The Soviet Union helped us. So what happened? We didn’t use the money to build a future. We became a country that created images—in sports, in art, in conscience, in internationalism, in a series of things that are crazy in a country so underdeveloped. Now we don’t even have toilet paper.
—Guillermo Fernández, Cuban boxer, 19931
As Guillermo Fernández condemned, the euphemistic Periodo Especial en Tiempos de Paz (or, simply, the Special Period) exposed the fragility of a socialist utopia constructed upon the mirage of social development. In the months following the 1989 collapse of the Eastern Bloc, Fidel Castro had warned of an imminent economic contraction in the island. But it wasn’t until after the December 1991 dissolution of the USSR that Cuba finally came to its grinding halt. With the national economy in a tailspin after abruptly losing all Soviet subsidies and trade, the Cuban government put into effect desperate economic policies aimed at attracting foreign capital.2 But reforms intended to ameliorate an outright social catastrophe set the stage for contradictions. Also at play were drastic austerity measures that limited social services for Cubans, massive interruptions to their food and fuel supplies, constant blackouts, and the repression of dissent.3 Artists and cultural workers, too, were plunged into a time of extraordinary hardship: mass defections, scarcity of materials, collapsing museums and cultural institutions, the end of government patronage. Moreover, during the “brave new world” of the Special Period a new, brutal, form of capitalism—hastened, incomplete, controlled, highly selective—emerged that was in sharp contrast to many of the egalitarian tenets that had been championed by the socialist regime for decades.4 A restratified labor force developed whose productivity (or social mobility) no longer hinged on the collective rhythms of traditional agricultural cycles but, rather, on an individual’s capacity to access hard currency.
These contrasts unleashed an unprecedented process of questioning, even soul searching, among all sectors. For the first time since 1959, the upper revolutionary echelons joined everyday Cubans—artists and cultural workers among them—in probing the value of the Revolution and the pertinence of socialism. Debates regarding Cuba’s “politics of survival,” to quote Antoni Kapcia, culminated in an across-the-board need for reappraisal and adaptation to the unstable dynamics of such a rapidly changing environment.5 Yet such forces had been at play in the visual arts field since the 1980s with the coming of age of a group of artists who, barring a few exceptions, had not had any other significant life experiences beyond the Revolution. Under the aegis of the new Cuban art movement, this generation—José Bedia, Ricardo Brey, Arturo Cuenca, Juan Francisco Elso, Flavio Garciandía, Gustavo Pérez Monzón, and Rubén Torres Llorca, among them—loosely coalesced around the Volumen Uno exhibition of 1981. Without a set collective agenda, these artists responded to the excessive sovietization and dogmatism of Cuban culture of the 1970s, particularly in the hardline years of the Quinquenio Gris (1971–1976), by eschewing romanticism, widening their worldview, and internationalizing local content.6
Proposals such as Juan Francisco Elso’s free-standing statue For America (José Martí) of 1986, among many notable examples, reconciled the competing demands of global artistic lexicons such as performance, conceptualism, land and body art—introduced to Cuba by Ana Mendieta and others including Garciandía, Osvaldo Sánchez, and Consuelo Castañeda, who were among the first group of Cuban artists to replace the Instituto Superior de Arte’s (ISA) initial cadre of (more rigid) Soviet academics—with an unwavering commitment to exposing the island’s harsh underside. In this far from heroic representation of the 19th-century patriot and intellectual, Elso deliberately reduces the scale and depicts the subject as a frail and wounded warrior. Coupled with the use of perishable earth and found objects for the statue, the artist transforms Martí into an ordinary man, an antihero.
