Cuban Contemporary Art Collections

Good Times, But We Should Look Beyond the “Boom”

Several recent shows of contemporary Cuban art reveal an international interest in the island’s artistic production. However, they also raise critical questions. Aldeide Delgado takes a look into the exhibitions – and into the open interrogations for Contemporary And (C&) América Latina.

At the same time, Adiós Utopia – Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art since 1950 was presented at the Walker Art Center in the beginning of 2018 after its display in the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (MFAH). The exhibition was an initiative from the Foundation Cisneros, or CIFO, Europe and Miami. Self described as “the most complete and significant collection of modern and contemporary Cuban art in the United States”, the show established a narrative on how the utopian aspirations and failures in Cuba have affected more than fifty years of artistic production. From this perspective, the exhibition established a dialogue with key events in the country’s history from the 1950s till today.

Cuban art collector Ella Fontanals-Cisneros – similar to collector Jorge Pérez – has played a decisive role in the support of Latin American art (CIFO Grants and Commissions Program), as well as the activation of the cultural scene in Miami (CIFO, PAMM). Further, she has strongly influenced the revaluation of the Cuban abstraction movement as well as individual artists such as Carmen Herrera, Loló Soldevilla and Sandú Darié (Triangle, 2017-2018).

A different perspective is offered by Chris von Christierson, South African entrepreneur based in London. His collection of Cuban art focuses on the multiple African impressions in Cuban culture.

The exhibition Without Masks – Contemporary Afro Cuban Art at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana, Cuba (2017), showed 150 pieces acquired since the foundation of the collection in 2007. According to curator Orlando Hernández, the collection is built around the investigation of locally lesser known artists but of high international acclaim. In general, the collection explores topics that go beyond conventional religious ties, to a reflection on prejudice, stereotypes and discrimination present in Cuban reality. Without Masks positioned The von Christierson Collection as the most extensive and diverse representation of Afro Cuban art, nationally and internationally.

Finally, another exhibition presented as “most extensive Cuban art exhibition” was Art x Cuba – Contemporary Perspectives since 1989. Produced between August 2017 and February 2018 at the Ludwig Forum for International Art in Aachen, Germany, the exhibition examined the relation between culture and politics, art and commerce, and, globalization and power through pieces from one of the first Cuban art collections in Europe: The Peter and Irene Ludwig Collection.

The mentioned exhibitions are all evidence of how a group of international art collectors are consistently invested in the promotion of different generation of Cuban artists in- and outside the island. The support of the production of exhibitions, books and research projects through the collaboration with renowned museums, universities and curators enable the study of otherwise silenced artistic periods and stimulates the production from young artists. Furthermore, it encourages the commercial dynamic of the Cuban art market.

On January 25th 2018, the online platform Cuban Art News, founded by collectors Howard and Patricia Farber with the objective to promote recognition and comprehension of Cuban art, published a report on an initiative by the Phillips auction house: to incorporate Latin American art in the international contemporary art sales. The sales records of Cuban artists such as Carmen Herrera surpass a million dollars while others, like Zilia Sánchez, Mario Carreño, Tomás Sánchez, Roberto Fabelo and Alexander Arrechea achieve noteworthy prices.

The activation of different galleries in Havana, the establishment of independent studios and the sustained presence at the most significant international art fairs and biennials constitute some of the contributing factors to the increased participation of Cuban art on the commercial market.

During 2017, more than twenty exhibitions positioned Cuban art practice in other contexts. Among them, a retrospective travelling exhibition of Wifredo Lam and Belkis Ayón at the Tate Modern and the Museo del Barrio respectively stood out; the three shows Cuba Is, HOPE and The Cuban Matrix in the exhibition program Pacific Standard Time: La/La, as well as Cuba – Tatuare la storia, curated by Diego Sileo and Giacomo Zaza at the Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea (PAC) in Milan, Italy. Also, in 2017 the participation of María Magdalena Campos in the 14th Documenta stood out as did Carlos Martiel at the Venice Biennale. In February 2018, Cuban artist Tania Bruguera inaugurated the personal exhibition Untitled (Havana, 2000), at the MoMA in New York, and May 2018 will see the opening of the exhibition Talking to Power at the MUAC (University Museum for Contemporary Art) in Mexico City.

Without a doubt, something is happening. Something that many sum up strikingly as a “boom”. However, to speak of a “boom” in Cuban art –as it usually happens– based on the acute interest in the island as a result of the relaxation of the diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US in 2014, the death of Fidel Castro in 2016 and the subsequent contraction of relations following after the measures implemented by President Donald Trump in 2017, threatens to simplify the conditioning factors that define Cuban symbolic and artistic production.

Thus, it is necessary to examine this phenomenon not only from the perspective of Cuban-American tensions, but also and in all its complexity: from the increased participation of the Latino and Chicano community in the United States, the vindication of a subjective-activist curatorship, visits abroad of Cuban artists and their return to the island, the growing interest of prestigious galleries for artistic creation in Cuba and, above all, the development of a collecting focused on the institutionalization of art and its social availability.

Aldeide Delgado is an independent historian and curator. She has been awarded with the Investigative Grant and Production of Critic Essay 2017 issued by Teor/ethics. Her interests include gender, racial identity, photography and abstraction in the visual arts. She has been a speaker at the California Institute of Arts, the Spanish Cultural Center Miami, the University of Havana, Casa de las Américas, the National Library of Cuba and the 12th Havana Biennial. Se studied art history at the University of Havana (2011-2016). Her articles have been published in Art OnCuba, Cuban Art News, Arte Al Límite and Artishock. She is a current collaborator of Artishock in Miami.

Translated from Spanish by Zarifa Mohamad Petersen