The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cultural diplomacy and Cuban art go on exhibit at the OAS

“Tenerse a sí mismo, tan llenos de fe y esperanzas,” or “Holding Oneself, Full of Faith and Hope,” by Cuban artist Grethell Rasúa. The photo at the Art Museum of the Americas shows the slippers and blood of dancer Estheysis Menendez of the National Ballet of Cuba. (Courtesy of Grethell Rasúa.)

No hard feelings on display at the Organization of American States, which is hosting a groundbreaking exhibit of contemporary Cuban art, even though Cuban President Raúl Castro recently called the OAS “an instrument of imperialist domination.”

What drew Castro’s ire was OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro’s raising the possibility of a sanction against Venezuela for that government’s handling of its economic and political crisis.

The coincidental timing of the exhibition at the OAS’s Art Museum of the Americas in Washington may have a healing effect: “In mounting this exhibit, we’re conscious of the value of artistic expression to communicate both the intentions and views of the artists and to speak more generally about social change and political engagement in the hemisphere,” said James M. Lambert, secretary for hemispheric affairs at the OAS.

Almagro himself attended the opening of the show, called “(Art)xiomas  —  CubaAhora: the Next Generation.” It is one of the largest group shows of Cuban artists ever in Washington, featuring the work of 15 painters, photographers, videographers, printmakers and performance artists, most in their early 30s and based in Havana. A dozen of the artists attended the opening. It’s also the first exhibit of Cuban work at the Art Museum of the Americas, even though the museum has Cuban artwork in its collection.

In collaboration with the Embassy of Spain, the free exhibit was launched last fall in Miami and will continue at the Art Museum of the Americas through Aug. 7.

The work is bold yet intimate, sometimes offering wry commentaries on current events without being overtly or dogmatically political, says curator Gabriela García Azcuy. This generation of Cuban artists is marked by having grown up as Cuba was opening itself to the world, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. All those in the show graduated from Cuba’s prestigious University of the Arts. They have been able to travel and to access international art circles and the international art market, at a time when  once-forbidden private galleries are beginning to thrive in Cuba. They work with materials and technologies that had been unavailable on the island, including 3D printers and special resins.

“They are undeniably Cuban artists, but they belong to the era of cultural globalization,” García writes in a sketch of the artists. “Their work can’t be understood as a local art separated from international stages and manners. Perhaps these are some (Art)xiomas” — a play on the word “axioms” — “with which to read the new times.”

Artist Mabel Poblet addresses the new times directly and inventively with two pieces.

One is an installation and performance called “Imago,” referring to the last stage of development of an insect. A room in the gallery is densely hung from floor to ceiling with threads of red, white and blue — the colors of both the U.S. and Cuban flags. For the opening, Poblet positioned herself in an open-sided structure at the center, nude. She moved back and forth, silently and methodically weaving a skein of red yarn.

The piece is about “the construction of an identity,” Poblet says — a personal identity and a national identity, in response to changing times.

In another darkened room, her second piece features a large model of the U.S. Capitol. A video of the Cuban Capitol — which is almost a copy of the American one — is  projected on the model and the wall behind. As a result, the model U.S. Capitol appears to cast a dome-shaped shadow on the projected Cuban Capitol, while Havana traffic, pedestrians and palm trees seem to play across the facade of the model U.S. Capitol.

It’s part of a series Poblet calls “Patria,” or “Homeland,” and her ambition is to execute the piece on a grand scale, with projections of the Cuban Capitol on the real U.S. Capitol, and projections of the U.S. Capitol on the real Cuban Capitol.

The piece is a way to “put each country in the other’s skin,” Poblet says.

In creating her work called “They Coming,” Artist Lisandra Ramírez says she wanted to “talk about the present, past and future of Cuba in this moment.” The piece features playful cutouts of airplanes and other modes of transportation collaged with images of visiting celebrities, such as President Obama, and other figures and scenes connected with old and new Cuba.

Artist Jorge Otero slyly refers to another epoch of U.S.-Cuban exchange in his photographic series called “War Hero.” According to one popular but disputed theory of the origin of the Cuban word “guajiro” — meaning peasant — American soldiers in the 1898 war of Cuban independence against Spain couldn’t tell the difference between Cuban fighters and regular peasant-farmers, because they dressed alike. The Americans are said to have called them all “war hero” — which the Cubans supposedly converted into the sound-alike “guajiro.”

Otero’s photos are like collective iconic identity cards, missing individual faces and features. One shows a guajiro woven from straw-like material. Another depicts a muscled back that has been woven from the strips of a cut-up photo.

Artist Grethell Rasúa adopts a dramatic and specifically Cuban image to address a universal theme in her piece entitled, “Tenerse a sí mismo, tan llenos de fe y esperanzas,” or “Holding Oneself, Full of Faith and Hope.” The poster-sized photo shows the lower legs of a ballerina on her toes. Her worn slippers are caked with blood. These are the actual slippers and blood of Estheysis Menendez, a solo dancer of the National Ballet of Cuba.

“That signifies not only sacrifice within ballet, where feet really bleed,” Rasúa says. “It’s the human sacrifice implied by dancing en pointe. All of us in some way…have had to sacrifice spiritually, to bleed spiritually. And perhaps physically as well.”

Even feuding diplomats and heads of state might agree on that.