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Cuba Lost and Found 

A Belizian artist friend of mine was once an idealistic socialist. So idealistic, in fact, that he sent his children to be educated in communist Cuba. He figured Belize was too congenitally moderate a place to ever really institutionalize the Brotherhood of Man, so he wanted his kids to have a taste of the real thing. But, advertising tells us that the real thing is Coca-Cola, which may also be a code name for America's own brand of global capitalism. Needless to say, after years of being schooled in the "real thing," his kids came home feeling closer to Coke than communism.

It's the Law of Unintended Consequences, which may also have some bearing on art production in a country where traditional art supplies can be hard to find and self-expression can be dangerous. If this Havana Inside Out show at Ferrara is any example, we may infer that Cuba has become a hotbed for conceptual and found object art, in this case, at least, of a rather subversive nature. In the workers paradise of the mambo kings, artists must rely on their wits -- and whatever else they can scrounge up -- it would seem. That much is evident in the work of Angel Delgado, whose Memorias Accumuladas series harks to his time in prison.

Incarcerated for violating public decency laws in one of his controversial performance pieces, Delgado made carved soap icons and little religious paintings on recycled handkerchiefs to trade for cigars, clean sheets and other useful items. Here soap bars arranged in a grid are embellished with razor blades, fish hooks, barbed wire and tiny locks, and the smooth, soft, personal quality of the soap makes for a striking contrast to the sharp, hard or dangerous qualities of the objects, in what amounts to a makeshift allegory of prison life.

These days Delgado uses those recycled handkerchiefs as mini-canvases for his Pespunte Gris Oscuro series. Each features a profiled figure outlined in stenciled barbed wire, or pierced by razor blades, cleaved horizontally with hinges and secured with a padlock to illustrate an atmosphere of official repression that extends far beyond the walls of the prison where he was once held captive.

Anyone who saw Ferrara's 2002 Made in Cuba show will no doubt recall Rene Francisco Rodriguez's toothpaste tube sculpture series titled Tubo Sutra. It seems that Cubans get a monthly allotment of toothpaste in aluminum tubes, which Rodriguez recycles into all too human sculptural forms. This time around, however, it is mostly his charcoal drawings that are featured, and you have to look closely to realize that those figures he depicts clustered in dense masses in front of an elevated speaker's platform are actually humanoid toothpaste tubes assuming the role of proletarians at a mass rally.

Pop art is also well represented here, in Vladmir Llaguno's neatly patterned grids of glossy magazine photographs of office furniture or eating utensils, as well as in his collages of zoot suits and audio electronics that he calls his Tecniconos, or Robot, series. Another form of pop appears in Alberto Casado's iridescent paintings on glass backed with aluminum, a traditional Cuban idiom. Replacing the usual folk images with controversial scenes from performance art, the overall look of his work is still reminiscent of something you might see on the walls of a Cuban tavern or cafe, if only at first glance.

Havana: Inside-Out was curated by Damien Aquiles, represented here with no less than 13 of his own pieces, some quite large, such as his Infinito Tiempo, Infinito Color, Infinito Memoria, Infinito Destino installation featuring hundreds of silhouetted marching figures cut from the painted steel skin of old cars. It's that theme of the mass man/mass gathering once again, only here, if you look closely, some appear to be marching discreetly in the opposite direction. Similar steel forms are employed in his Infinito Mapa series of "oxidation" prints, figures imprinted on paper by the effects of steel rusting in salt water. Like the rest of the show, these objects and images have a spare and Spartan quality about them. It is as if prosaic, everyday objects had been shaped, cut, pounded and coerced into yielding their maximum expressive content in a reverse reflection of those official policies that discourage individual self-expression, an allegory of irony and rust. 

click to enlarge Angel Delgado's Pespunte Gris Oscuro series - features recycled handkerchiefs as mini-canvases, - illustrating an atmosphere of repression.
  • Angel Delgado's Pespunte Gris Oscuro series features recycled handkerchiefs as mini-canvases, illustrating an atmosphere of repression.
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Speaking of Through March 30, Havana: Inside Out


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