Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Cuba: The Art Revolution

PBS Frontline

Synopsis and Video

Opening to the rhythms of Cuban salsa music and a shot of the lighthouse at the tip of Havana's coast, reporter Natasha Del Toro’s story reminds us of an island nation long known for its revolution, retro cars, and its music. But now, she says, Cuba is offering a new kind of revolution: art.

As Del Toro visits arts schools and browses through colorful street markets in Havana, she reports that art has long been at the center of Cuban culture, and under Fidel Castro, it became a tool for spreading socialist ideals. Castro opened free art schools and cultural centers for the masses. But in the 1990s, a further transformation took place – art developed into a tool for profit.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Del Toro reports that Cuba lost subsidies from Russia, and Castro turned to tourism and U.S. dollars for economic relief. The Cuban art scene was suddenly big business. Many artists began to profit from their art for the first time, and some attracted international acclaim.

To find out how this transformation has changed the lives of some in Cuba, Del Toro met artists Marco Castillo and Dago Rodriguez at their studio in Havana. They make up the successful art duo Los Carpinteros, or The Carpenters, and they are known for their handcrafted objects and sculpture.

“Artists live much better here than lawyers,” explains Castillo. “It’s the reverse of what happens in other parts of the world.” Still, Rodriguez remembers the 1990s, the time before the art boom, as “horrible – no food, no light, no public transportation.” Then, the Los Carpinteros artists struggled like so many others living through the country’s tough times.

While everyday necessities were scarce, the basics for building art were not always so hard to come by. The two men found many of their supplies by rummaging through houses abandoned by rich Cubans who had fled the island when Castro took over.

“For us, it was paradise,” says Castillo. “There were all sorts of interesting materials, like marble and wood.” The two artists also scavenged the grounds of the old Havana Country Club. From the materials they collected, Los Carpinteros created some of their earliest works of art.

The rest of the world got its first real taste of Cuba’s artistic talent in 1994 at the Havana Biennial. The contemporary art expo caused a ripple in international art circles and set off a wave of sales. Visitors to the show discovered Los Carpinteros, and the artists were launched into the creative spotlight.

Art curator Dan Cameron remembers the excitement of being at the event. “There was a kind of frenzy,” he tells Del Toro. “You cashed out a bankroll of several hundred dollar bills, and you peeled off a couple hundreds when you entered the studio of an artist you thought was doing really good work. “

Today, the sculptures and paintings of Los Carpinteros are displayed in museums around the world, including MoMA’s permanent collection in New York. Latin American art curator Noel Smith tells Del Toro that the duo’s sculptures sell for $50,000 or $60,000 a piece, an incredible figure by Cuban standards, particularly when one considers that the average doctor only makes about $30 a month in Cuba.

Their art is also known for challenging Castro’s socialist revolution. One of their boldest pieces, a fallen lighthouse, sold to the Tate Gallery in London for $100,000. It’s a social commentary about the system Castillo and Rodriguez grew up in.

“A lighthouse isn’t supposed to be lying on its side, fallen, suffering. It’s not supposed to – you’ll never see that,” says Castillo. “I don’t want this country to be conservative and on the right; I’d like it to continue being socialist. But to the leftist fanatics, I would like to tell them that this is not the paradise that they dream it to be. This is a very difficult country, and it needs to change.”

Visibly uncomfortable with his creative partner’s response, Rodriguez throws back his head and replies, “Oh, goodness! Marco wants to change politics.”

When Del Toro presses Castillo on what change he means? He doesn’t flinch.

“A new government for starters,” he says, with a mischievous smile.

The global success of Cuban art has meant that the government has allowed more freedom of expression and greater freedom to travel for people like Rodriguez and Castillo.

But it hasn’t always been easy for them to take advantage of this freedom. Castillo explains that they have an opening in a few days. “And we can’t go,” Rodriguez interjects. “We don’t have the visa yet.”

They’ve been prevented from attending a number of their openings in the past, including a big solo show in Florida and one at the Guggenheim in New York. But it wasn’t the Cuban government preventing them from traveling, but the United Sates government.

Under President George W. Bush, many Cuban artists have been kept out of the United States. Castillo and Rodriguez believe these travel restrictions are undermining the cultural ties that they and others have been working to build with America.

“I don’t think it’s working in political terms,” Rodriguez tells the reporter. “The only thing it’s doing is cutting the interchange of ideas, which is very important at this moment for this country.”

“For both countries,” adds Castillo.

For now, Cuba’s art revolution remains very much tied to the politics of this island nation and its thorny relationship with the United States.

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