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Cuban Pearls 

Dreams from the Nightmare Island

For the McColl Center show AfroCuba: Works on Paper 1968-2003, curator Judith Bettelheim has assembled 26 artists who represent an elusive demographic. In her words, this group "does not reflect an entity based on race; rather, it is a reality based on a particular shifting set of historical and cultural contributions... (including) artists of many skin tones ranging from negro to blanco and all those between..."

The artists she has chosen reflect a piece of the larger Cuban society, and the works reflect influences brought by Asian, African and European denizens of this torpid and dynamic island nation.

Bettelheim has grouped these artists by themes, which helped me understand general areas of focus explored by each artist as well as better grasp the influences attendant on the work. I have co-opted her method here.

Religion

The largest number of artists is represented in this group. Religion is a tough thing to repress; ask any Communist leader. In 1976, the Cuban constitution guaranteed religious freedom. Religious imagery escaped the closet.

"A Drumming for the Pot" by Rafael Zarza is as Pop Arty as this show gets. His lithograph shows a bull's skull in a large pot surrounded by green sticks and mammalian bones. A chain is looped around the pot and a sword is impaled in the top of the skull. The wall text tells me this assemblage is associated with the Cuban religion Pal Monte Mayombe, which is based on central African heritage. The sacred cauldron holds items important to the religion. The bright spirit and raw gaiety of this piece either belies the somber subject matter -- we're looking at a recognition and possible summoning of dead people here -- or the subject matter is not perceived as so somber and scary a place to visit to the practitioners of this religion.

"Memories of Our Baby" is a screen print by Marta Maria Perez Bravo. I'm not sure what the image has to do with religion. It's a photo portrait of the artist's head halfway between profile and full frontal. Her face is stoic and expressionless except for her sad, pouty lips. Her hair is pulled back, revealing prominent cheekbones; her face is untouched by cosmetics, the photo unblemished by brush. Two tiny dolls cover her closed eyes. The dolls are the size of your thumb; their little knees are tucked into the artist's dark eye sockets; little arms wrap the lidded orbits of her eyes.

The image is first stunning, then comic and finally inexplicably tragic. From a distance, the tiny eye-clinging dolls resemble twin crucifixes fixed to the woman's eyes. On closer inspection, they look like bizarre sunglasses. Finally, they appear as what they are -- naked toy infants imbedded in a woman's eyes. Perhaps that's what's religious in this image. It's initially a little scary and mystifying, then amusing and annoying, and, ultimately, it is conclusively inscrutable. Like religion.

Portraits

"Three Cuban Pearls" by Diana Balboa pays homage to three black and mulatto women of Cuban popular music -- Rita Montaner, Merceditas Valdes and Celeste Mendoza. Balboa's screen print illustrates a piece of cultural history in Cuba: the danzon, a ballroom couple dance. The dance and its attendant music are a mainstay of national cultural history on the Island.

The lithograph is dark mud brown and fire engine red. Photographs of the three ballroom divas are printed in stark, dark brown-on-white graphic vibrancy. The photo images are culled from archives; they carry the mark of past generations in the young faces -- one dances, one sings and one poses, distant and sexy. Sheet music is printed across a red dot matrix; a collection of African bata drums, gourd rattles and a floating mermaid pianist enhance the festive atmosphere of Cuban night life. The print feels naive and romantic, very balls to the wall Hemingway, and alludes to a pre-revolutionary time, gratefully and regrettably, now lost in Cuba.

A Black Consciousness Movement

The Grupo Atillano (The Antilles Group) was a band of mostly AfroCuban artists who assembled in the late 1970s to collectively exhibit a shared aesthetic impulse which ran counter to the tired expectations of cultural stereotypes. Rafael Queneditt, the director of the group, explained its direction: "We all wanted to express the depth and profundity of our history. We were not at all interested in making little dolls with large mouths and big black women with big asses. We were more interested in color and form, and a certain concept of movement. One didn't have to paint black people in order to grasp our history. We were interested in expressing the Black side, but also the Spanish side."

Arnaldo Larrinaga's sure hand is guided by intuitive and stylistic concerns -- I can find no politics here. His screenprint "Guijes" is brown, black, green, white and red. One eye stares out at us from the right side of an animal's head. Thorny horns line the edge of the head. A phantom grey stingray with eyes on his back swims off the right top corner of the print. The surface is ripped with short impulsive strokes of brushy, inchoate calligraphy. This artist is spiritually related to the European "automatic" painters and the American Abstract Expressionists. The print is infused with something primal, dark, tribal and ritualistic. The communication is couched in universal guttural language. Larrinaga borrows from his subconscious to usher forth images which connect to our subconscious.

Contemporary Artists

Elio Rodriguez Valdes paints satiric posters for fictional movies. His style is very 1969 -- overzealous, loud and self-consciously hip.

"The Temptation of the Joint Venture" is a close-up of two sexy folks profiling a very large and public prelude to a kiss. A woman with sultry eyes, juicy lips and a Carmen Miranda headpiece sticks her tongue out to touch the tongue of her long lashed, half-lidded fine black man. Elio stars with his wife Lisbeth in this Macho Enterprise production.

The pose is vapid and staged. The laconic, looking-back-at-you eyes of the aged adolescent players exposes their clued-in awareness to the silliness of their blockbuster guise. Their eyes reveal much ado about nothing while the Technicolor bigness of the poster begs us not to miss this one.

At the same time, Rodriguez pokes fun at the corny staging; he makes satiric comment on the reigning stereotypes -- sexual, social and racial -- pervasive in his native Cuba. His wife is light skinned, he is dark skinned. Is their union cause for lifted eyebrows? Is it permissible? What would Fidel think?

"Insular Nights" (1997) by Ibrahim Miranda is the most visually arresting work in the show. Six framed pre-printed maps of Cuba are modified by the artist using India ink. The six frames are 10 x 80 inches, horizontal and stacked up the wall like a ladder. The blotted out areas resemble images of rivers, serpents, bowls, mountains and segmented insects trolling subterranean tunnels. The artist weds a hard line between map and image similar to a cartographer's distinction between water and land. Pieces of his obliterated map peek through thin ink washes and left alone areas. Peculiar shapes emerge and traverse the topography.

What does it mean? It means the work is hypnotic, galvanizing and likely to send you spiraling to unexplored intracranial territory.

But what does it mean?

Hell, I don't know.

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