In anticipation of the November 11 opening of Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950, Olga Viso, the Walker’s executive director and a museum advisor on the show, shares her personal and curatorial perspective on the exhibition.
In December 2014, just days before US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro took steps to begin the restoration of US-Cuba relations, I was in Havana visiting the studio of renowned Cuban photographer José Figueroa. Unaware of the historic moment that would soon commence, after more than half a century of severed relations, I took a timely and poignant walk through Cuba’s revolutionary past in the artist’s studio. There I found, amid the artist’s documents from the era, a trove of vintage photographs and rare political posters. As a young man in the 1960s, Figueroa was the studio assistant to Alberto Korda, the Cuban photographer who shot the iconic 1960 portrait of Che Guevara, Guerrillero heroico, one of the most reproduced images of the 20th century. Before he emerged as a photographer in his own right in the 1970s, Figueroa captured many private moments on camera that have only recently been printed. His Exilio (Exile) series from the 1960s reveals more personal reflections on the historic process of the Cuban Revolution and the reverberating effects that its radical social and political transformation would have on the lives of individual people.
During my tour of the studio, I was immediately drawn to a grainy black-and-white photograph hanging at the end of a long hallway. It was a work from the 1960s that pictured a young woman in the far distance, waving goodbye to a group of onlookers from an airport tarmac. Her image was framed on either side by two hands waving in return. “Es Olga,” Figueroa shared with me. Unclear of what I had just heard, I queried, “Quien?” He repeated the same words, “Olga… Es Olga.” He then added, “Mi mamá.” He took the photo on November 1, 1967, he told me, the day his mother left Cuba for the United States and went into exile, where she has remained ever since.
I was transfixed as I gazed at the visage of this young woman whose story and posture were so strikingly familiar. Tears welled in my eyes as I shared that Olga was the name of my mother, who had made the same journey from Havana airport just a few years earlier, in 1961. My Olga departed in the first few days of November as well, taking refuge in the US shortly after Fidel Castro declared Cuba’s alliance with the Soviet Union, an event that signaled the Communist turn in Cuban policy away from the movement’s nationalistic beginnings. My mother was among the first wave of exiles to emigrate at this historical moment leading up to the height of the Cold War and the US-Cuban Missile Crisis. Figueroa’s mother would go into exile six years later, as did hundreds of thousands of Cubans over the next decades.
Figueroa shared with me that in that decisive moment of adiós captured in the unlikely portrait of his mother, he was uncertain when, and if, he would ever see her again. Indeed, it would be 12 years before he would reunite with Olga. His mother turned 90 earlier this year, and next month marks the 50th anniversary of her exile. My mother passed away in 2012 and never returned to Cuba. It was a pain she carried her entire life. The trauma of that departure is visible in her 1961 Cuban passport photo, which I found in a storage box shortly after her death. It was a photo she never shared with me during her lifetime.
Aside from the personal associations that Figueroa’s photograph of Olga conjured for me, the work both embodies and portends the myriad dreams and disappointments that would be faced by the Cuban populace as one of the most radical social and political experiments of the 20th century unfolded. In this moment of professed allegiances and expressed disavowals, families like Figueroa’s and mine were separated or became divided, often along political, social, economic, religious, or ideological lines. Some chose to abandon their homeland to seek political and religious asylum in Mexico, North and South America, and Europe, while others were determined to stay behind. Still others sacrificed familial ties to champion a collective dream that an ideal, classless society—a social utopia—might be possible on this small island nation in the Caribbean.
There is no question that the 1959 Cuban Revolution represents one of the most transformative social revolutions of the 20th century. Not unlike the Russian and Mexican Revolutions that preceded it, the Cuban Revolution aimed at renovating society to usher in new levels of social justice, prosperity, and human understanding. Unprecedented in scale, a small island nation became a leader for global debates about equality, culture, welfare, race, and class struggle, engaging leaders in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America. Cuba’s aspiration to forge a model society in the second half of the last century has frequently been described using utopian terms. This is an interpretation that has been met with resistance from some Marxist scholars and historians, who challenge the understanding of the Cuban Revolution as a utopian journey.
For many contemporary art historians and artists active in Cuba since the 1980s, including Gerardo Mosquera, Iván de la Nuez, Antonio Eligio (Tonel), and Rachel Weiss, who have written extensively on the subject, utopia has served as a potent metaphor by which to trace the evolution of art on the island from a period of revolutionary fervor, enthusiasm, and optimism to subsequent periods of dystopic malaise and hardship. These readings acknowledge that the utopian spirit of the Cuban social experiment was short-lived. Indeed, the Cuban Revolution, not unlike other social revolutions in the 20th century, fell prey over time to a variety of internal and external forces, including autocratic leadership, corruption, economic disasters, and political and economic isolation from the US with the persistence of the US-led trade embargo.
