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Exploring Cuba-U.S. relations through art exhibit in Tampa

By Maggie Duffy, Times Staff Writer
An installation from the duo Celia y Yunior explores the cigar industries of Tampa and Havana. "Varaentierra" is a triangular structure covered with tobacco leaves and stalks, a recreation of a storm shelter common in Cuba.(Courtesy of the USF Contemporary Art Museum).

The title of the exhibition currently on display at the Contemporary Art Museum at the University of South Florida could be misconstrued.

"Climate Change" doesn’t refer to the hot-button issue of global warming. Instead, the exhibition examines the changing relationship between the United States and Cuba told from the viewpoints of Cuban and Cuban-American artists.

After more than 50 years of an icy relationship between the governments, a glimmer of warmth came in 2014 when President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced they were taking steps to normalize relations, a moment referred to as the Cuban thaw. Travel and trade restrictions were eased, embassies were reopened, and many Americans wasted no time to rush to the once-forbidden island nation.

Under President Donald Trump, the pendulum has swung back and Obama’s travel and trade policies are on the chopping block. Americans, especially Cuban-Americans who had to leave Cuba for one reason or another, are divided on the issue. But how do Cubans feel?

That’s precisely the question Noel Smith, the curator of "Climate Change," posed to artists when she invited them to be in the exhibition. The answers came in a variety of tones, and media, from site-specific installations, to new media, to original propaganda posters from the Cuban Revolution.

Antonio Eligio Fernandez, known as "Tonel," addresses the economic plight of Cuba with his collection of objects titled Art Shouldn’t Be Expensive to Make. Ordinary items including a jar, a baseball and a brick that bears the piece’s title have been painted white. This refers to the period of the 1990s when the USSR pulled support from Cuba and artists had little or no money to create their work.

Tonel is critical of the effect of capital on Cuban society, which he expresses with In Praise of Darwinism. He used concrete blocks to spell out asere, with a dollar sign in place of the s. Asere is a term of affection, like bro, dude or friend, the various uses of which represent an evolution. Tonel sees money as a threat to the Cuban social space, particularly in terms of creativity.

An installation from the duo Celia y Yunior explores the cigar industries of Tampa and Havana. Varaentierra is a triangular structure covered with tobacco leaves and stalks, a re-creation of a storm shelter common in Cuba. The piece hits your olfactory senses before you even approach it; the entire gallery is filled with the rich, smoky smell of the leaves. In both Tampa and Havana, the cigar industry supported thousands of families, and the cigar rollers formed a worker’s movement, La Resistencia. Soon after, conglomerates edged their way in, ultimately taking over. The piece contains a message from the Cigar Strikers that was published in the Tampa Tribune in 1895, which decries the takeover as criminal.

Javier Castro’s series Four Basic Things is four videos playing simultaneously. Each refers to feelings, and all were shot in Havana. A butcher massaging a piece of meat speaks to vice, lust and possession; a man throwing coconut shells, in a ritual thought to predict the future, alludes to uncertainty; an almost too-full glass of water that never overflows denotes tension; and a turtle flailing on its back is a metaphor for the continual failure in a struggle for stability.

The lion’s share of the exhibition belongs to Glexis Novoa. Born in Cuba in 1964, his ideals as a child were in line with the Cuban Revolution. By the time he was a teenager, the allure of American music and pop culture made him critical of those ideals. Nevertheless, he was able to establish himself as an artist in Cuba, but the frustrations of censorship sent him to the United States in the 1990s.

Novoa returned to Cuba and re-established his studio in 2013, when the Cuban government was looking to recover Cuban artists to promote tourism.

Upon his return, Novoa discovered he was able to purchase ephemera from the days of the Cuban Revolution and his childhood, which he assembled into an installation. Flags that represent important movements from the revolution hang perpendicular to triangular scarves that commemorate International Workers Day and followers of Camilo Cienfuegos and Che Guevara. They hang above cases filled with photographs and other objects pertinent to the era woven together by a narrative written by Novoa.

Propaganda posters hang behind the cases. Propaganda art is also the inspiration for a series of Novoa paintings done in the 1990s, but because they were meant as a critique of the Cuban government, they lacked the bold lettering that features so prominently on the old posters. Novoa revisited this series when he returned to Cuba and created new ones that address the current climate there. This time, big block letters shout out from color-saturated backgrounds.

His Los Americanos piece could be the signpost of the recent state of affairs. A series of words blocked out in a frame, almost crossword puzzle-like, come radiating out of a mostly yellow backdrop. Los Americanos. Mojitos. Carretilla. Dengue. The words sum up Novoa’s reaction to the Cuba he encountered upon his return. Dengue is dengue fever, an epidemic being poorly contained by Cuba’s deteriorating health care system. A carretilla is the hand-pushed cart that vendors use to hawk their wares to tourists crowding Havana’s city streets.

Contact Maggie Duffy at [email protected]