For Americans, it’s often difficult to access the work of artists from Cuba’s inner provinces.
The May 19 opening of Cuerpo Cubano/Cuban Body at Bihl Haus Arts will provide a glimpse of works from the prolific artistic community in a southeastern province of Cuba not many Americans get to see – Cienfuegos, known as Cuba’s “pearl of the south.” The historic center of Cienfuegos, a World Heritage Site filled with preserved Spanish and French colonial architecture, also is home to a robust Cuban art and culture scene.
The collection will feature the works of six artists from Cienfuegos: painters Adrian Rumbaut and Elías Acosta, architects Camilo Villalvilla and Vladimir Rodríguez, and photographers Ángel Peña and Omar G. Valenti. The exhibition runs through July 2.
A special reception will take place May 19 from 6 to 9 p.m. It will include live music by Cienfuegos of Austin (whose members are originally from Cienfuegos), as well as Cuban food and drinks. Two of the artists, Rumbaut and Acosta, along with exhibition curator Liam Nodal, will visit from Cienfuegos for the reception, with the support from the Friends of Bihl Haus Arts.
“People in the U.S. only know about Cuban art from artists based in Havana,” said Kellen Kee McIntyre, executive director of Bihl Haus Arts. “We want to expand the vision of what contemporary Cuban art is, to show works from Cuban artists from outside of Havana.”
The collected works reflect how each artist explores the human body from different perspectives, a common theme in Cuban art. Paintings and installations vary in the media used, such as wood, cloth, acrylic, fiber optics, plaster, metal, plastic, and soil.
Rumbaut and Acosta take a more pictorial approach. Rumbaut combines the figurative with objects and symbols that coexist in unlike mediums and serve as boundaries, while Acosta progressively transforms his representations, leaning toward the abstract.
Villalvilla and Rodríguez, artists trained as architects, address social issues and incorporate elements that lend a projectual style to their craft. As the two photographers in the exhibition, the works of Peña and Valenti reflect themes such as life and death, faith and idiosyncrasy, and the contradiction between the elaborate and the spontaneous.
Villalvilla also is a designer and visual artist. Recurring topics in his art are social criticism, with many images conveying multiple layers of meaning.
His paintings from one series called Polvo de Estrellas, were inspired by a poetic quote from Carl Sagan, “We are made of starstuff.”
“In 1980, Cuba had its first cosmonaut on the Russian space mission,” Villalvilla said. “Children of my generation thought our future was limitless, that we could be cosmonauts. At the same time, there were political implications, because soon after the Russian collapse, our dreams were broken.”
The “special period” or período especial in Cuba was a euphemism for an extended period of economic crisis that began in 1989 primarily due to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, its primary ally and economic sponsor.
Los suenos rotos, or Broken Dreams, is the name of another series of works Villalvilla has included in the installation. The broken dreams refer to Cubans’ loss of faith in a future of space travel as well as in communism. One painting depicts a cosmonaut who is small in comparison to his giant wings, representing the far-reaching dreams many Cubans had in the early 1980s.
Adrian Rumbaut uses layers of fabric to build up his canvas, adding depth and dimension to the multiple layers of various images in each work, each layer adding more meaning when taken in as a whole.
One iconic image of Che Guevara has a motto inscribed across its rounded top: “La imagen cuando aparece es como la imagen de la imagen.”
“The image when it appears is like the image of the image.”
“I don’t believe in a single image,” Rumbaut said. “I’m interested in duality, in the image as a totem, a solid element.”
Upon closer inspection, the Che image has multiple layers, with snippets of iconic images from a well-known revolutionary sculpture in Cuba – hands outstretched in revolutionary fervor on the left, upright rifles on the right.
Each work in Cuerpo Cubano/Cuban Body invites closer inspection, to examine the body of work and how it reflects the zeitgeist of contemporary Cuban artistic culture.
“The common theme throughout this exhibition is the treatment of the body,” Cuban curator Liam Nodal said. “The body can help show you, allow you to see, permit you to feel, help you understand. The universal theme in this show is how ‘we are all Cubans.’”
Works not sold after the show ends in San Antonio will be sent to the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs for an exhibition planned for next spring.
“We hope Cuerpo Cubano/Cuban Body will expose people to Cuban contemporary art, because the art is not what someone might think of as typical Caribbean art made with bright colors,” Nodal said. “The muted shades and the many different techniques used are an advanced expression of the body and what the body can tell us.”