Unravelling the Myths

When we think of Cuba, it’s often of Castro, Che Guevara and the revolution,
but in winter 2008, Iniva presented one of the year’s most exciting exhibitions: States of Exchange. The exhibition challenged perceptions and looked at
the reliability of history in the age of global communication.

Havana, Fidel Castro and the icon, Che Guevara whose face adorns merchandise across the globe; conjure up a somewhat mythical idea of Cuba, an island separated by 145km of water from Florida, USA. Yet how many of us can say we really know what the reality of Cuban life is? States of Exchange: Artists from Cuba is a captivating new exhibition at Iniva’s (Institute of International Visual Arts) new Rivington Place, London location. The exhibition provides a dynamic and thought provoking exploration of the complexities of economic and information exchange in contemporary Cuba. States of Exchange is co-curated by Iniva’s curator Cylena Simonds and Gerardo Mosquera, an international curator, critic and art historian based in Havana. Accompanying the exhibition is a video screening programme featuring artist’s shorts and experimental documentaries, which include works never seen before in Europe. There is also an education programme and events programme including music, talks by the curators’ and discussions with artists such as Lázaro Saavedra and Jeanette Chávez.

At a time when borderless communication is assumed to be the global standard and economic powers no longer adhere to old boundaries of East and West, Cuba is a country caught in flux. Cuba has survived over 40 years of US economic and political sanctions designed to bring down the government of Fidel Castro. After the fall of the US-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959, Cuba became a one-party state led by Fidel Castro. Strict rationing of energy, food and consumer goods has been in place since the early 1960s and President Castro is able to control almost every aspect of Cuban life through the Communist Party, the government bureaucracy and the state security apparatus, which not only repress any dissent but also impede the existence of civil society. Less than 2% of the population have access to the Internet. Cuba has two legal currencies — the Cuban Peso and Cuban convertible Peso and subsequently there are growing divisions between those who have access to resources from beyond the island and those who do not. Consequently the residents of Cuba have become experts at negotiating exchange between each other and the rest of the world.

The exhibition is an impressive array of six artists living and working in Cuba today. These include; Iván Capote, Yoan Capote, Jeanette Chávez, Diana Fonseca, Wilfredo Prieto and Lázaro Saavedra. Their work includes sculpture, performance and video installation. The co-curator Gerardo Mosquera comments; “Cylena and I wanted to build the exhibition as a discussion of the situation of exchange in Cuba. This referred to exchange in the broad sense of the word. Cuba is a place where you have to constantly negotiate many things. We have two different currencies working together, there are certain things you buy with this currency and in other shops you buy with the other one. There is an official façade, but then many things are going on in the underground culture and to survive you have to keep exchanging between different spheres and different worlds, negotiating everything. We tried to gather artists whose work tackles these issues in either a direct way, or emerging from that situation even if it is not referring to it specifically.” Mosquera continues, “Cuba is a myth, it is difficult for people visiting Cuba to really look at the reality of Cuban life without looking through some kind of [rose-tinted] lenses, which confirm a myth about Cuba and the romantic revolution; Che Guevara and Castro, as a result Cuba is still an icon for the left. Yet you can also go to the opposite side and view Cuban life from the right wing position they see it as hell; a terrible and evil place. There are so many stereotypes and pre-conceptions, so I think this show will be an opportunity to see how the Cuban artists are criticizing Cuban society, Cuban politics and Cuban culture. I think it will give a strain of reality to people to reveal what is going on and how complex the Cuban situation is.”

The diverse artworks in States of Exchange discuss the on­trad­ic­tions and ambiguities prevalent in Cuban life. Iván Capote’s mechanical sculpture Historia [History, 2001] deals with the reliability of history, with a pen attached to one circling arm and an eraser attached to the other. As one arm marks the glass, the other arm all too quickly erases. Mosquera comments, “Iván Capote, is perhaps the one artist who deals with the situation in Cuba in a more metaphorical way. His work has that approach and history is referring to lessons in history that have not been learnt. The work is a very simple metaphor, but a powerful one about how time erases historical things and how everything moves on and is forgotten — it is a very moving piece.” Perhaps the most important aspect of Historia’s resonance with the viewer is that it depicts how time moves on and things are forgotten on a global as well as a local level, providing an excellent backdrop to the other artists’ works. Themes of censorship are explored in Jeanette Chávez’s video performance Autocensura [Self-censorship, 2006], she painfully ties thread around her tongue and closes her lips, her self-inflicted silence becoming invisible. Mosquera adds, “On the one hand the artists tackle the actual issues, but on the other hand they are also building metaphors in an artistic way, so it’s not like a straightforward discourse. It is complex with different levels and resonances and they are producing new meaning through art. So even when the artists are addressing concrete issues, they are building up more complex meanings out of the issues.”

Another aspect of the exhibition is the video screenings programme, which features artists’ shorts and experimental documentaries. Mosquera comments, “It was my idea to include the video programme, because it is very interesting what is going on right now in Cuba. People get video cameras and produce amazing videos, all completely free. You go out and film and record and then you exhibit the video. There are spaces and gatherings, even ‘pop up’ galleries where people show this material, or they give somebody a DVD and it is shown in different locations. It is an underground movement, which contains video art, short fiction videos and also documentaries. There is a whole range of films being produced, which is new and growing.” Video has become an alternative mode of communication exchange, providing artists with a new means of creative freedom, but what does the government think about this? “The government don’t want people to see them, but they can’t prevent it from happening because screenings are so spread out. Now we are living in a new era where everything gets video taped; like Saddam Hussein’s execution, there is a video camera always in front of you. These people are just doing their work; of course the government would prefer not to have that.” Mosquera continues, “In Cuba we have a very monolithic authoritarian system of control. So what we find are gatherings where people get together and show their material, or DVDs circulating. These people are really within Cuban life, and they work from and document their day to day experiences.”

States of Exchange provides an insight into the realities of life in Cuba, the artists involved have created work that goes beyond their local context and resonates with people globally. “I hope that States of Exchange will break down stereotypes about Cuba and present artists that are interesting, but who also give a slice of Cuban real life and complexities. This is an exhibition about complexities, not stereotypes. It delves into what is really going on in Cuba, but also goes beyond that and discusses human problems.”

States of Exchange: Artists from Cuba ran until 22 March 2008 at Iniva, Rivington Place, London, EC2A 3BA.

Shona Fairweather