If there is an idea that cuts across the different and diverse manifestations of the 20th-century avant-garde and neo-avant-garde movements—whether in Europe or in Latin America—it is the belief that art would find its rightful place in a classless society, rid of racial biases and power struggles: a society where art is valued as the highest form of human expression and artists are recognized for their enlightened leadership. First introduced by Thomas Moore in 1516, the ideal notion of a flawless societal locus or “no-place” became the rallying cry for progressive political and artistic movements associated with the ascendance of Modernism in the first seven decades of the century. Given the failure of these movements to turn into practice their lofty aspirations, Postmodernism rejected the utopian construct, substituting it with either a dystopian, dark vision of the future or with a heterotopia—that is, an “other place,” where hegemonies of power give way to a supposedly leveled democratic field.
Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950 follows the fate of “utopia” in the conspicuous Caribbean island. The exhibition takes a fresh new look at both the far-flung aspirations and sobering limitations associated with the worn-out utopian paradigm as it relates to artistic production in Cuba since the Revolution of 1959. It is the first show of Cuban art organized in the United States since the series of events that toppled the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista and opened the way for the 59-year regime spearheaded by Fidel Castro’s (1926–2016) movement. The exhibition does not intend to offer an exhaustive chronological survey or, even worse, a totalizing account of Cuban art. Instead, the three-member curatorial team of Gerardo Mosquera, René Francisco, and Elsa Vega organized the works in seven thematic “constellations” that explore key issues associated with the diverse and complex processes whereby art charted, engaged, and/or confronted Cuba’s version of “utopia” and its ongoing contradictions. Additionally, within each constellatory grouping, works by artists of different generations were articulated.
Almost six decades after Castro’s revolutionary forces entered Havana in 1959, however, the situation of the Cuban people has only worsened under the extreme economic restrictions imposed by a persistent US-led embargo and the conditions of impoverishment and marginalization that this extraordinary situation imposed upon them. Why then the focus on utopia? What positive artistic inspiration stems from its historical fate in Cuba? In order to answer this question, we must situate ourselves in the early years of the Cuban Revolution when a Caribbean island-nation emerged as a bastion for a truly forward-looking sociopolitical experiment that was utopian in all its dimensions. The entire world witnessed a full-fledged transformation in key areas like education, health, and sports that also significantly impacted the visual arts. Unlike the majority of Western societies—the US included—where artists have no designated place in society, the Cuban government directly or indirectly fostered a space for the visual arts to thrive while supporting the creation of important art schools such as the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA, established in 1976)—a bastion of artistic and theoretical experimentation—and institutions dedicated to artistic promotion like the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo Wifredo Lam (established in 1983) and the Bienal de la Habana (established in 1984). As the exhibition illustrates, artists not only actively participated in the Revolution, but they also played a role in the process of reconstruction and modern nation-building that followed, documenting key episodes and heroes of the armed conflict while simultaneously experimenting with conceptual approaches, artistic materials, and techniques and communicating the value of art to younger generations.
In a somewhat polemical move, the show’s curatorial team chose to begin their narrative with the universalist aspirations of the Cuban concrete art movement which, in their view, introduced a sort of tabula rasa for the iconoclastic attitude and experiments of ensuing generations. This loose group of artists, active throughout the 1950s and early ’60s, included European expatriates such as Sandu Darie and Paris-trained Cubans like Loló de Soldevilla and Carmen Herrera. Convinced of the power of purity, vision and rational organization as the basis upon which to correct the deficiencies of underdevelopment and construct a new society in post-revolutionary Cuba, Darie and Soldevilla, together with other young exponents of geometric abstraction, established in 1959 the avant-garde group Los Diez Pintores Concretos (The Ten Concrete Painters). Los Diez (The Ten)—as they came to be known—rejected the strong figurative bent that characterized Cuban art since the colonial period, substituting it with a rich body of interactive structures, paintings, and reliefs that celebrated the autonomy of line, color, and form. Grounded in the orthogonal principles of neo-Plasticism and Concrete Art that also served as the basis for a resurgence of aesthetic rationalism in postwar Europe, the universalist utopia promoted by Los Diez aimed at correcting the biased image of an underdeveloped country, say (with a question mark) Cuba.
