A man is frozen in wood. His clothes are worn, and the cane with which he must walk supports his whole weight.
He drags carts loaded with supplies. There are condoms, a light bulb, paint brushes, toothpaste, soap and even a box of tampons – the supplies that Cuba has lacked since the beginning of the embargo.
The work is by Fernando Rodriguez, entitled “PaÃ Cuba (For Cuba),” and is one of several pieces from more than 16 contemporary Cuban artists on display at the USF Contemporary Art Museum.
“Contemporary Art from Cuba: Irony and Survival on the Utopian Island,” on loan from the Arizona State University Art Museum, opened May 18 and continues through July 14. The works emulate Cuban views of the 1959 communist revolution on the island and life under the United States embargo.
The Revolution, which brought Fidel Castro to power, is often considered the main historical moment in Cuban history. Soon after, the United States placed a far-reaching trade embargo on Cuba, in which the delivery of supplies such as medicine, soap and even simple school supplies was banned.
Rather than roll over and play dead, the Cubans revolted.
Because of the constant threat of political conflict, the Cuban artists are forced to censor their work. To take stand for their beliefs, they have decided to employ irony and humor in order to make a critical statement.
It’s an essential strategy, according to ASU Art Museum curator Marilyn Zeitlin. The designs demonstrate the role of art in forming and embodying social conflicts.
“For an outsider, the context of the work, contemporary Cuba, is riveting,” Zeitlin said in her the essay for the exhibition.
In “ETATIS.SUE.XX (Made When I Was 20 Years Old),” artist Jacqueline Brito paints a ship sailing along a brown and black sea. As the ocean drops off to the bottom of the painting, the canvas develops from dark flowing lines into a cascade of dripping paints.
On one level, the painting symbolizes the early conquistadors who embarked on their voyage to the New World. Further implications suggest the early ideas of a flat earth and the sailors approaching the place where they will simply fall off.
On yet another level, as Brito says, it is just a painting of a ship at sea, an expression of loneliness that is so common to the Cuban people.
The artist Kcho, whose assumed name is a personal spelling of cacho or “a piece or bit,” uses natural materials and everyday objects to convey his ideas. In “Para Olvidar” (In Order to Forget), Kcho uses a homemade kayak placed atop a sea of beer bottles.
Dedicated to the hundreds of Cuban balseros, those who left the island on makeshift rafts, “Para Olvidar” suggests an escape.
“At certain moments of crisis, the prohibition (to leave Cuba) was lifted, resulting in concentrations of often desperate departures,” Zeitlin said. “Many artists were moved by the plight of the balseros.”
In the case of Kcho’s piece, the vessel is the escape of the ones who drift to sea with the feeble hope of survival. The beer bottles symbolize the escape into oblivion of the ones left behind.
Yamilys Brito takes inspiration in Cuba’s heritage, and combines it with inventiveness and cynical humor. Her “Figuras” painting, the name taken from a street running through Centro Habana, takes her own imagery from reading deep into the culture of the country.
And it’s all illustrated on a stretched-out alligator skin.
The skin is used to symbolize the animal’s similarity in shape to the country. Its painted depiction, the Cuban Monument to the Revolution connected by red waves to a waving Statue of Liberty, symbolize the intense repulsion, yet persisting attraction to one another.
“I had no idea of the intensity of the Cuban people,” said Diane Taft, a visitor strolling around the exhibit. “I understand that they’re all fairly young artists. Their art is so simple and childlike, yet it portrays the revolution in such a fresh, straightforward way.”
And the artists are young. They range in age from 24 to 39. The oldest of them was only a year old when Castro came into Cuba.
“The artists in this exhibition are too young to have taken part in the initial struggle of the Revolution,” Zeitlin said. “[But] they heard about these events throughout their lives, to the point of over-saturation.”
Contemporary Art from Cuba is the unspoken proof that the Cuban people are united with dignity. Humor takes center stage in coping with the sickness and isolation that plagues the country’s people.
Because after all, laughter is the best medicine.