionment—shaped nearly 60 years of Cuban art.

With Cuban art increasingly visible in the United States and abroad, Adiós Utopia provides an unprecedented context for understanding the recent surge of interest in the art of Cuba around improved US/Cuba relations. Rather than offer a historical survey, the exhibition presents a thematic narrative focused on Cuba’s utopian aspirations and failures. It focuses on the experiences of Cuban artists who lived and trained on the island, examining how they commented on and confronted the social and political programs set in motion by the Cuban Revolution through pivotal artistic movements from the 1960s to the 1990s. The narrative also provides access, in some cases for the first time, to the work of avant-garde pioneers of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s that continues to influence Cuban artists.

Conceived by CIFO Europa, the exhibition is curated by Cuban independent curators Gerardo Mosquera, René Francisco Rodríguez, and Elsa Vega. Museum advisors on the project are Olga Viso, executive director at the Walker Art Center; and Mari Carmen Ramírez, the Wortham Curator of Latin American Art at the MFAH, who organized the U.S. tour.

Abstraction: Universalism and Artistic Language
Adiós Utopia opens with an introduction to Cuba’s lesser-known “Concrete” art movement. Artists Sandú Darié, Loló Soldevilla, and others in the 1950s sought to establish an avant-garde art group to introduce a universal approach to art, following a spirit of modernization. These artists engaged with Constructivist counterparts abroad, abandoning representational art in favor of using line, color, and form as autonomous elements in their work. This is evident in Soldevilla’s geometric reliefs of the 1950s, Darié’s Pintura transformable [Transformable painting] (c.1950), and Mario Carreño’s Sin título [Untitled] (1954). More recent works—such as Yaima Carranza’s Malevich, de la serie Tutoriales de esmalte de uñas [Malevich, from the series Nail Polish Tutorials] (2010), which transposes 20th-century compositions by Russian artist Kazimir Malevich into nail-polish patterns—turn a critical eye towards the gaps between revolutionary ideals and reality.

Cult and Destruction of the Revolutionary Nation
The next section traces the development of Cuba’s revolutionary icons—including the Cuban flag, national leaders and rebel soldiers—from their origin in the 1960s to their various re-interpretations throughout the decades. Historical photographs by Alberto Korda, Raúl Corrales, and other major documentarians of the 1960s are brought into dialogue with monumental paintings, video, and sculpture, by key artists such as Servando Cabrera Moreno and his dramatizations of peasants and workers in his painting Rebeldes de la Sierra [Rebels of the Sierra] (1961) and Raúl Martínez with his serialized portraits of political leaders in the painting Rosas y Estrellas [Roses and Stars] (1972). Contemporary reinterpretations of national iconography include Tania Bruguera’s Estadística, de la serie Memoria de la postguerra [Statistics, from the series Memory of the Post-War Era] (1995–2000)—a Cuban flag made of bundles of hair sourced from her neighbors and friends—and Tomás Esson’s Bandera cubana [Cuban flag] (1990), which depicts the flag as a sinuous, physical body. Also on view in these galleries are key works from the 1980s generation of artists who pioneered a new, more conceptually focused Cuban art (Nuevo Arte Cubano), characterized by the successful merging of revolutionary imagery with references to highly personal topics based on their experience of Cuban social and political reality. Most notably, this includes Juan Francisco Elso’s For America (José Martí) (1986), a wooden sculpture that presents 19th-century revolutionary leader José Martí as a religious martyr.

Poster Art
One of the strongest visual elements of the Cuban Revolution remained its extensive use of posters to promote political ideals, cultural events, and solidarity with struggles for independence in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Not merely used as tools for propaganda, Cuban posters became international reference points for innovations in graphic design and political messaging. In this section, a selection of approximately 50 posters that defined the so-called “Golden Age” of Cuban poster design (from 1960 to 1972) are represented, with subject matter ranging from political figures to cultural events involving music, literature, and cinema. Well-known posters designed by Olivio Martínez, Antonio Fernández Reboiro, and Alfredo Gonzaléz Rostgaard, among others, are included.

The Imposition of Words: Discourse, Rhetoric, and Media Controls
This group of works focuses on the role of speech and discourse in shaping revolutionary ideology, as well as themes of censorship and media controls. Opus (2005), a video installation by José Ángel Toirac featuring sound clips of Fidel Castro delivering elaborate statistics, opens this section. Other large installations, including Glexis Novoa’s Sin título (de la Etapa Práctica) [Untitled, from the Practical Stage] (1989), continue to explore the ways that rhetoric and language have defined Cuban art and national identity. Iconic works like Él hace puf [He goes puf] (1967) and Tú haces plaff [You go plaf] (1967) by Umberto Peña and La Bola o el Discurso (1989) by Tomás Esson use the mouth and tongue as metaphors for addressing the limits on social customs in Cuban society. This section also focuses on the influential work of Santiago “Chago” Armada, a political cartoonist of the 1960s whose work was intermittently censored on several occasions by the Cuban government.

Sea, Borders, Exile
From 1959 onward, the waters surrounding Cuba acted as both a gateway to the rest of the world and as a barrier to insulate the country from external influences. This section of the exhibition focuses on territorial tensions—specifically between Cuba and the United States—and mass migrations as represented by the sea. Many of the works included relate to the humanitarian crises in the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union left the island without its key trade partner. Tonel’s well-known installation El bloqueo [The blockade] (1989) sets the tone for this gallery, featuring a set of cinder blocks set in the shape of Cuba, the layout giving the impression of an island at risk of sinking. Photographs by Manuel Piña and José Figueroa round out the presentation, providing dramatic documentation of Cubans as they sought to escape the island.

Lost Illusions and Inverted Utopia
Though the Cuban Revolution sought to create a new, utopian social order, reality was often characterized by paradox, strife, and disillusionment. The final section of Adiós Utopia presents works created over the past 40 years that chart the unraveling of the utopian dream. In Jeanette Chavez’s video performance Autocensura [Self-censorship] (2006), the artist methodically ties knots of string tightly around her own tongue. Photographic works from Ricardo Elías’s Oro Seco [Dry Gold] series (2005–09) document the decay of the factories and transportation systems that upheld Cuba’s once profitable sugar industry, ,while Yoan Capote’s Stress (in memoriam) (2004–12) sandwiches hundreds of human teeth between two concrete blocks to suggest the teeth-gritting stress of everyday life in Cuba. In the final gallery of the exhibition, visitors experience two haunting works, both created by the artist collective Los Carpinteros. Conga irreversible [Irreversible conga] (2012), a video of a performance piece staged during the 2012 Havana Bienal, shows a traditional Cuban street procession performed in reverse; the marchers and the crowds who blindly follow are a metaphor for the uncertainty of the country’s future. The collective’s sculptural piece, Faro tumblado [Felled lighthouse] 2006), recalls the iconic lighthouse of the Morro Castle in Havana, a prominent feature of the cityscape and a national monument. Here, the icon is laid on its side, questioning its function as a guiding light.