Review: 'Complicated Beauty' showcases Cuba at the Tampa Museum of Art

Jos? Bedia, Semana Santa (Holy Week), 1998, ink and Conte crayon on amate paper.
Jos? Bedia, Semana Santa (Holy Week), 1998, ink and Conte crayon on amate paper.
Published Dec. 15, 2016

Striking about "Complicated Beauty: Contemporary Cuban Art" at the Tampa Museum of Art is its tone. For all of the exhibition's variety and appeal, even lightheartedness in a few examples, somberness pervades as the artists take a clear-eyed view of life and times in contemporary Cuba.

The colors are the first thing you'll probably notice. Red pervades many of the works and it's usually juxtaposed with darker monotones. It could signify a variety of meanings but most of them point to red as a symbol of passion (not the romantic kind), violence and even power.

The opening salvo is Eduardo Ponjuán's Ripped Paper, painted as trompe l'oeil, meaning as an illusion. White paper appears to be torn, revealing a rust-red silhouette of the island outlined in black. The white paper, also a silhouette of Cuba, is being rolled up as it's torn, as if ready to be put away or discarded. And which is the real Cuba in this painting, the white shape that has been removed or the red that is revealed beneath it? Either way, much is lost.

Nearby is Corrected Palm, a black and white photograph of a palm tree by Maria Elena Gonzalez. Holes are punched into it, revealing a layer of red beneath. Bullet holes and blood come to mind. Carlos Garaicoa's Untitled (Decapitated Angel) is also a photograph, in sepia tones, of an ornate staircase in an old Havana building with a marble angel on its bannister. It's without a head, and where that would be, "Fidel" is painted in red letters on the stairwell. The message is as simple as the horrible deterioration of beautiful buildings through government neglect to the more complicated and larger issue of the toll Castro's regime has taken on the country through the decades.

A Group of Cubans Who Left Manzanillo Are Rescued at Sea by Kcho is painted mostly in black with red coursing like spilled blood down the bow of a boat on which a group of people stand. One is being hauled in from the sea. The subject of the work is a real event in 2014 in which the exiles were lost at sea for almost a month and finally rescued, but not before several died or disappeared. Here red is a clear symbol of death.

Then we see Goodbye My Love #7 by Esterio Segura, a red fiberglass airplane with a big red heart suspended overhead. It's a mood-changer, like a piece of pop art floating above so much somberness. And it can be read that way. But given its provenance, it can also be a reminder of the heartbreak so many people have faced, leaving family and country behind.

Islands are typically associated with carefree living and vacations. Cuba's status as an island is explored often in this show not as a place to escape to but from. Pedro Pablo Oliva's gloriously wrought brass sculpture, The Great Journey, is an umbrella packed with a cast of characters that could inhabit a Tim Burton quasi-comedy film. Compared to Kcho's painting, it could seem flippant. But nothing is amusing about the perils of crossing the Florida Straits or Gulf of Mexico in a small boat, which is what the umbrella represents. And the eccentric individuals could represent the individuality that was denied them in a repressive regime that they hope to reclaim when free.