Cuba, these days, is on everyone’s mind. The United States and Cuba had a relationship that was once the best of friends, with Cuba being one of the first supporters of the American Revolution. Americans from multiple generations viewed the island-nation with a sense of excitement and romance, La Isla Bonita. And then, Fidel took over, and with his revolution, everything seemed to change overnight. The party was over: Cuba became the forbidden country.
Of course, nothing is permanent—and that includes cultural identity. Since Castro’s Revolution the Cuban identity became insular and classically communist generic, accepting both financial largesse and cultural instruction from the USSR, until its collapse. During this same time, many Cuban intellectuals and commoners alike left Cuba, forming Diasporas that immigrated to the United States, South America and Europe.
To Cubans on the island, these immigrants stopped being Cuban. Or, did they? This is largely the point of inquiry for the exhibition ‘Cuban America: An Empire State of Mind’ from Lehman College Art Gallery.
According to co-curators, Yuneikys Villalonga and Susan Hoeltzel, “ [the exhibition]includes over 35 contemporary artists of Cuban descent, who have been raised and/or educated in the States or in Cuba. In this exhibition, a myriad of themes are inspired by America: as the familiar homeland for second and third generation children of Cuban parents, or as the distant, imagined place, that has historically empowered diverse ideologies on the Island. These views, rarely put together, portray multiple landscapes of the concept of empire, so easily associated with both countries. They add many nuances to the complexity of the cultural relationships between Cuba and America, often simplified to politics.”
The exhibition serves as an illuminating exploration into both the legacy of a mother culture and the transformative quality of Diaspora. It moves well beyond the simplistic political ideology that has often characterized Castro’s Cuba.
Instead, we’re treated to all the global art elements fused together with the artists’ perspectives of their Cuban heritage. What is most impressive about the exhibition is the collection of work from artists who are at the apex of success in the global art world. The exhibition is a Who’s Who of well-known artists of Cuban heritage.
Alexandre Arrechea leads the top of the list of notable artists. Arrechea’s work having been on view at Park Avenue last year in large public installations now has work on view in this exhibition. In Empire State (2013) the iconic image of the Empire State Building is wrapped into the symbol of the Pentagon, the very symbol of American dominance. Fusing the image of economic prosperity with dominance compels you to consider that economic prosperity comes with a price.
In addition, to the numerous pieces on display, and in the true fashion of Latin American style exhibition, there is various salon style panel discussions scheduled for the duration of the exhibition, coupled with video programming. This is not an exhibition you can see in one day, rather, over the course of a few visits, to truly appreciate the depth of work on view.
What is perhaps the most engaging aspect of this exhibition is that the work is distinctively not uniform. There are visual surprises and technical ranges that are far and wide. It’s fascinating to stop and ponder that perhaps many of these artists of Cuban heritage have shed their colonial, Bautista and Castro era legacies far behind.
In return, they are looking forward, creating work that feels unbound, unbeholden from a complicated past and ready to fully embrace the possibilities of a fresh tomorrow. It definitely makes one wonder, what is next for the Cuba of tomorrow.
One of the macro-trends this season in the Bronx is the exploration of identity. What I appreciate about this exhibition is the level of depth brought to exploring an identity that is very much in a state of flux. It’s daring but without a doubt done exceptionally well. This is one of the many reasons why Lehman Art College Gallery has earned a reputation for putting together some of the best exhibitions I have seen in all of New York City.