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A Shot at Cuban Art

The most recent history of Cuban art has been marked by polemical exhibitions, some of which have been staged coincidentally in the first years of the last few decades. The most outstanding ones have been: the gigantic Salon 70 (1970) with more than 150 artists involved; Volumen Uno (Volume One, 1981), which established the aesthetic and ethical guidelines of the so-called New Cuban Art; and El objeto esculturado (Sculptured Object, 1990), whose results made a change in the cultural policies at the moment. These examples provide evidence of cohesion processes in the different promotions of the current Cuban art, marked by the fatality or benefit of almost exact programs.

Those paradigmatic exhibitions, just to mention a few shown in the Island in the last few years, became unquestionable precedents that have enabled critics and historians –in their mean obsessions– to trace a chronological development line of the Cuban plastic art, that has been determining in the most recent contemporary artistic production.

The catalogue titled “El Extremo de la bala. Una decada de art cubano” (The end of the bullet. A decade of Cuban Art) resulting from the homonymous exhibition inaugurated in October, 2010, at the Pabellon Cuba cultural center became a time and generational reference to further studies on Cuban art from a historicist viewpoint.

This mega exhibition, organized by the Hermanos Saiz Association (AHS, Spanish acronyms) with the support of the National Council of Plastic Arts and curated by Rewell Altunaga, was like a closing inventory of the best and achievements to come in this complex decade for the emerging Cuban art. An exhibition with so many artists involved, almost a hundred, many of whom where still students of the Higher Institute of Art (ISA), allow us to take a closer look to the problems, interests and main trends of the most recent art works; a quite polemical and seducing topic that, this time, I choose to leave to others to discuss.

The list of creators invited to the showcase and reviewed in the catalogue includes artists who were born in the 1970s –currently boasting a solid career both in Cuba and abroad, such as Duvier del Dago, Ruslan Torres, Douglas Argüelles and Humberto Diaz–; and very young talents like Milton Raggi, Gabriela Garcia, Rafael Villares and Linet Sanchez, who were born late in the 1980s or early in the 1990s and who just started going to ISA.

Following on with this interest on representatives –let’s keep in mind that AHS is responsible for promoting and supporting emerging artists all over the country–, the display includes artists from all the provinces of the country, except for the Isle of Youth, though most of them studied and have built their careers in Havana. Going back to the catalogue, it was designed by Naivy Perez, also invited to the exhibition, and includes a selection of photos of the setting-up process, different views of the exhibition halls and the inauguration ceremony, rounding up the life cycle of the showcase.

El extremo de la bala. Una década de arte cubano’s editorial concept goes beyond its purpose as a catalogue limited to review an exhibition, and becomes a reference and research literature about the younger (and, in some cases, not so young) generations of artists. Generations that, as rightly stated by the organizers, move in the “most vulnerable, unsafe, susceptible to changes and seductions area, which obviously don’t always mean progress.”

This clarification, made since the very beginning, justifies and endorses the presence in the exhibition of many artists who in a different context would have to undergo a second, more prejudiced revision. This catalogue, therefore, does not serve the purpose of legitimizing trends, names or styles; a gesture that within such a small timeframe would be arrogantly harmful, and in the end, would provide the grounds for string-pulling and stances based on the work of very young figures that are likely to undergo irreversible transformations.

These are bullet artists, deterministic, smart. And these comparisons go beyond the simple cliché of the younger generations’ quick pace and eagerness. They move like a shot around the art market, exhibitions, biennials, mass media and Internet. They belong to a generation (in which I include myself) in which information is received at such a fast speed that we put it aside with the same energy that we first took it. Nothing is deep, nothing is permanent and in many cases getting to the “finishing line” is the number-one goal even though it entails sometimes sacrificing certain stages in the creator’s life and career. The important thing here is to make it first, to stand at the tip of that bullet, it’s much better if you are at the tip.

El extremo de la bala… pays close attention to those definitions and that’s why it doesn’t establishes, typifies or defines roads in the current Cuban art, though we undoubtedly recognize a few trends. From a slightly preventive stance, it places all the artists on equal terms. The space for expression granted to each of them comes down to a brief statement and a short curriculum, the rest is all images.

This is one of the positive aspects of the catalogue. It’s not healthy for one decade of work to draw theories, though many will find it hard to resist. To the editors of this volume, the important thing is that works speak for themselves, later, we’ll see. In the mean time, only art has a say, and poor those who cannot be convinced with this.

The only essay included in the catalogue, written by Rewell, is key in understanding the bonds that bring these generations together, not from the artistic point view– though every action or experience goes back to art–, but from the point of view of changes in society, communication and development that define us and identify us within the advanced new millennium.

We are living a time of cultural chaos and crisis, seen through the extreme globalization of increasingly banal ethical principles. Uncertainty, skepticism, myth and illusion are some of the adjectives used by Rewell to define this stage and he goes deeper in explaining to us, or at least, trying to help us understand the reasons behind the supposed crisis. Culture is handled by means of computers, wireless networks, web communities, everything is virtual, everything is created; the pleasure of feeling the textures of an oil painting is fading away.

Rewell’s essay transcends the realms of art and its function of adding a few words to the catalogue to become an omen, a warning as to why we can’t ever separate, and even less now, artistic concerns from the social context, from the most immediate and accessible reality.

Art is once again called to intervene in this chaos, although it has shown an alienating and carefree stance for some time now. Rewell, who is both judge and jury in the exhibition, goes as far as to introduce the causes: “the present generation’s illusions are the same the formers had, we are not less committed or less daring. We are just experiencing a (logical) change of attitude. We have grown with poor examples. We are living a period marked, above all, by new social, political and aesthetic stances”. El extremo de la bala is a necessary book within the Cuban cultural panorama, and I dare to classify it as such, whose selection and conception succeeds in unifying a very diverse and forked decade. Perhaps we can notice the absence of certain creators –in most cases because they did not take part in the exhibition–* which is regrettable if we take into account that the catalogue, inevitably, goes beyond the display and will remain as a reference for those interested in the artistic production of the beginning of the new millennium.

It is precisely this responsibility artists have to deal with, being part of the turn of a century, of a society and of visualization. The societies’ dynamics has changed; we are world citizens even when we are in this small, nearly isolated island. Young art is uninhibited and rebellious just because it is. It is also fearless and daring, a quality it should never lose. But it is important, at the same time, to be intellectually and artistically committed, which doesn’t mean championing dogmas. This is the only way we’ll be able to find true bullets for the future of Cuban art.

Cristina Figueroa