René Francisco Rodríguez, an artist and ISA graduate who joined the faculty in 1989 and who has been a vital generational interlocutor, aptly outlines what underlaid such an abaseme:
Our generation sought to… rectify culture… to use art for revealing the truth, to confront what we understood to be the profound problems of Cuban reality and of a history based on ideology and politics. At stake was a [deliberate] process of knocking all of those revolutionary icons [not just Martí but also Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos, and others] off of their high horses in order to [literally] make them walk our streets. To place them in confrontation with the same falsehoods that ordinary Cubans faced. It was a moment of much collective clarity, of confrontation, of exhibitions where artists would join forces to change life through art…7
For a fleeting moment, the spontaneity and indomitable spirit of these young iconoclasts galvanized into a dialectical space from which to veil political dissent. But their discontent was quickly muted in the Proyecto Castillo de la Fuerza, a series of experimental exhibitions organized at the Castillo de la Real Fuerza in 1989 under the purview of the office of the Vice-Ministry of Culture Marcia Leiseca. With strong sexual or political innuendos, all of the installments were either systematically censured or forced into a two-step of takedowns, sanitization of controversial content, and reopenings. Cynically, the artists responded to the government’s curtailment of the cultural playing field by staging an “All-Star” game of baseball at the grounds of the former Vedado Tennis Club in Havana. Sports, they implied with the action, was the only space that remained freely available to them. By the close of the 1980s, art’s penchant to rub salt in the many wounds of the complicated political process on the island had eroded communication between artists and institutions (particularly those run by moderates such as Leiseca, who had been dismissed from her post during Artista melodramático, René Francisco and Roberto Ponjuán’s controversial intervention in the Castillo de la Fuerza project), redoubled censure, and hastened the mass exodus of many of the principal artists of the generation.
The sudden loss of Soviet support in the first few months of 1992 generated significant uncertainties and introduced extreme unpredictability in an already unstable cultural environment. The real issues at stake were no longer just the pervasive repression, hardships, and isolation but, rather, how these realities (as well as new ones brought about by the changing conditions) were tested, repealed, sanctioned, and even replaced often with no apparent logic. And yet, beyond the ever-changing moving parts of an unsurmountable sociopolitical crisis, what exactly made the Cuban visual art scene so remarkable during the Special Period? At least three paradigms may help us grasp how art was redrawn beginning in the early 1990s.
Void and Reinvention
The increasingly more frequent departure of established Cuban artists and of key faculty at the ISA effected a refocusing that Rachel Weiss has described as “looking less and less to their teachers and more and more to each other” in the context of the 1980s generation.8 But, in the 1990s the mostly one-way transit out of Cuba begat reformulations to an artistic field that the Special Period took to its radical limit. Carlos Garaicoa recalls:
What I most remember is the feeling of dismal emptiness. Our professors [at the ISA] would leave us… We had teachers for three months and then they would disappear for five and come back. Our teachers began traveling to Mexico, then to the United States, and their absences created this sort of weird vacuum where even the exhibitions didn’t have the strength that we sought. The artists that we had admired and followed were no longer there.
Certainly, the fact that the previous generation emigrated almost in its totality, and that 1990s artists—Garaicoa, as well as Tania Bruguera, Los Carpinteros, Alexis Leyva Machado (Kcho), Glexis Novoa, Sandra Ramos, Lázaro Saavedra, and José Ángel Toirac, to name but a few—were left to their own devices in that sort of empty terrain, required a generational reinvention. Indeed, as the artist mentions, it wasn’t just a self-driven demand or purely the result of the Cuban government’s machinations. Rather, it was both a personal imperative to make sense of the solitude as well as a significant push from the cultural institutions (the Havana Biennial and the Ministry of Culture included) “for a new generation of Cuban art to exist… an official discourse demanding to [make the claim that] ‘not all Cuban art ha[d] left, [that] the Revolution continue[d] to produce art.’”9
The full frontal onset of the Special Period made the previous generation’s critical stance if not less important certainly less of a priority for 1990s artists. At stake were more personal, more direct, proposals addressing the material realities of the crisis. Kcho’s Obras Escogidas (Selected Works) of 1994 exemplifies this trend. It can be read as a questioning of issues inherent to the new context: scarcity, fragmentation, migration, the uselessness of knowledge. Yet the artist places them in dialogue with one another in a way that is not obvious. This obtuse quality is, in fact, at the root of the sorts of structural transformations sought by 1990s artists.