The lack of social and political referents in the work of Los Diez, however, proved to be a stumbling block for conveying the principles of the new nation sought by the post-revolutionary leadership, thereby leading to the group’s demise in the early ’60s and its subsequent marginalization from official history. In its place there emerged a strong push toward new modes of figurative painting accompanied by the influential surge of photography and posters as mass-oriented media capable of merging forms of high art and vernacular culture. In iconic photographs that circulated nationally and internationally, photographers like Raúl Corrales and Alberto González (Korda), set out to both document and give visual form to the leaders and events that established the identity of the Cuban Revolution in its early years. The strong body of work they produced—prominently displayed in the first galleries of the exhibition—conveyed what the new regime considered Cuba’s glorious path to a modern egalitarian society. For example, Korda’s 1960 photograph of Che as heroic warrior—probably one of the most circulated photographs of the 20th century—did more than any other single event to fix the image of the Cuban insurgency in the global imaginary. The work of these photographers, in turn, found a parallel in painters like Raúl Martínez who produced brightly colored, mass-media-based serial portraits of revolutionary leaders and anonymous citizens in an accessible, visual language that dialogued with both vernacular culture and the aesthetics of international Pop. The officially-sponsored Cuban poster movement of the 1960s and ’70s also referenced Pop Art in its merging of photography, design, and graphic arts techniques to communicate to the outside world the political and cultural transformations taking place in Cuba.
As early as the mid-1960s, however, this utopian narrative began to exhibit cracks. In a series of caustic paintings exemplified by Los de arriba y los de abajo (The Privileged and the Underdogs, 1963), Antonia Eiriz denounced the incipient signs of repression, excessive demagogy as well as the persistence of income and class inequalities that prevailed in Cuban society since the beginning of the Revolution. This critical bent became more pronounced in the 1970s as artists reacted to the Cuban government’s failed attempts to impose Soviet-style controls on the visual arts. Such a trend culminated in the landmark exhibition Volumen I in January 1981, which launched the work of a new generation who had grown up and been educated under the Revolution. Collectively known as Nuevo Arte Cubano (New Cuban Art), this group set out to update the island’s artistic and cultural scenes while directly confronting the intense ideologization that took hold of Cuban society. The movement introduced an irreverent post-conceptual and postmodern perspective, while also triggering reflections about the undeniable failure of the revolutionary utopia in ways that completely altered the terms of public debate in Cuba.
The “cult of the nation” and its heroes initially set in motion by the post-revolutionary regime were thus countered by their irreverent “deconstruction” in the hands of the new artistic generation. René Francisco and Eduardo Ponjuan’s Reproducción prohibida (Forbidden Reproduction, 1989), ironically poked fun at the Cuban leader whose image was proscribed for reproduction purposes, a fact that led to the censorship of the entire series and its removal from public view. Meanwhile, in his brutally allegorical Mi homenaje al Che (My Homage to Che, 1987), Tomás Esson juxtaposed the portrait of an Afro-Cuban Che with a slimy, lascivious pig-like beast engaged in intercourse with a nude woman. By far the most poignant indictment of the failures of the Revolution, however, is Juan Francisco Elso’s Por América (José Martí) (For America (José Martí, 1986). This sculptural tableau subverted the official heroic representations of the 19th century patriot by depicting him as a humble popular saint, his body made of tree branches and earth, a machete in hand, offering himself to the American continent.
