Informacion economica sobre Cuba

Cuba’s Rising Art Scene Not Frozen in Time
Jun 13, 2014 6:45 PM GMT+0200

In a country sealed against time, Patrick Symmes discovers the
irrepressible cultural vibrancy of an island with storied works from the
past, rising art stars of today, and an eye on the future.

“That’s a Picasso behind you,” the poet said. He climbed up the
stairwell of his house, slowly, on aged legs. A venerable figure in
Cuba, he was trying to enjoy these late years of life. On the landing,
he pointed with quiet satisfaction to a charcoal drawing.

Actually, there were two Picassos in the stairwell, he said. Could I
pick out the other one?

Not an easy task in this house, which was small but decorated floor to
ceiling with more than 150 paintings. Small drawings and prints crowded
against big oil canvases in rococo frames. Even the stairwell, two
stories high, was covered with art, corner to corner, top to bottom. I
had come to visit the poet (who asked to remain anonymous) at the behest
of a Cuban friend, who had told me that I would be stunned by his art
collection, and indeed I was.

I searched the stairwell, but not long. The poet nodded when I pointed
low and left, to a tiny, minimalist sketch only inches across. A few
curving lines in black. The Blue Period without the blue. Yes, he said,
that was the second Picasso.

I had to ask. How did you get two Picassos?

“He gave them to me,” the poet replied.

Of course. It’s Cuba. Anything is possible.

Everywhere you look, there is an object for the eye in Cuba, an item to
lust after. Many of them are hidden in private collections, many more
are hidden in plain sight. A freshly refurbished 1957 Buick, with a new
coat of paint and an engine retrofitted with parts from a Soviet
tractor. A first edition of The Old Man and the Sea, in a used-book bin
for less than a dollar. An antique wardrobe, in continuous use since
1776, tucked into the back of a neighborhood church. A landmark mansion
divided into cuarteri?a, the plywood bedrooms that Cubans build beneath
the chandeliers of the old aristocracy. The old aristocracy itself,
still housed in the great neighborhoods of Havana.

But this is not a country whose cultural production is a thing of the
past. Cuba’s robust tradition of visual arts continues today, in a long
line that leads from pre-revolution modernist masterpieces to
contemporary paintings and sculptures by a number of increasingly
celebrated Cuban artists with international followings. The Havana
Biennial—held, in typical Cuban style, every three years or so—has
become a major stop for American gallery owners and collectors (the next
one is in May 2015), and Cuban superstars like the conceptual collective
Los Carpinteros and the sculptor Alexandre Arrechea are represented,
respectively, at Sean Kelly and Magnan Metz in New York.

The overflowing talent on the island draws art lovers from abroad, not
just to buy but to live. Jean Marc Ville, a 61-year-old Frenchman, has
filled his Art Deco house in Havana with works by Manuel Mendive, Belkis
Ayo?n, Roberto Di- ago, Rau?l Martinez, and others—all at bargain prices,
as his wife, Gretchen, a 38-year-old Cuban, admitted. “We never bought
for money, we bought for pleasure,” she told me when I visited her and
her husband. “But some of them are now worth 100 times as much as we paid.”

For Americans, Cuban art old and new exists in a gray zone. With a few
crucial exceptions, U.S. citizens can’t visit Cuba. And for those who
do, it isn’t possible to return home with many of the amazing antiques
and decorative objects that this country offers. Cubans have houses full
of things they would sell if they could, and their own government only
recently surrendered a monopoly on the sale of art and collectibles. In
the 1990s, the revolution even opened a pawn shop on the outskirts of
Havana, where an anonymous door led to a storehouse of family heirlooms
being sold on consignment to foreigners, with the government keeping up
to 90 percent of the take. In those desperate years, Cubans were willing
to part with anything to survive, and a kind of mad looting spree broke
out in Havana. I was told of foreigners buying up crates of art for
cash, of entire private libraries disappearing into the belly of the
Iberia plane departing daily for Madrid, and of Art Deco metalwork being
pried off buildings and offered to architecture buffs.

Artworks are, oddly enough, almost the only thing that Americans can buy
in Cuba, an exception to the half-century-old embargo imposed by the
U.S. government and maintained by the Treasury Department. A rolled-up
canvas, a print, or a sculpture being considered “informational
material”—unlike, say, a chair or a cigar—the Treasury Department allows
Americans working in the arts to visit Cuba and permits any American
here legally to return with no limit on purchased art objects.

“The arrival of foreign collectors sounded an alarm for the Cuban
government,” said Luis Miret Pe?rez, the most prominent of a new
generation of art dealers emerging as Havana experiments with
liberalizing the economy and, with it, the buying and selling of art.
Pe?rez, whose small Galeri?a Habana represents Los Carpinteros, said that
the chaotic cash-and-carry art deals of the 1990s have given way to a
stable, informed market.