Kcho builds a near life-sized paddle boat from his own textbooks, newspapers, and twine over a metal armature; all materials that were steadily disappearing during the Special Period. Moving beyond the predictable theme of exile—depleted as it were by many artists from the Cuban diaspora—the Cuba-based artist confronts us with what he has termed the “watery barrier” or the “liquid limit” of the island condition:
A person that was born and raised on an island recognizes that he/she is on an island even if that limit does not really exist…if you are on a continental mass and you see the horizon, you know that you can continue walking. But the ocean produces something strange, a limit, like a barrier. You don’t know what is beyond the horizon and you become a faithful believer that on the horizon there is something, even though you can’t see it.10
Kcho is referring to the degree to which the horizon and the great beyond may take on an illusionary quality; such an indeterminate space made infinitely more expansive by the Special Period. Similarly, the objects contained in Obras Escogidas—the mainstay volumes in Cuba’s educational system and the raft itself—may reference implicit social codes operating on the island. But, through his open-ended manipulation of forms, Kcho forces us to question how information may be simultaneously liberating and deceptive: knowledge may indeed provide a mental release but, the fragility of his less-than-seaworthy vessel suggests more of a tenuous freedom.
Art of Necessity and Necessary Art
Cuba’s implosion in the early 1990s revealed a fundamental paradox for the artists of the 1990s: art could be made at a time of scarcity (art of necessity) and it could also satisfy an overarching need for anchoring (necessary art). Marco A. Castillo of the collective Los Carpinteros (made up of Dagoberto Rodríguez and, at that time, Alexandre Arrechea) recalls of that critical period:
We were surrounded by an aggressive context, too acidic to survive it. And one of the solutions that we found in order to survive those hard times of hunger, of real physical hunger, was our group. We opted to concentrate on the workshop, technique, painting,…, it provided the perfect pretense to concentrate on specific things and forget the context. Our work also had a redemptive quality. In order to survive, we focused on our friendship and what we could offer each other. 11
This grounding in the artistic process (its nuances, nuts and bolts, formal problems) and attitude (experimentation, questioning, solutions) was another fundamental quality of Cuban art during the Special Period. It implied a shifting away from the (political) metanarrative of the Revolution (both in its adscriptions and oppositions) to an alternate type of grand récit rooted, as it were, in the artistic dimension—granted, a uniquely Cuban one: Los Carpinteros set their sights on time-tested supra-political values (artisanal craftsmanship, collective enterprise, and a slow technique) that had long been abandoned in the (dialectical, individualistic, and fast-paced) post-modern environ operating outside of the island.
The collective’s Marquilla cigarrera cubana of 1993 perfectly underscores these tensions. On the one hand, it seeks to establish a continuum with tradition. In this case a tradition in extremis through a deliberate nod (in compositional structure and elements, aesthetic appeal, and even vital humor) to the lithographed cigarette wrappers of 19th-century Cuba. But, Marquilla also highlights Los Carpinteros’s remarkable solution to anchor their proposals on artistry (an impeccable marquetry border flanks a visually stunning painted central scene) at a time when it was excruciatingly difficult—impossible even—to come by art supplies. The dual impulses to return the gaze to tradition and to strive for artistic excellence against insuperable odds served not as a “denial or compensation for their often penurious situation,” as Jan Murphy reasoned early on, but rather as their saving grace.12 Tania Bruguera’s Estadística (Statistics) (1995–2000, see above), which is one in a series of four related works, reflects a similar emphasis on craftsmanship, collectivity, and a counter-positioning vis-à-vis mainstreamed instantaneity. The series responds to a low point in 1994 when 36,000 Cubans attempted to cross the Florida Straits in small boats or on makeshift rafts. Bruguera had lost many of her close friends during the Balsero Crisis, and recalled it as a devastating, seemingly “postwar” time, which left those who had stayed in Cuba feeling “exhausted, beaten, or disillusioned.”13 The four large-format flags were initially used as props for her powerful performance El peso de la culpa (The Burden of Guilt) of 1997. Retired from their original use, however, the works take on new meaning as exquisite funerary accoutrements: they speak not only of the actual life-and-death gamble of the rafters but also of the substantial sense of loss experienced by those Cubans who remained. In this critical sense and much like Los Carpinteros’s early work, Estadística offered redemption through painstaking craftsmanship and artisanal participation. Brugueras collected hair from her own friends and neighbors and, through a potent communal gesture, gathered regularly with them to cut, weave, and bind the somber braids together. If the series’ title—“Statistics”—brought attention to the individual human lives hidden behind the impersonal reports and numbers on the migration, its process fulfilled an even more powerful social imperative: to spread the burden of suffering across all participants and, in doing so, humanize the crisis.