The Revolution was not only articulated through visual symbols but also at the podium and through mass media. Hence, Adiós Utopia not only highlights the “construction” and “deconstruction” of the revolutionary nation through art but also the exacerbated role of discourse and rhetoric in shaping official ideology, establishing mass controls, and curtailing freedom of expression. A large section of the exhibition is thus focused on the burden of political speech, as seen in Raúl Corrales’ photograph La primera declaración de La Habana (The First Declaration of Havana)—which captures Fidel Castro on September 2, 1960 as he delivers one of his historic speeches—or José Angel Toirac’s Opus (2005), a video that brings together Castro’s voice, culled form recordings of his famously long perorations, loaded with endless statistics illustrating the Revolution’s gains in the social, political, and economic sectors. Much as in daily life in Cuba, the sound of Castro’s rhythmic intonation of numbers permeates the exhibition galleries making it impossible for viewers to escape its heavy, monotonous reach.
The slow and arduous process of bidding farewell to the Revolution’s initial utopian promises came to a head in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The decade that followed, known as the “Special Period,” saw the obvious bankruptcy of the Cuban economy and a significant erosion of its institutions along with the mass exodus of nearly 150,000 Cubans. Stimulated by the radical example of Volumen I, a new generation of artists set out to develop the conditions for engaging problems absent from the island’s political discourse as well as from the academy, the media, and civil society. This process went hand in hand with the increased back-and-forth mobility of the island’s artists and their participation in global cultural circuits. René Francisco and Ponjuán’s Utopia—a key work in the context of this show—is a monumental installation that takes stock of the way in which Soviet-era symbols and iconography were transformed into mundane, meaningless objects by a population lacking access to food, housing, and other essential comforts. In such a context, not only political propaganda but the ideals that guided the initial years of the Revolution lost their meaning and ideological status. In Estadística (Statistics, 2000), Tanya Bruguera invited friends and neighbors to assemble human hair into bundles and configure them into a monumental Cuban flag that pays homage to the hundreds of thousands who left Cuba during this devastating decade. In a similar way, Yoan Capote gathered hundreds of human teeth to produce a “grinding” sculpture that mimics that stress of daily life in the Island. Other artists, focused on the theme of diaspora and exile that has afflicted the country particularly since the 1980s. In a large-scale photograph of a young man diving into the endless sea water in front of Havana’s iconic malecón, Manuel Piña captures the desperation of young men and women in search of an unattainable future for them and their families, leading them to risk their own lives on makeshift rafts across the Florida Straits.
After 50 years of revolution, Cuba boasts social achievements in some areas that are equivalent to those of developed countries. The country’s infant mortality rate (4.5 per thousand), life expectancy (79 years), and mean years of schooling (10.5 years) rank among the best in the world. However, Cuba’s economic gains and human rights gains have been less impressive. Gross national income per capita (US$5,416) is lower than in many Latin American countries with worse social indicators. And yet, the island’s rate of economic growth has been insufficient for the needs of the country, and inequality in income distribution has increased dramatically along with citizens’ repression and human rights violations.
Hence, under the suggestive title of “inverted utopia,” the last section of the exhibition appears to summarize the current sclerosis (if not the total irrelevance) of such an encompassing concept in present-day Cuba. In a broad range of media (painting, drawing, installations, and video), artists like Ricardo Elía and Carlos Garaicoa register the dismantling of the traditional mainstays of the Cuban economy such as the sugar industry and the extreme state of decay of its urban centers, particularly the capital city of Havana. Glenda León’s solitary butterfly on a wall speaks to a younger generation’s sense of entrapment and island isolation that results from both geography and the failed promises of the Revolution. Javier Castro’s interviews to children in his 2012 video La edad de oro (The Golden Age) reveals how far Cuba’s youngest mock the Revolution’s goal of creating Che Guevara’s ideal of “the new man.” Rather than point to an idealized version of the future, they underscore the bleak inconsistencies of a social utopia totally out of reach when material and spiritual needs rob children of another horizon. It is up to Los Carpinteros, however, to bid the final farewell to utopia with their recreation in the gallery space of Havana’s iconic lighthouse—a historic emblem of the Cuban national ethos—felled to the ground.