Regulation has helped. A few years ago Eusebio Leal, the
forward-thinking historian who was responsible for the successful
restoration of Old Havana, came up with an initiative that requires the
Cuban government to preserve Cuban art. Now, the dismal and confiscatory
government-run pawn shop has been replaced by an annual auction for
international art dealers, a sort of Red Christie’s where the government
gavels off artworks, valuables, and antiques from its own collection, a
systematic de-accessioning of works seized from the Cuban people. The
morality of buying art this way is hard to parse—who are the looters,
the buyers, the sellers?—but that’s typical for Havana, and the
merchandise is first-rate.

Private galleries are now legal in Havana, and Fidel Castro himself
recently crashed an opening for Kcho, an installation artist who sits in
Cuba’s legislature. One night, I turned up for an opening at Servando
Galeri?a de Arte and discovered the kind of social scene that would be
normal elsewhere but which seemed to me unprecedented in Cuba. I’d
expected a quiet affair, but the triangular space was packed with people
for a double exhibit by Jose? Figueroa, a legendary realist photographer,
and the younger artist Alejandro Gonza?lez. I was immediately struck by
the fact that, among the whirling, chattering crowd of art lovers and
cultural mavens, few seemed to be looking at the works
themselves—typical in jaded New York but rare in stimulus-starved Cuba.

It was the art itself that was the problem: It was political. You could
see people deliberately avoiding it, and for good reason. Art isn’t a
safe thing in Cuba; at any moment it may open your veins. Gonza?lez’s
still lifes were elaborate fakes, documentary-style re-stagings of dark
moments in the Socialist-Realist nightmare: In a 1989 mockumentary, the
Berlin Wall is coming down as a Cuban surveillance office sits
abandoned; Havana graffiti is rubbed out by a loyalist; the TV shows the
face of General Arnaldo Ochoa, purged and shot by the government that
same year. These events disappeared down the memory hole of Cuba’s
official media, erased from history, and Gonza?lez was taking a risk.
Themes of spying and the unknown are one thing, but when I pointed out
Ochoa’s face, one Cuban woman physically recoiled, crying out, “Him!”
Art is the only way Cubans can think, feel, and remember.

One of the most prominent, if most improbable, experts on the burgeoning
Cuban art scene is the Miami-based philanthropist Ella
Fontanals-Cisneros. Born in Cuba and raised in exile, she has become a
patron and a huge player here, building her own collection of
twentieth-century Cuban paintings while scattering support,
encouragement, and party favors to a range of local artists old and
young. And although she has properties in Miami, New York, Madrid,
London, and Switzerland, Fontanals-Cisneros now spends much of her year
in Socialist Cuba, at an elegant house in the Siboney neighborhood
outside Havana.

Fontanals-Cisneros feels touched, even awakened, by the difficult lives
of the Cubans she meets. “People have a solidarity,” she said. “They
want to live. Everything means something, even a plate of food.
Everybody lives every moment. They take nothing for granted.” She is
also struck by how the arts are held in such high regard, as if the
culture of Cuba existed “in some other time” than our degraded pop
moment. Indeed, in Havana there is none of the advertising and
salesmanship that shout at you in American cities. “I feel like I’m
living in the 1950s when I’m here,” she said.

For Fontanals-Cisneros, the island is littered with surprises. She
recalled someone offering her a look at some works from the 1940s’
Concrete period, a brief abstract movement that thrived in Cuba a little
longer than elsewhere. “They opened a drawer, and I saw two paintings,”
she recalled. “I said, how much? They said, $800. I said, I’ll take both.”

But there is also a flood of counterfeits—lost treasures are a
commercial meme here, routinely faked. There was a time when antique
ceramics from Argentina were imported and resold at a markup to tourists
seeking “Cuban” antiques. Fontanals-Cisneros’s collecting has made her a
target of the wrong people. At one point, she was approached by an
intermediary who asked her, “Do you know somebody by the name of Poyack?”

“I said, you mean Pollack? Show me where this painting is.”

The person could never produce a “Poyack.” Fontanals-Cisneros believes
that if she had expressed interest, a painter would have been found to
counterfeit a Jackson Pollack for her.

There is another side of the art market, of course—that of the artists
themselves. Cuba’s strange isolation has made it one of the rare places
where an artist can live off art alone, and exert a surprising degree of
influence on a uniform and materialistic social system. From the
beginning, the revolution promoted popular culture, from films and
theater to music and dance, but also invested in the strictly visual
fields, opening up dozens of schools of art or design, including the
nation’s premier academy of art, ICAIC, to train students as young as
13. There is no penalty for being an artist here: You are paid the same,
fed the same, and housed the same as the bu- reaucrat and the laborer,
your output taken as seriously as theirs, or more so. If you are going
to be broke, Havana is a fine place to do it.

Cuba has a huge class of professional artists, including an undeniably
talented and productive industry for the tourist trade, with every
street corner sprouting a display of lurid oils on canvas, mostly
sentimental sunsets, erotic nudes, and old cars painted with
market-tested nai?vete?. There is also a smaller but substantial wedge of
trained talent—superb draftsmen, abstract painters, pop impresarios,
video provocateurs—as well as a circle of deal-making professionals who
cluster around them. Artists are among the few Cubans who are routinely
allowed to travel abroad, on the correct assumption that once they see
the financial standing of artists in the rest of the world, they will
return. As a result, they have become a kind of Cuban elite, well
traveled, better informed, in the powerful position of having contacts
abroad and the image of the nation in their hands—ambassadors of an
isolated people.

