Is art worth dying for?
That question ricochets through "SubRosa: The Language of Resistance" at University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum.
Seven artists come from countries and regions of the world in which the "wrong" creativity can land you in prison or worse. Some live in those repressive areas; others have left and make their protests from afar. But all demonstrate in their work a love for their homelands combined with sorrow or anger, often couched in irony, over the human condition existing in them.
One of the most controversial for our viewers will be Khaled Jarrar, a Palestinian who references in three videos and several sculptures the Israeli West Bank Barrier that has been a contentious international issue. In Concrete, he is seen chipping away at the wall and gathering the shards, which he then sculpts into a soccer ball. Journey 110 follows a group of men, women and children as they slog their way through a sewage-filled passage to cross the border illegally.
Sub rosa is a Latin phrase usually used in the context of something being done in secret, and Ai Weiwei's work in the show is a prime example of sub rosa art. His is the marquee name here, an internationally respected Chinese artist whose celebrity is sometimes enjoyed by the government. More often, though, and unexpectedly, he has been harassed and arrested over the years on bogus charges that mask the government's irritation with his continuous and loud dissidence. He is represented by his famous Black Cover Book (1994), White Cover Book (1995) and Grey Cover Book (1997). They were created when he returned to China in 1993 after living in the United States for 12 years and realized that a new generation of activist artists had emerged and were laboring under many constraints. The blank-cover books, which documented their work along with modern Western art that was not well-known in China, were privately printed in editions of several thousand each which were secretly distributed and passed around.
Cubans José Toirac and Meira Marrero offer two compelling installations. Ave Maria was created for a group show that explored racism in Cuba. It consists of dozens of statues representing Our Lady of Charity, Cuba's patroness, who is also associated with the Santeria religion, a blend of African and Roman Catholic beliefs and rituals.
The original statue resides in a shrine in Cuba. According to the story, the statue was found in the early 1600s by two brothers and a black slave while rowing off the coast during a storm. After a sudden calm, they saw it floating on a wood plank, completely dry. They hauled it to their church, and the statue was moved several times after mysterious incidents occurred.
In this homage, on a long table beneath blue carpet representing the sea are rows of statues of the Virgin holding the baby Jesus and a cross. A visual narrative of its discovery always accompanies the figure. The art installation's statues range from kitschy to abstract. Some appear old, some new.
Our Lady of Charity has represented universal love for Cubans during a history that included centuries of prejudice and emphasized the close connections different races have had, along with differences, through its history.
Cuba 1869-2006 is a wall of grisaille paintings (done in black, white and gray) of all Cuba's presidents since its founding as a nation. Toirac painted them in the out-of-focus photo-realist style of Gerhard Richter. There's no text, just the men's names and dates of service, and those dates are all that's needed to bring home the artists' point about the up and down leadership throughout Cuba's existence. Some lasted a week, others a mere day. Fidel Castro has had one of the longest runs (the longest if you count his years a prime minister before he was president, which aren't reflected here). His inclusion was probably the major reason this work was banned in Cuba.
Cultural references from foreign countries and languages often get lost in translation, especially if they are humorous or ironic. Not so Distribution of the Sacred System by Iranian artist Barbad Golshiri, because it's based on something all languages have in common: puns and double entendres. A long strip of canvas, printed with multiple diagrams and words in Persian and English, is unrolled from a giant wooden scroll that resembles a paper towel holder. The diagram is also reproduced on a wall and the artist is seen in a video, completely covered in black, explaining the words and their connections to a group in a gallery. He's outfitted, too, with a speaker affixed to his rear end that occasionally emits belching noises. It sounds weird, but it's funny and sad because everything is related to the torture that many (including the artist's father) have endured. The multiple diagrams were fabricated at Graphicstudio and can be cut (like tearing off a piece of paper towel!) and are for sale for about $300, a bargain considering the atelier's usual prices, and part of the proceeds will go to Reporters Without Borders at the artist's request.
You might be thinking this is a cerebral, intimidating show. I find it steeped in immediacy, with many entry points for conversation about the relationship of governments to their people (and we have been seeing, hearing and reading lot about that). It's also so accessible visually that your first reaction will probably be just to walk around looking. Curator Noel Smith has provided brief but good wall texts that decode some of the sly political and social messages, a satisfying package that we can enjoy viscerally and take with us for deeper nourishment.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.