Cuba's artistic output finds its place on the world stage

The island nation's deep pool of well-trained artists, along with anticipation of political and social changes, have pushed Cuban art to the fore.

DETAIL OF ‘EL GRAN MAMBO’: Carlos Luna’s latest work is a huge, six-paneled canvas that stands 12 ft. by 6 ft. and includes ‘guajiro-man,’ or Everyman (seen here) – a recurrent theme in his paintings.

As host to two new shows featuring Cuban artists, 20th-century master Wifredo Lam and up-and-coming Carlos Luna, this surfer's mecca is riding a wave of another sort, a rising tide of interest in the visual arts of this tiny Caribbean nation.

Nestled inside the coolly modern Museum of Latin American Art, just blocks from the beach, the twin shows "Wifredo Lam in North America," and "Carlos Luna: El Gran Mambo," carry a dual message. On the one hand, they explore themes common to multiple generations of Cuban artists, revealing that the search for a clear identity in the shadow of a neighboring superpower continues from one era to the next. On the other hand, the broader context of the shows reveals something new, say curators, gallery owners, and other art professionals: Latin American art, especially Cuban work, is hot. "El Troubador," by Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo, sold for $7.2 million at a Christie's auction this past spring; the first major museum overview of Cuban art just closed at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art; and the only US gallery solely devoted to Cuban artists reports that, in the past year, sales tripled to $13 million.

"Cuba has always been at a crossroads," says curator Curtis Carter, who assembled the Lam show. Now, he adds, the country's art is taking its place on the world stage.

Strategically placed at the intersection of the new and old worlds, the small country of 11 million people has historically juggled cultural influences from around the globe, and its artists continue to reflect that struggle. But a 50-year trade embargo by the United States has largely kept this creative output under wraps.

Now, a heady mix of forces is pushing Cuba into the spotlight, Mr. Carter adds, among them a deep pool of well-trained artists in the country and a growing anticipation of political and social changes under the new Rául Castro regime. Art markets in Russia and China experienced a similar boom during the past decade says Ramón Cernuda, director of Cernuda Arte Gallery in Coral Gables, Fla. “As these countries undergo enormous social change, their art markets become valuable and interesting to the world art markets,” he says.

“It’s about time,” says artist Carlos Luna from his Miami home, adding that his native land has languished too long at the fringe of world culture. His own work, he says, reflects the traditional struggle of many Cuban artists to come to terms with suppression and exile, as well as the many influences in his native land, including African Santería and Spanish Catholicism. He’s proud to have his work positioned alongside Wifredo Lam, the acknowledged master of modern Cuban art. He notes that although the two have opposing political views – historically Lam aligned himself with the Castro regime, while Luna opposes it – they share what Luna considers fundamental concerns: a deep love for the Cuban people, and a desire to tell their story. The “guajiro” or common man, is a recurrent figure in Luna’s work and a centerpiece of his signature painting “El Gran Mambo.” As he puts it, “I tell the story of my grandfather and my father to my children, so they will know who they are. A man with no past has no future.”

Lam himself is also finally getting his due, notes Carter, who points out that, despite the artist’s international stature (he was friends with the likes of Pablo Picasso and André Breton), the Long Beach show is his first major museum exhibition. “Latin art has long suffered from a perception of being inferior,” says Rafael Ocasio, Latin American scholar at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga. “This is simply because the scene is perceived as too exotic or simply too primitive,” he says. This is far from the truth, he notes.

The Cuban government has long funded artists’ training. As a result, the island has a disproportionately large population of highly trained artists. “Cuban art can hold its own in terms of quality and content,” says Mr. Ocasio, “and now the world is waking up to this reality.”

Collectors have been taking note for a while, says Allan Boss, a collector of Cuban art in New York City, who just returned from a trip where he acquired a slew of what he calls world-class watercolors from a contemporary Cuban artist.

The biggest challenge for Americans remains the legal obstacles generated by the current trade embargo with the communist nation, says Mari-Claudia Jimenez, a lawyer with New York-based law firm Herrick, Feinstein who specializes in international art issues. Americans are not allowed to “do business with the enemy.” But there have been small openings over the decades that have laid the groundwork for the current spotlight on Cuban art. Gallery owner Mr. Cernuda pinpoints a 1989 legal decision as the beginning of Americans’ ability to explore the contemporary Cuban art world. After the federal government confiscated his collection he and his family sued and, as a result, the government reclassified artworks as “informational material,” protected as free speech. This decision, says Cernuda, “opened the door to the Cuban art scene.” [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Ms. Jimenez's name and incorrectly listed her affiliation.]

In the front gallery of the Long Beach museum murmuring crowds examine the works of Wifredo Lam and Carlos Luna. A young local artist, Steven Amado, ponders several recurring motifs such as African masks, and explains his reasons for coming out on a warm Sunday afternoon, “this work is so distinctive,” says the painter, adding “I feel as if I am discovering a whole new world.... Art is such a clean way for one culture to speak to another.” He explains himself further: “It doesn’t have to preach, it just speaks heart to heart.”

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