So, to what does the adiós in the title of the Walker’s new exhibition, Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art, refer? The answer is as complex as the experiences of the countless individuals who have lived during the 65-year trajectory the exhibition surveys. Figueroa’s Olga (1967)—which serves as the cover image of the exhibition’s companion publication, Adiós Utopia: Art in Cuba Since 1950—offers a range of potential readings, from the personal to the political. To what utopia did Figueroa’s mother—or my mother, for that matter—bid farewell in the 1960s? It was surely not the dream of the utopia that was being imagined. Rather, their lament was focused on the loss of homeland, a farewell to the nostalgia of youth, the promise of family, and, ultimately, certain innocence.
For Figueroa, who remained on the island, his adiós to his mother signaled a profound farewell to the utopia of childhood as he faced a hopeful but uncertain future. His adiós decades later when he chose to make prints from 50-year-old negatives was of, no doubt, a different order. This is, in essence, the stuff of which this powerful and unprecedented exhibition is made—the ruminations of more than 50 artists around ideas of utopia and revolution across seven decades. As exhibition cocurator René Francisco noted in a recent interview in Cuban Art News, “What we were looking for, in each of the decades we covered, was the highest utopian ideals expressed in works of real quality—works that would summarize and demonstrate, profoundly, the spirit and the fé visual, the ‘visual faith,’ of artists who were at the forefront of important periods in Cuban art, with all their enthusiasms and rough edges.” The inclusion of Ernesto Oroza’s Aachen to Zürich (2005) underscores the multiplicity of perspectives reflected in the exhibition. In this work of video animation, the word “revolución” cycles repeatedly on screen and is stylized in more than 200 different typefaces to convey how a singular revolution can be expressed in myriad forms through individual interpretation, repetition, and the transmutation of time.
Organized by the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and the Walker Art Center in partnership with the Cisneros Fontanals Fundación Para Las Artes (CIFO Europa) and the Cisneros Fontanals Arts Foundation (CIFO USA), Adiós Utopia was conceptualized by CIFO and curated by Havana-based independent curators Gerardo Mosquera, Réne Francisco Rodriguez, and Elsa Vega. It is the first survey of Cuban art in the US to span Cuba’s modern and contemporary periods. Focused squarely on the Cuban national experience rather than the Cuban exile experience, the show concentrates on artists who remained in Cuba after Castro’s Revolution or were born and educated within the island’s new educational system. One of the things that distinguishes it from other surveys of Cuban art is its decidedly artist-centric focus. It presents Cuba’s complex history in the 20th and 21st centuries through the lens of its diverse artists. As exhibition co-curator Mosquera notes, it starts first with art, rather than history, as the organizing frame.
Organized in broad thematic clusters around the theme of utopia, the intergenerational exhibition traces early trends in abstraction, explores the development of a revolutionary iconography, examines the role of speech and discourse, and considers themes of migration and dystopia in the wake of Cuba’s Special Period, which followed the collapse of the Soviet bloc and sparked Cuba’s economic crisis in the 1990s. Adiós Utopia also includes works made by artists who have variously championed or been supported by Cuba’s government as well as those who have questioned it, and many who experienced governmental censorship at different moments over the last seven decades.
The use of the term “utopia” in the exhibition title derives from the writings of English Renaissance humanist Thomas More, whose seminal book Utopia (1516) describes an imaginary, ideal island nation. As Mosquera notes in his essay in the exhibition catalogue, More’s text is considered the most important work of early socialist thinking. It lays the groundwork for ideas of liberation, transformation, and progress and the numerous economic, political, social, philosophical, and cultural movements—especially in the West—from the 18th century to the end of the 20th century. Mosquera’s text offers important reflections on the subject, as does To and From Utopia in the New Cuban Art (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), a definitive critical history by Rachel Weiss, an arts educator at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and contributor to the Adios Utopia catalogue.
In a forthcoming interview with Weiss to be published on the Walker Reader, we discuss the origins and evolution of the term “utopia,“ especially as it relates to understanding Cuban art and its trajectory since the 1980s. In this conversation, Weiss acknowledges the complexity of the term and its diverse potential meanings. In the context of Cuban art, she argues that the most important sense of the term relates to an understanding of “utopia” as “aspiration rather than model.” Utopia, she states, names something that “never arrives, and is never meant to arrive, but stands as a horizon.” She further quotes the French leftist thinker Louis Marin, for whom “utopia” articulates both a “way” and a “gap” between these incommensurate realities—a “neutral” space of possibility. There is perhaps no work in Adiós Utopia that captures the essence of this reading more than the show’s closing work, Conga irreversible (Irreversible Conga) (2012), by Los Carpinteros (“the carpenters”).
This compelling video installation documents a performance staged by the artist collective along the Paseo del Prado during the 2012 Havana Biennial exhibition. The urban intervention involving nearly 100 dancers, musicians, choreographers, and costume designers, was inspired by traditional Cuban street processions (conga lines) that occur during the annual Carnival. Every aspect of Los Carpinteros’s conga—choreography, musical score, movements, rhythms, costumes, and even the song lyrics—was purposefully inverted and performed backwards. Even the somber black outfits of the artists’ out-of-step ensemble—or comparsa—were muted, the opposite of the event’s customarily vivid costumes. Conga irreversible offers a poignant commentary on the harsh paradox of contemporary Cuban life, which at once seems suspended in time, caught in the neutral space of possibility between utopia and dystopia, and subject to the inexorable forward march of history.