BUILDING A CULTURAL BRIDGE
April 23, 2000
JACQUELINE SOTEROPOULOS - OF THE TAMPA TRIBUNE As international tourism to Cuba expands, artists from the island are finding greater interest and markets for their dynamic works. HAVANA - With its vibrant colors ablaze, hypnotizing in the midday sun, Havana's outdoor art market throbs with eager artists and foreign buyers. Elsewhere in old Havana, cool galleries and studios lure serious collectors.
Like so much from this tiny island nation, Cuban art is hot. And it is one of the few things unaffected by the enduring U.S. embargo. Cuban artists are allowed, even encouraged, to sell their works for American dollars. And a few American dealers and collectors, licensed by the U.S. Treasury Department, carry bundles of canvases back to the United States to display and sell. Cuban art is available on Internet auction sites and from small galleries. Universities and museums are increasingly introducing Americans to the art of our southern neighbors. Much like the music of the Buena Vista Social Club and the popular band Los Van Van, glimpses of Cuban art have whetted the world's appetite for the tiny nation's culture. Larry Winters' Key West shop, Cuba! Cuba! features art from the island. "Part of it is the forbidden fruit," Winters says. "Part of it is that people have not had access to it before. And part of it is that it's very good." He travels to Cuba three or four times annually to purchase directly from artists. "I obtain a license from the Treasury Department to travel, and I go as often as I can get the license," he says. His clients prefer lush landscapes, portraits of cigar rollers, religious scenes and scenes of Cuban city life - complete with prerevolution American cars and colonial facades. THE PAINTINGS RANGE in price from $20 to a $9,000 rural landscape bathed in golden light by artist Ricardo Perez Chacon. Winters won't say how much he marks up the work, but he does say that Chacon is internationally recognized and was paid thousands for the landscape. When customers ask the Duval Street proprietor about his merchandise from the communist nation, he tells them that his American dollars provide critical supplies to the artists and their families. "We prefer to talk about the culture of the country and leave the politics to others," he says. But Cuba is unavoidably political. Winters, careful not to offend Cuban-Americans, does not sell portraits of revolutionary hero Che Guevara or Fidel Castro.The Cuban Museum of Arts and Culture in Miami was firebombed twice in 1988 for auctioning paintings from Cuba. Jay Hyman, president of the nonprofit Society for the Advancement of Latin-American Arts, won't display or market Cuban works in Miami. Tampa-based Synthesis Fine Arts will gladly work to acquire a specific Cuban painting at a customer's request, but the dealership does not make mass purchases of Cuban work, says company President Joseph Miller. In 1988, Congress amended the 1963 Trading With the Enemy Act to allow the sale of Cuban art, films, books and other "communication" material. The following year in Miami, a federal judge ruled that display and sale of Cuban art are protected by the First Amendment. American citizens traveling legally to Cuba under U.S. Treasury Department licenses can import unlimited quantities of artwork. Since the 1959 communist revolution, the Castro regime has encouraged the arts. The government converted a lovely old Havana country club into the nation's art academy. "One of the few things the revolution did right was make the avant-garde the official art of Cuba," says Bill Dunlap, an American artist who recently visited Cuba. "The avant-garde is the art not embraced by the bourgeois. It's edgy. It isn't controlled by the marketplace. There are no rules," says Dunlap, of South Florida and Virginia. "Here's a society that has rules about everything ... it's one of the many great ironies of this society." Hyman says artists are building a cultural bridge across the Florida Straits. "THEIR ART is tremendous, and they produce so many young, good artists, it's scary," he says. The Meridian International Center, a nonprofit cultural-exchange organization in Washington, is working on putting together a traveling exhibition on Cuban art. "Americans will not have seen the art of Cuba," says Nancy Matthews of Meridian. "There's curiosity to see what these been estranged." In general, Cuban art neither glorifies the revolution nor is a vehicle for dissent. "These artists aren't Pollyannas, but I didn't see a whole lot of social commentary going on either," Dunlap says. John Gilderbloom, art importer and director of the Kentucky-based nonprofit Cuban Education and Research Program, says, "There's no art at all that's critical of the Castro government. It's too dangerous." Social commentary is disguised, Hyman says. Some Cuban artists have focused on the voyages of balseros - rafters who take to the Straits of Florida. Another emerging artist paints skeletons engaged in aspects of daily Cuban life. But many focus on landscapes or abstract art, and they have found an eager market for their work. Cuba's new focus on attracting tourists, begun out of economic necessity after the end of Soviet subsidies, has provided modest economic gains for the nation's artists. A select few, treasured by the government, have attained levels of extraordinary wealth in a nation where staples such as soap and aspirin are expensive and hard to find. Although artists are encouraged, they, like every other segment of society that has experienced increased economic freedoms, are heavily taxed. Havana artist Leonardo Gomez, 33, pays the government $160 every month to operate a small stall in a plaza populated by artists. He paints interpretations of his Afro-Cuban Santeria beliefs and sells them to tourists. It is an enormous sum in a society where some doctors earn just $1 a day. The elite artists pay 30 percent income tax to the government. Hyman says he has visited the newly built home of Nelson Dominguez, an internationally recognized Cuban artist. Dominguez, Hyman says, earns $100,000 annually and has two cars - an unheard-of luxury in a country where the president of the Cuban National Assembly rides around in a faded, 1980s Soviet car. However, for most artists like Gomez, selling art is a means to a slightly better life. "If you're eating rice and beans 29 days out of the month ... you do art to survive," Gilderbloom says. "These folks are making on one painting what they might make in two or three months [on government wages]."
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