Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Cuba set for first big U.S. art exhibit since 1980s

Padraig Tarrant's piece "Castrobama" in display at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana, is part of the "Chelsea Visits Havana" exhibit. (Photo: Galeano / AP)

Tue Mar 24, 2009 7:30pm EDT

By Jeff Franks

HAVANA (Reuters) - U.S. artists are preparing for the first big group exhibition of American art in Cuba since the 1980s in what they hope is a harbinger of better relations between the two countries.

The work of more than 30 artists representing New York City's Chelsea district will be displayed March 28 through May 17 at Havana's Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in an exhibit called "Chelsea Visits Havana."

U.S. curator Alberto Magnan said on Tuesday the exposition's purpose was to give Cubans a chance to see American art, little of which has made its way to the Communist-run island during the past 50 years of hostilities between the United States and Cuba.

"Art has always been a bridge to culture, and if this is any sign of things to come, it's a great first step," said Magnan, a Cuban-American and Chelsea art gallery owner.

The pieces range from a painting of what could be Cuban refugees boating into Miami to an elaborate work that includes television sets and a transmitter that will beam out a video of an apocalyptic city of the future.

Some of it, such as a red cutout with the profiles of U.S. President Barack Obama and former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, makes overt reference to U.S.-Cuba relations.

Magnan and wife Dara Metz are curating the exhibit along with the Havana museum's Abelardo Maena, who said the last group exhibit of U.S. artists in Cuba took place in 1986.

One of the visiting artists, Jade Townsend, said that just as Cubans would get to see American art, he and his colleagues had gotten to view Cuban art in the context of Cuba's culture and socialist political system.

"There's a certain freedom we don't have and there's a certain freedom they don't have," he said.

Cuban artists do not have the same "commercial drive behind their work, which facilitates a different way of working, and that's sort of incredible," he said.

Cuba and the United States were close allies until a 1959 revolution put Fidel Castro in power and led to the 1962 imposition of a U.S. trade embargo aimed at toppling Cuba's Communist-run government.

U.S.-Cuba hostilities increased during the Bush administration, which toughened the embargo, but Obama has taken office with the promise of improving relations between the countries separated only by the Straits of Florida.

Planning for the exhibit began while President George W. Bush was in office, but Obama's promise of change had given added significance to the event, said artist Doug Young.

"I think it's the first stitch in a fabric that will grow to be a big banner of freedom for everybody," he said.

(Editing by Jim Loney)


NY Art Exhibit Takes Chelsea to Havana

Chelsea artists, galleries are being featured in an exhibit in Havana. The organizers hope this is a step toward improving relations between the United States and Cuba. (March 23)


Latin America Herald Tribune

U.S. Art Exhibit Opened in Cuba with Hopes of Building Bridges

HAVANA – The “Chelsea Visits Havana” exhibition was inaugurated Saturday in the Cuban capital as the first big display of U.S. art on the island attended by artists from that country in more than 50 years, according to the organizers, who are hoping the project will build bridges between creative people from the two countries.

Works by 33 U.S. artists from 28 of the hundreds of galleries in New York’s Chelsea district comprise the exhibition that has been in the making for 2 1/2 years with the backing of United States and Cuban authorities, Alberto Magnan, curator of the exhibit, told Efe.

Magnan, who is also the organizer of the project together with his wife Dara Metz, said that the whole idea came from the problems Cuban artists have had when trying to show their work in the United States.

“Many Cuban artists that I wanted to show in the United States couldn’t go because they were denied visas. I wanted a big artistic exchange between Cuba and the United States and sometimes it was hard to do that,” the Cuban-American Magnan, who left the island when he was only 10 years old, said.

His solution was to present his exhibition project to the Havana Fine Arts Museum, which gave him the go-ahead, as did U.S. authorities at a time when George W. Bush was still president.

It was strange, the Americans had no problem with that and they liked the idea, so we could as an intermediary bring the two sides together and go to the galleries, which were enthusiastic about showing the works here,” he said.

The economic embargo that the United States has imposed on the island for almost half a century was no obstacle against art crossing the Straits of Florida.

“Since this is art, it doesn’t need a license from the Treasury Department, because art is excluded from the embargo. I need a license but the artworks don’t,” Magnan said, adding that all the works were sent here directly without going through third countries.

On display from now until May 17 at the Fine Arts Museum are works by artists like Tony Ousler, Jack Pierson, Edward Brutynsky, Jules de Balincourt, Tim Rollins and Marina Abramovic. Fifteen of the artists exhibiting plan to visit Havana.

Photos, videos, installations and paintings make up part of an exhibition in which can be found a rocket command table from the time of the missile crisis full of cigarettes, because, Magnan said, the operator “never had any work to do.”

Beside it stands a Mount Rushmore with the presidents of the United States and Barack Obama sculpted in telephone directories.

There is even a painting by Balincourt with rappers navigating a boat past a city that suggests a connection with Cubans who left the island on rafts.

Despite the air of normality surrounding the exhibition and the fact that over the years a number of U.S. artists have mounted individual exhibits on the island, to find a complete exhibition brought from the country to the north one has to go back to 1986.

At that time, several artists sent their works to the island that were exhibited in a show called “Outside of the Embargo,” although the artists themselves did not go to Cuba.

That’s why Magnan says that the “last big exhibition” with the presence of American artists in Cuba was back in the 1950s.

Asked why, if the embargo wasn’t an obstacle, so much time had to pass for such an exhibition to be staged, the curator said: “I don’t know, maybe they didn’t think they could do it.”

With the first step taken and the hopes for change in bilateral relations raised by Barack Obama entering the White House, Magnan sees viability and continuity in the experience.

“I’d like to continue with this project as the first step towards the United States and Cuba talking together, to an artistic dialogue,” he said in commenting on the possibility of exchanges of artwork, exhibits in the two countries, and even an art show at the Chelsea Art Museum.”

Magnan said that it’s “very possible” and that there are some people who are “very enthusiastic” about the idea.

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