A 47-year-old painter known as Ange?l told me that he’d been to 15
countries and that, because the cost of living is so low in Cuba, the
sale of a single canvas in Europe could support his family for years. I
heard something similar from Osy Milian, a 21-year-old painter with a
growing reputation, whom I visited in Havana. She graduated from the
country’s best art school with rigorous training and zero debt, and
after selling a few canvases on a tour of the United States was free to
pursue her muse for months. Coco Fusco, a Cuban-American artist and
writer who has championed Cuban artists, fears that “collectors are
getting off too cheap” but still cheers a boom that lets artists show
their talent and earn a living. “Someone who makes $5,000 at a
Biennial,” she noted, “can live like a king for a year.”

For Ange?l, foreign contact has been good for the bottom line—he once
sold every painting from a New York show—but even better from a creative
point of view. There is no such thing as a dedicated art supply store in
Cuba, so Ange?l has friends bring him paint from abroad, a year’s worth
at a time. He said that Cuban artists have been able to combine the
fruits of foreign contact with a Cuban talent for scrounging supplies
from the garbage, and the result of the contradictory forces of scarcity
and surplus is “an explosion of creativity.”

“The lack of materials forces you to develop your intellect,” he said.
“How do I create something with nothing? It’s easy to work with plenty.
The hard thing is to work with little.”

History regresses to the mean, and I’ve long believed that the next
Havana, the one after this, will be more like Old Havana. Searching for
the future, then, took me to meet the woman who perhaps best embodies
the past and Cuba’s long memory. That is Naty Revuelta, the legendary
socialite, revolutionary, and lover of Fidel Castro who has been
collecting art and stories continuously since the pre-revolutionary
world of cosmopolitan Cuba. She, like other old-guard collectors, has
held on to them all these years, in diminishing and fading glory.

Now 87, Revuelta met Fidel Castro in the 1950s, when he was an ambitious
young lawyer on the make in Havana and she was a high-society debutante
with an ingenue’s smile and eyes that could put any man, even a
disciplined revolutionary, into a trance. The story is that Fidel
arrived at Revuelta’s door one night, breathless, claiming that enemies
were pursuing him. She sheltered him, and their epic love affair—a
scandal of pre-revolutionary Havana—produced a love child.

Revuelta’s mid-century modern house, a mixture of South Florida
horizontalism and Cuban eclectica, is more than the usual family museum.
There are perhaps 100 works of art tucked into every bit of wall space,
along with old photographs and small sculptures and tables crowded with
candelabras, outdated telephones, serving bowls, great piles of reading
(including up-to-date issues of Martha Stewart Living and a stack of New
Yorkers), and a can of Silvo Tarnish Guard.

Her greatest pride is her library, a dense but well-curated collection
on wide-ranging topics housed in a shaded study. This is the realm of an
archivist, the windows covered to protect the books, the shelves
organized and neatly labeled, her oldest volumes—a pair of
eighteenth-century Spanish tomes on Cuba—wrapped in butcher’s paper
against the elements and tied with string. Memorabilia dot the upper
walls, a fine collection of revolutionary posters and graphic art, many
of them incorporating images, small or large, of her former paramour
Fidel in his man-of-destiny moments.

When you grow up rich and beautiful, people give you things. She got a
great Wifredo Lam that way (“He gave it to me. It was a mujer caballo in
profile”). But she had been forced to sell it, along with two paintings
by the noted painter Fidelio Ponce de Leo?n, during the economic
catastrophe of the 1990s. Loyal to a fault, Revuelta had been living
then on nothing but her official $20-a- month state pension. People
around Havana were starving, and sacrifices had to be made. Selling
three paintings provided “enough for my family to live for four years.”
Of the rest of the artists in her collection, she said, “He died, he
died, he died, he died, he died, he’s alive, he died, he died, he died,
he’s alive.”

Pride of place on her wall goes, with reason, to a large oil portrait of
Revuelta herself in high society mode. “Other people say it doesn’t
capture me,” she said, “but I think it does.” I can’t agree—Felix de
Cossio’s portrait is emotional and vivid, depicting the beautiful young
woman, but is stiffly conventional and misses something so visible in
the subject before me more than half a century later: elegance, confi-
dence, a playful command of the world.

At the door, she bid me farewell. “Be good,” she said. “And if you can’t
be good, be careful. And if you can’t be careful, name it after me.” She
waved me off, her naughty remark ringing in my ears. It was the winking
Old Havana of the 1950s, everything coming back around again. The new
Havana promises to be full of aspiration, glory, beauty, and sass. It’s
going to be a wonderful party.

Source: Cuba’s Rising Art Scene Not Frozen in Time – Bloomberg –

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