It’s days before the opening of “Arte Cubano” at the University of Arkansas at the Windgate Center of Art + Design in Little Rock, and works in various exhibition states can be found in the center’s galleries. . Many are already suspended; some lean against the walls. The sculptures are located in their place. Two workers elevate “Untitled” – Carlos Jose Alfonzo’s 10-foot-long, action-packed abstract acrylic and pencil on paper, which is apparently heavier than it looks – on one of the walls.
The exhibit, which opened Jan. 18 and fills the Brad Cushman and Manners/Pappas Galleries downtown, is curated by Kansas City-based Exhibits USA and complemented by works from the Museum’s Foundation collection of Arkansas Fine Arts, UA Little Rock Permanent Collection, and John Horn’s Private Collection of Little Rock.
There are over 25 artists included, and works include sculpture, photography, painting, drawing and more. Topics covered include censorship, freedom of expression, art as propaganda, national identity, migration, immigration, exile, diaspora, and the role of art in economic development and tourism.
Brad Cushman, gallery director at the Windgate Center, says the show’s appearance in Little Rock was first discussed three years ago, but the pandemic has delayed its arrival.
Better late than never.
“How often do we get to see contemporary art from Cuba?” asks Cushman in the upstairs gallery that bears his name. “It intrigued me. It’s a way to show an international perspective of contemporary art and all the complexities of Cuba. There’s this great mix of voices.”
This mix is the result of Cuba’s history and multicultural heritage that includes African, European and Latin/Caribbean influences. There is also the undeniable impact of the 1959 revolution and decades of communist rule under Fidel Castro.
Among the aftermath of the revolution was the creation of a network of art schools throughout the island, which led to the opening in 1976 of the University of the Arts. More than 90% of the creators included in “Arte Cubano” studied in these schools.
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It doesn’t take long to notice that planes appear regularly in the exhibit.
The striking “Pinocchio and Napoleon Cuentan la Historia / Pinocchio and Napoleon Tell the Story” by Esterio Segura shows the wooden boy in cast bronze plated; his famous nose, which grows when he lies, has grown dramatically and has a plane at the end. The length of his nose takes on some depth as he is standing on a stack of history books.
Classic American cars from the 1940s and 1950s, imported in the years before the American trade embargo that followed the revolution, are common in Cuba. Segura transforms an old Chrysler into a plane in “Hybrid of Chrysler from the series ‘Todos Quieren Volar'”https://www.arkansasonline.com/”Hybrid of Chrysler from the series ‘Everyone Wants to Fly.'” The image, from 2007, transforms a mid-century car into a form of transportation that can fly above Cuban roads and find a life elsewhere.
An airplane also features in “Pasa Tiempo/Pastime”, a photographic triptych by Diana Fonseca Quinones. In the photos, taken from a video, the artist uses thread to sew an airplane into the palm of his hand. It looks painful, but the stitches are apparently superficial. The deeply personal aspect of making art with one’s body adds to the weight of the work.
It’s hard not to evoke initial ideas in “Escapar 3/Escape 3”, a black and white photograph by Alain Pino which shows a swimmer halfway through the course. The thoughts of countless hopeful Cubans crossing the Gulf of Mexico to Florida in flimsy ships come to mind. But there is also the idea of escape offered by physical exercise. Either way, the tightly cropped shot, which shows the subject tilting her head above the water to breathe, draws the viewer into the story.
“Exit II,” from the Arkansas Arts Center Foundation collection, is an acrylic on paper painting by Luis Cruz Azaceta that shows a fence with a hole in it, revealing a darkness that almost resembles the opening of a cave. It makes you want to crawl through to see what’s on the other side.
Cuba’s love of baseball is reflected in Frank Martinez’s mixed media canvas ‘Blanco y Negro/Black and White’, which shows a black batter swinging into the center of a target and a large ball being fired from the the other side – a commented “cannon shot” on race and sport. It’s a big chunk, over four feet high and seven feet long, and surges with power and movement.
Race and slavery are part of Martinez”https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2022/jan/23/cuban-escapism/”Sin Titulo/Untitled”, which shows airline passengers (another reference from plane!), being served food in an image that appears to have been taken from a 1960s magazine ad. Superimposed like a tapestry over the tourists on the plane, however, are footage of captives on slave ships, traveling through the Middle Passage.
We mentioned “Untitled” by Carlos Jose Alfonzo earlier. It is one of two pieces in the exhibition by the painter, who died in 1991. Both are works on paper with energetic gestural marks that reflect abstract expressionist spontaneity and are on loan from the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts.
And speaking of energetic marks, “Extrana Declaracion de Amor: Para un Angel Guajiro/Strange Declaration of Love: For a Country Angel”, a mixed media on paper by Pedro Pablo Oliva, is a large doodle of endearing, bizarre and dreamlike characters. . It’s a treat to get up close and see all the stories Oliva tells, not only with his characters, but also with the patterns and colors he uses.
Sandra Ramos Lorenzo has three pieces in the exhibition, including “Los Poemas del Espejo/The Mirror Poems”, a clever combination of her own images and Toi Derricotte’s poems presented in a box with mirrors that is trippy and beautiful.
As with all works, it comes with a detailed informative panel in English and Spanish, a thoughtful touch for viewers.
We’ve only scratched the surface here, but it’s worth noting that while the exhibit wasn’t completely finished when we saw it, its size and scope aren’t overwhelming…just profound. and rich, filled with intriguing things to look at and think about and a welcome gateway to contemporary Cuban art.
- January 18 – March 8
- Monday Friday, 10am-4pm, Brad Cushman Gallery, Manners/Pappas Gallery, Windgate Center of Art + Design, University of Arkansas at Little Rock, 2801 S. University Ave., Little Rock
- Admission: To free
- Information: (501) 916-3182