The final important force field impacting art’s material and formal transformation in the 1990s was the commercialization of the Cuban art scene. Uneven as it was brazen, the process was jumpstarted to a large degree by Peter Ludwig’s wholesale purchase of the entire stock of works shown in the Kuba OK exhibition (Stadtische Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf, 1990).14 Coupled with the increased exposure of Cuban artists abroad, the establishment of a local art market (with international ambitions) had several immediate consequences. Most importantly, it opened up a viable means for improving the living conditions of many of the artists who had remained on the island. Carlos Garaicoa remembers how the tides shifted, quickly, at ISA from “not having proper painting equipment at the school” to more formal training on marketing and self-promotion techniques: “[W]e had to go out and look for [these supplies] with our own money. The first big problem was how to make that money… There was the need to teach us proper market tools.”15
In the heating up of the Cuban art market, many art students saw no apparent conflict in selling their production as well as, simultaneously, peddling folkloric work with mass appeal in Havana’s booming tourist markets.16 But the frenzy of the market also threatened to neutralize political dissent as well as stymie renovatory energies in favor of clichéd representations intended for international audiences. Some young artists affronted this “double consciousness” between “socialist practices and capitalist landscapes,” to cite Ariana Hernández-Reguant, by refraining “from frontal opposition to the regime.”17 Most, however, opted for ambiguity: operating from within but oftentimes also completely outside of the revolutionary purview; embracing 1980s technical experimentation while adopting much more careful and introspective sociopolitical stances. In fact, some critics summarily dismissed these opaque postures as cynical and opportunistic.18
Yet nothing was ever absolute during the Special Period. The installation Sueño, arte y mercado (Dream, Art, and Market) (1994) by the artistic duo of Rodríguez and Ponjuán, for example, utilized the language of conceptualism to expose what was then Cuba’s brief incursion into the international art market. Presented at the 1994 Havana Biennial, the work is at once an inventory of the problems Cuban artists faced in the 1990s, as per Jan Murphy,19 as well as a visual timeline gathering some of the tensions between how we as outsiders envisioned a viable art in Cuba and their own (pipe) dreams: Cuban art at the Whitney and at the Guggenheim, and even Cuban art on the cover of Art in America. A series of large-scale canvases including the well-known portraits of Peter Ludwig (Sueño, arte y mercado [Dream, Art and Market]) and Dr. Wolfgang Becker, the Aachen-based curator and one-time head of the Ludwig Forum, anchor the installation. But interspersed in the nooks and crannies of thistropical tableau vivant are a number of kitsch objects and revealing smaller panels through which the artists flesh out the concerns at the core of Sueño, arte y mercado. One such panel, Tradición y contemporaneidad (Tradition and Contemporaneity), is a sort of visual merger between the many variables at play in the commodification of Cuban art. It features a female figure dressed in an abstracted European traditional costume who sustains a conjoined Cuba/airplane form. Positioned flatly at the center of this geometrical composition—in itself a nod to the midcentury heyday of the Cuban variant of geometric abstraction, which René Francisco and Ponjuán frequently appropriated as a compositional device—the figure reminds us of several of the issues impacting the economic transformation of the Cuban art scene: tradition vs. modernity, rurality vs. urbanity, mobility vs. stagnation. At the same time, the artists’ dense patterning and thick application of paint suggests a final contradiction between the constructivist compositional structure and painterly impulse (high art) and the work’s needlepoint aesthetic (low art).
