Arte de Cubanos.






``There is no market for art [in Cuba],'' says photographer Manuel Piña, shown here at his Havana home. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art will exhibit his work in April.

Eighty-year-old Vicente, right, allowed seven artists to install their works in the front rooms of the once elegant, now ramshackle house where she lives.

HAVANA -- Savvy American art lovers can't get enough of Cuba these days.

``Cuban art is hot,'' says Ricardo Viera, director and curator of Pennsylvania's Lehigh University Art Galleries, who traveled here this fall to visit family and artist friends. ``The amount of Cuban art selling in this country [the United States] is unreal.''

Cuban artists ``don't even know what paying dues is,'' adds Tony Labat, a Cuban-American artist who teaches at the San Francisco Art Institute and who brought his students to this capital city to work with artists. ``Busloads of collectors are buying work from artists that are not ready to show.''

International fascination with the art and artists of Cuba, which has been building for a decade, reached a crescendo this fall at the 7th Havana Bienal, a series of exhibitions that drew more than 1,500 foreign visitors, according to director Nelson Herrera Ysla. More than 1,000 of those came from the United States -- the highest number of Americans ever to attend the Bienal -- including groups from New York's Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.

The past 10 years have also seen German chocolate baron Peter Ludwig create the Ludwig Foundation in Havana to support Cuban artists; group shows at the Bronx Museum, the University of Florida and in Barcelona; and solo shows in the United States and Europe for celebrated Cuban sculptor Kcho. There have also been residencies and exhibits for Cuban artists in U.S. cities organized by Art in General, a nonprofit organization in lower Manhattan. And in April, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will stage Shifting Tides: Cuban Photography After the Revolution, a major show that includes black-and-white images of Havana's Malecon by Manuel Piña, and New York publisher Harry N. Abrams will release Art Cuba: The New Generation, an illustrated survey of 67 artists working in Cuba, by Art in General Director Holly Block.

Closer to home, the traveling exhibit Contemporary Art from Cuba: Irony and Survival on the Utopian Island comes in May to the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum in Tampa, while the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art recently added works from nearly a dozen Cuban artists to its permanent collection.

But has that interest been sparked by the quality of the art and the artists or by Cuba's forbidden allure, something given greater emphasis in this country by the island's status as a renegade outlaw, off-limits to U.S. citizens without special permission?

``I think the curiosity factor was strong,'' says Dan Cameron, curator of New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art, who attended the Bienal with a group from the New Orleans Museum of Art. ``Cuba has been very much in the news, with Buena Vista Social Club and Elián González. Suddenly people who hadn't given Cuba very much thought took this as an opportunity to find out what was going on.''


Art, like most everything in Cuba, is run by the state, which manages 21 art schools, organized regionally with at least one per province. Budding talent is identified at an early age, and the most gifted children are boarded at these special schools.

The preeminent school is Havana's Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA), a tattered Utopian masterwork of sensual domes built in the 1960s by now-exiled architect Ricardo Porro on the greens of the former Havana Country Club. ISA produced most of the so-called 1990s generation of Cuban artists, the first post-revolutionary artists allowed to travel to the United States and Europe for exhibits and residencies and to legally receive coveted American dollars for their work -- although the government can still claim a sizable cut of the artists' earnings.

Because the artists bring much-needed hard currency to Cuba, at home they're an elite that enjoys latitude -- up to a point -- to address themes such as materialism, politics and identity with ingenious metaphors rather than the strident attacks that characterized so much work by Cuba's vaunted 1980s generation.

In a conundrum typical of this swiftly changing island, where totalitarianism and tourism make odd dance partners, there is a mantra you hear about students of ISA: Their art is terrific, and their access to art materials is terrible.

But deprivation has been the mother of creative invention for these artists, who receive an in-depth cultural education and are taught to draw with exquisite skill. In an art world that prizes unconventional materials, scarcity has become a curious boon.

Kcho, by far the most internationally famed of this group, recycles rum bottles, planks from broken-down docks and twisted mangrove stumps to craft large installations that evoke the experience of being uprooted and the tragic travels of the balseros, or rafters.

José Toirac, whose spectral portraits of slain revolutionaries sold for $9,500 at auction at Havana's Casa de las Americas, painted them with wine and blood, though he also paints with oils.

Recycling isn't just a matter of convenience, it's an aesthetic statement that allows artists to produce compelling objects that allude to personal and political pasts -- the contrast between Western consumerism and Third World want as well as internationally topical issues of migration and identity.

Abel Barroso uses cedar panels from old armoires to craft his wry hybrids of sculpture and woodcut prints. René Francisco turns empty paint tubes into robotic figures. Yamilys Brito paints her works on 45 rpm records. And in a startling mix of art and design, the Havana design team known as Cabinete Ordo Amoris has sculpted a baroque pink lamp from tubes used to inseminate cows.


The 7th Havana Bienal was an ambitious if disorganized collection of exhibits by more than 170 artists from 42 countries, emphasizing work from Cuba and elsewhere in the Third World. But several museum officials admitted the mixed bag of the Bienal was not the real draw for visitors; it was the chance to see Havana and the artists working there.

Across town from the narrow tourist-filled streets of Old Havana, José Toirac shares his studio and home with his wife, art historian Meira Marrero. It's a modest walk-up apartment with a Sony TV, gray peeling window shutters and a vintage General Electric refrigerator next to a wooden easel.

Wearing a white T-shirt speckled with black dots in a pattern matching the bullet holes in the uniform Che Guevara was wearing when he was killed, Toirac is showing his most recent paintings -- portraits of Fidel Castro cast within the iconography of Western advertising.

