Cuban Art Triumphs Despite Oppression

Vivid colors and European styles mask the subtle political undertones pervading the work of Cuban artists in the “Cuba’Cuba: Island Artists Group Show” that ended its run at the Baak gallery on Brattle Street last Wednesday.

Few galleries are willing to endure the complicated logistics of procuring artwork from Cuba, explains Holliey White, founder of Arts Amica, an organization dedicated to helping artists gain exposure outside of Cuba. Because of tight security restrictions, artwork is inspected numerous times on its way to the U.S. and must be re-stretched for exhibition—all disincentives for galleries to show Cuban work.

White started the organization in 1996 after a humanitarian aid trip to Cuba exposed her to the difficulties Cuban artists encounter in trying to find an American audience. She now represents over 30 artists. While each piece of artwork on display is drastically different from the next, there is contiguity within their vibrant colors and subtle political critiques. Juan Carlos Garcia Marrero, in his piece “Ship of Fools,” conveys the hardship and strength of the Cuban condition by way of bright tones and stark black outlines.

“The colors are uplifting, but the message is a bit more sinister,” explains White. A cluster of flat, geometric figures without feet stand on an island surrounded by water, representing the general state of life under the restrictive government. “There’s nowhere to go and they have no feet, no way to get there,” she says. White discusses the artwork that she displays with the artists themselves, allowing her to pass along the crucial political undercurrents to her gallery’s visitors.

Although the work is influenced by various Western movements, it is principally concerned with Cuban culture and the Cuban people. Another artist, Morejon, uses mixed media and oil on canvas to convey the effects of communism and Soviet influence on the Cuban population.

In one of his pieces, “Petroleo,” grey-and-beige collaged images of anatomical drawings and sketches of a motorcycle are punctuated by vibrant red flags and red Russian text. The piece, White explains, celebrates the ingenuity of the Cuban people in the face of restrictive political circumstances. Made up of mismatched industrial parts, the motorcycle expresses the Cubans’ ability to manipulate a broken system and turn it into something new.

Eileen Kennedy, a contributing editor of ArtsMedia Magazine, a journalist and a painter, discovered Arts Amica while reviewing one of the group’s shows in Hyde Park, Mass. During extensive visits to Cuba as a journalist, Kennedy began to paint and exhibit her work there. Through her interaction with the artists, she learned that they are exceptionally skilled in graphic artwork like that of “Petroleo.”

The medium is less expensive than other paint and art supplies and many classically trained artists seek resourceful means of creating artwork. “I ran out of turpentine, and someone handed me gasoline,” Kennedy recalls.

Fidel Castro’s revolutionary goals included literacy in academia and art, and the many art schools have turned it into one of the most artistically “overeducated, undermanifested” populations, Kennedy explains. She continued that these art schools offer classical training which becomes the vocabulary for political dissent.

In Jacqueline Arriaga’s “The Window,” a caged bird sits beside an open window. “The open window is the promise of leaving…Florida is 90 miles away and yet it could be light years.” While this imagery is not difficult to interpret, Kennedy affirmed that it is “subtle enough that she can paint like this without political repercussions.”

Any flow of artistic expression out of the country, however, is likely to draw attention from the Cuban authorities. “I’ve been in the interrogation room,” says White, who balances the art organization with her job as the assistant clerk for the state Supreme Judicial Court.

Although she has endured rigorous investigations from Cuban officials, White accepts the risk and recognizes the significance of her role in aiding these artists. “Art is the first voice of social change,” she says.