The Special Period was one of multiple truths: deep shortages coexisted with unbridled creativity, tight borders with increased internalization of the Cuban art world, institutional voids with personal opportunities, socialist doctrine with the free market reality of “every man for himself,” institutionalized censorship with artistic ambiguity. A number of young Cuban artists emerged unrelentingly from these extraordinary circumstances, like weeds sprouting from Havana’s dilapidated alleys (as Gerardo Mosquera has reminisced more than once). They rose to the challenge and assumed scarcity without pretense, opting also for a counterintuitive commitment to technical and aesthetic sophistication. Although these artists have since gone on to take multifarious (if sometimes questionable) approaches in their art-making and in their negotiations with the international circuit, their initial proposals offer an extraordinary breadth of responses to a critical moment when Cuban art was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. And yet as they played along in those dark days of the Special Period, one may very well find their salva veritate inscribed along the lower border of Los Carpinteros’s Marquilla cigarrera cubana: “Lord, we have lost all to the game… Everything but for our will to play again.”
2 Beginning in 1993, it legalized the US Dollar and dollarized the local economy, opened government-sanctioned retail shops, pushed agricultural reform, allowed certain types of private enterprise—including the possibility for artists to perform freelance work and set their own fees—as well as developed key tourism infrastructure. Ana Julia Jatar-Hausmann, The Cuban Way: Capitalism, Communism and Confrontation (Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press, 1999), 61−62.
3 Carl Gershman and Orlando Gutiérrez, “Can Cuba Change? Ferment in Civil Society,” Journal of Democracy 20 (January 2009), 36−54, 36−37.
4 Paul B. Miller, “The Prison-House of Allegory: reflection on the Cultural Production of the Cuban ‘Special Period’,” INTI, Revista de literature hispánica 59/60, Cuba: Cien Años de Alejo Carpentier (Spring-Fall 2004), 195−206, 204.
5 Antoni Kapcia, “Lessons of the Special Period: Learning to March Again,” Latin American Perspectives 36: 1, Cuba: Interpreting a Half Century of Revolution and Resistance, Part 1 (Jan. 2009), 30−41, 30.
6 Gerardo Mosquera in The Rebels: Cuban art since Volumen Uno, moderated by Rachel Weiss, March 4, 2017, Sicardi Gallery, Houston. Session 2 of Art and the Cuban Revolution: A Critical Dialogue, organized by the International Center for the Arts of the Americas, MFAH. For more on the 1980s generation see also: Luis Camnitzer, New Art of Cuba (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994) and Rachel Weiss, To and From Utopia in the New Cuban Art (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).
7 René Francisco Rodríguez in The Rebels, n/p.
8 Weiss, To and From Utopia, 18.
9 Carlos Garaicoa in The Contemporaries, moderated by Eugenio Valdés, March 5, 2017, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Session 3 of Art and the Cuban Revolution: A Critical Dialogue, organized by the International Center for the Arts of the Americas, MFAH.
10 Kelly Jones, “Interview with Kcho,” EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 135−144, 137−38.
11 Emphasis mine. Marco Castillo in The Contemporaries, n/p.
12 Jan Murphy, “The young and restless in Havana revisited,” Third Text 8:28−28 (Autumn/Winter 1994): 155−64, 155.
13 Tania Bruguera, quoted in Octavio Zaya, Cuba: los mapas del deseo (Vienna: Kunsthalle Wien, Austria, 1999), 241.
14 Ludwig’s notorious haggling with dependencies from within the Ministry of Culture as well as the establishment of an institutional base in Havana (through the Fundación Ludwig de Cuba) were but two of the many controversies generated by the purchase of what Rachel Weiss rightfully refers to as the perfect “starter kit” to Cuban art. See Weiss, To and From Utopia, 132−33.
15 Garaicoa in The Contemporaries, n/p.
16 Eugenio Valdés in The Contemporaries, n/p.
17 Ariana Hernández-Reguant, “Writing the Special Period: An Introduction,” Cuba in the Special Period: Culture and Ideology in the 1990s (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009), 1−20, 12.
18 See Antonio Eligio Fenández (Tonel), “Ending the Century with Memories…: Paper Money, Videos, and an X-Acto Knife for Cuban Art,” in Ibid., 179−195, 182.
19 Murphy, “The young and restless in Havana revisited,” 161.