Many began as precisely painted copies of shots from Korda's One Hundred Images of the Revolution before morphing into something like miniature, hand-crafted billboards. Here was Castro standing tall as the Marlboro Man, or glowing as a vision in red hawking Calvin Klein's Obsession fragrance.

An artist who appropriates and analyzes stock images of the Cuban revolution, Toirac has been linked to Goya by Marilyn A. Zeitlin, the Miami-educated curator of Contemporary Art from Cuba, who finds the artist's ironic works analogous to the Spanish master's subtly derisive court portraits.

``Every artist has to find a way to mix the revolution and art,'' Toirac says.

Still, he admits, ``It's not possible to show all these together. It's not the right political time.''

Though he has visited the United States, Toirac remains in Havana now that he can sell his art for dollars.

``Artists are privileged and able to travel. It's not expensive to live here,'' he says. ``My rent is paid for. Everyone can't go and be successful like Bedia (Miami-based artist José Bedia, Toirac's former teacher). Artists really want to stay and take part in the Cuban art phenomenon.

``When I go to the United States, I knock on gallery doors and they don't want to open the door, but here they knock on my door.''


In Havana's Vedado district, a hilly, formerly middle-class neighborhood with sidewalks upturned by the untrammeled roots of ficus trees, there stands a Mediterranean-style home that houses Espacio Aglutinador, a gallery created in 1994 when artists Ezequiel Suárez and Sandra Ceballos divided their one-room apartment in half.

Ceballos and Suarez have since parted ways; now she runs the gallery with partner and fellow artist Rene Esteban Quintana. Old pink and red floral tiles cover the floor; a Hewlett Packard computer and printer rest on a desk next to shelves packed with art books.

Known for mounting unusual exhibitions, Ceballos said she launched the gallery because she was frustrated with the official mechanisms for showing art.

``I wanted to be more independent,'' she says.

The current show features small objects and mementos such as invitations saved by Havana critics and art supporters. The opposite of trendiness, the show is engaging and intimate.

But it remains a challenge, Ceballos says, to raise an independent voice now that the art market is more available.

``It depends on what kind of artist you want to be,'' she says with a shrug.

``If you want to be an artist influenced by foreign galleries and curators looking for a type of Cuban art,'' she continues, ``you'll produce a certain kind of work.

``The galleries are looking for names, not artists,'' she adds, a lament that could be heard almost anywhere.

Are artists free to criticize the government?

``Some artists can, some cannot,'' she says. ``If the money comes, they can do what works. [But] it's got be be metaphorical, like Kcho.''

Also in Vedado is a sagging 19th-Century villa scarred by a gingerbread front porch that had rotted. Its open door led to This is Your House Vicenta, a memorable show of work by seven artists timed to attract Bienal visitors.

In this ghostly house -- where elegant faded wallpaper stirred speculation about plusher days -- lives Vicente, the 80-year-old former maid of the home's late owner. Though Vicente has done nothing to repair the house in more than 50 years, she allowed artists to make installations in several first-floor rooms.

These works proved especially compelling because they were woven into the home's ruined charm, though Angel Delgado's piece would have been riveting anywhere. His was a trestle table laid with metal plates filled with soap crafted to resemble prison food, a formally austere homage to Delgado's six months in prison, punishment for having defecated in a performance on a photo of Fidel Castro.

A small photo of Che hung over the table, though a government official later insisted it be removed, apparently disturbed by what appeared to be an allusion to Delgado's past insurgence.


Vibora, a neighborhood of modest residential architecture, lies a bumpy, 25-minute, exhaust-filled trip southwest of Old Havana. There, in a white-columned home, artist Ibrahim Miranda lives and works.

Early on a November day he finds himself playing host to two Los Angeles dealers, a handful of collectors from California and New York, and Laurel J. Reuter, director of the North Dakota Museum of Art.

Miranda is one of the first Cuban artists to make prints at Tampa's Graphicstudio; hanging in his dining room above a mahogany sideboard is his 2000 Graphicstudio woodcut in shades of pink and black.

A surreal image calculated to appeal to exile nostalgia, the woodcut is based on a strangely proportioned 18th Century map of Cuba and Florida. Dark waters separate the two land masses, and floating in the water are giant eyeballs, from which roll oily black tears that swamp Cuba's coastline.

The title, Lagrimas negras (Black Tears), he explained, is also the title of a nostalgic and passionate Cuban song from the 1930s. It's an ``emotional view,'' he adds, of the relationship between Cuba and Florida.

Back at the Bienal, Abel Barroso's clever Third World Internet Cafe, occupying a dank space that was once a prison in the Castillo del Morro, gently skewered the presence of so many digitally advanced Westerners flocking to a poor country like Cuba. His collection of ``Mango'' brand computers, fax machines and printers were hand-crafted from wood -- like precious low-tech islands themselves. Barroso's unusual adaptation of techniques for printing woodcuts prompted Graphicstudio to invite him to Tampa to make new work and speak to local art students.

However much they neglect artists who left Cuba before this burgeoning U.S. interest, cultural exchanges like Graphicstudio's and other signs of support continue to flow north and south -- opening doors, many believe, to a more open atmosphere in Cuba.

``If you make Cuban artists international, it will be best for them,'' Cuban art critic Alejandro Rios says, alluding to the protection fame can provide.

``Who's going to touch Kcho now?''

Elisa Turner is The Herald's art critic.

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Revised: 01/10/10.