May 22, 2015
By Anne Tschida
The Knight Foundation
When events collide, the stars align, we call that happy coincidence, “serendipity.” That’s what happened with a newly-formed Miami-Havana exchange program called Dialogues in Cuban Art, says the organizer and curator Elizabeth Cerejido. The project won a $60,000 Knight Arts Challenge grant in 2014, which was quickly matched by developer and art collector Jorge Pérez, whose name is now incorporated into the Pérez Art Museum Miami, and garnered institutional support from the Cuban Research Institute of Florida International University (FIU). In a global sense, it was pretty good timing.
The first leg of this cultural journey starts on May 27, when seven Cuban-American artists who have never visited the island spend 10 days interacting with their artistic counterparts in Havana, in a land that they have been physically separated from but which nonetheless has impacted so much of their lives.
Facilitating this type of interaction and reconnection has been a dream of Cerejido’s since she first returned from a trip to Cuba in 2002, a journey that she says changed her life. “I learned first hand the profound impact and long-lasting value that a meaningful people-to-people exchange can have on Cubans from both sides of the Florida Straits.”
It may be hard to remember how different a time that was, 2002. The wounds resulting from the fight to keep a young boy named Elian Gonzalez here in Miami, who was eventually sent back to Cuba by the American government, were still raw. The cold war between the two countries had not thawed and kept most travel to a minimum; the hassles and harassment involved made cultural exchanges rare.
But after 2008, with political changes happening on both sides of the Straits, momentum shifted, if slowly. But through all those years, and many visits to the island, Cerejido continued to plan ways to jump-start this dialogue. An increasingly relaxed atmosphere coincided with her application for the Knight Arts Challenge grant.
But change, including in people’s hearts, takes time. Initially, Cerejido wanted to include a generationally diverse set of artists, with some who had been born in Cuba and others in Miami, but who had never really experienced life or artistic creation there. After settling on a group, however, several got cold feet. Visiting an island ruled by an authoritarian regime that had upended so many lives was not easy for some, and family pressure could still be intense.
In the end, the inaugural participating artists, most all of whom were born in the 1970s and 80s, were even more enthusiastic about taking this journey than she had expected, Cerejido said. Their names should be familiar to those following the burgeoning contemporary art scene here over the last two decades.
In contemporary art, unlike in traditional painting for instance, it may be hard to find a clear-cut nod to heritage, or cultural identity, but it is often there.Juana Valdes – one of two participating artists born in Havana — references themes of migration and international integration in her sculptural works, so reflective of Miami in general and of the Cuban experience. Leyden Rodriguez-Casanova makes minimalist structures, scaffolding of a room, window blinds, a doorway. But he too sometimes adds flourishes from his middle-class upbringing unique to his Cuban-American roots in suburban Miami. Provocative installation artist Bert Rodriguez, now based in Los Angeles, has his mother cook Cuban food for his openings, and turned that into an exhibition A Meal I Make With My Mother. They are joined by artists Antonia Wright, Ruben Millares, Manny Prieres and Marcos Valella, who combined work in video, performance, conceptual sculpture and painting. The influences from their backgrounds might be subtle in their work, but these artists were interested in getting in touch with the roots of them.
As the project got off the ground, there was more serendipity: the Obama administration dramatically modified its Cuba policy, lifting many travel restrictions and announcing an intent to end the embargo on trade. Cuba wouldn’t transform overnight, but a new era had arrived, Cerejido realized and her project would take off at the same time. Also coincidentally, this dialogue trip will take place during the Havana Biennial, when for the first time ever Americans will be flocking to the Cuban capital for the art extravaganza.
But while this is an extra benefit, the project remains tightly curated. With all the contacts Cerejido has developed, she will bring the visiting artists to various studios and institutions, with scheduled meetings with museums and curators. There’s a two-day symposium at the Casa de las Americas, with panels about Cuban art and history, the differences in the art market, and talks involving Cuban and Cuban-American artists. And they will drop by the new public artwork of Miami-based Glexis Novoa on the famed Malecon water-front boulevard. Another sign of the times: Novoa has opened a studio in Havana, inconceivable only a few years ago. Jorge Pérez will also join the group.
Cerejido says there is no political agenda to this trip, only the desire to open up communication. “I want the artists to experience Cuba on their own terms, as a lived experience and not something told to them by others,” she says. “That has not been possible [before]. They may love it or hate it, either way. But I want it to be a tangible, concrete memory that they take away.”
This Cuba excursion is Part 1 of the project. Up next, in the fall or spring, Cuban artists and curators, chosen by an advisory team and hosted by FIU, will repay the visit to our shores. The dialogue could be difficult, as the divide between the countries and political cultures has been so deep for more than half-a-century. But this is one of the first serious projects to bridge this gap.
The project will culminate in exhibitions in both Miami and Havana, featuring works that are the result of collaboration among these artists over the next two years. As airlines and ferries scramble to provide direct service to Cuba, this artistic opening couldn’t come at a better time.