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Prison Diary? The AICA annual congress 2016, Havana


‘Cuba is a super-prison’ confided the young video artist who looked liked Jesus (centre parting, beard, long dark hair). We were at a reception at the Norwegian embassy in Havana halfway through the 2016 AICA International Congress where there was an exhibition of work by a number of artists. One of them in particular, it was rumoured, could only have exhibited in the safety of a foreign embassy – his series of photos was centred on the collapse of the Berlin wall, a piece of history that had deprived still-communist Cuba of its client status with the Soviet Union, and was the beginning of five years of especial hardship for the already beleaguered island with the collapse of the guaranteed Soviet market for sugar, its principal export.

Looking to engage further, I tried suggesting to the artist that London was equally an artists’ prison thanks to its phenomenal house and studio prices, and its rank capitulation to the global art market with its few winners and many losers, whereas surely Cuba, by a fortunate accident, was outside this global prison. But this was not an argument I was ever going to win. ‘You are in Havana, I cannot come to London’ was how he put it, perhaps more politely than the occasion warranted. And when I asked for his website, he gently explained that in Cuba there is no general access to the world-wide web. Which explained the rows of young people on smartphones sitting on the pavement outside the conference hotel, where indeed there was global internet access of a sort.

To the first-time visitor, the city of Havana is an apocalyptic visual metaphor for the self-destructive nature of high capitalism. The crumbling ruins of great colonial palaces, once home to allegedly the most corrupt of the corrupt – their dilapidated balconies now held up by crazily improvised wooden scaffolds – are, thanks to the 1959 Communist revolution, preserved in a time-warp, and inhabited by huge numbers of apparently impoverished families living on (and off) the street. That the theme of the conference was ‘New Utopias: art, memory & context’ was profoundly relevant in this outwardly dystopian city. Much as an eighteenth century romantic painter might produce eminently saleable images of cattle grazing amidst the ruins of ancient Rome to create a pleasurable frisson of anxiety in his wealthy audience, so the visitor from just-post-Brexit London might well feel a similar sense of angst; might small, struggling Cuba, reduced to near-ruin by the economic blockade imposed by its near neighbour, presage the fate of a formerly-wealthy UK about to cut itself off from its European big neighbour? Is it possible to escape the prison of global capitalism by a simple show of hands? For all its idealism and sense of solidarity – which still, remarkably, survive – Cuba does not augur well for any utopian future for a solitary Britannia.

The word Utopia was first coined by Thomas More’s famous 1516 work, exactly 500 years old. More’s Utopia was set on a newly discovered Caribbean island (it was the era of ‘New World’ exploration) that, left to itself, had developed a utopian lifestyle (no red-tape from Brussels to get in the way). A number of speakers at the congress referred to More’s island paradise. One or two of the more interesting papers went so far as to discuss not the Communist utopia of Cuba (which, naturally, came largely from native speakers – we were in the presence of the minister of culture), but rather the equally utopian vision of high modernism, equally at odds with the actuality of carnal, everyday life. To the casual observer, there seemed to be a straight parallel between the dystopian reality of the Cuban dream and the betrayal of the transcendental dreams of high modernist art and architecture – today simply domestic chaplains to the global, neo-liberal elite who encourage the abuse of the Gospel of Modernism by cheapskate builders and penny-pinching town planners, the white cube an excuse for speculation in rarefied, disembodied art of inflated worth, and with more visceral work such as oil painting systematically downgraded.

Perhaps the whole Brexit/Trump phenomenon is a futile and self-destructive act of revolt by those weary of the flesh-denying sacrifices that must be daily made to the gods of neo-liberal capitalism with their disinterest in the particular, the local (except, in a very simplified form, as a marketing opportunity) and any deeper needs of the flesh beyond sugar and fat and alcohol.

For example, Michael Asbury (whose thesis was much more subtle than this crude outline) presented Brazil (2013), a remarkable piece by the Brazilian artist Matheus Rocha Pitta, who buried several tons of beef in the shallow red soil of Brasilia, the magnificent high modernist capital of Brasil designed by Oscar Niemeyer. The very un-modernist, corporeal presence of this rotting flesh was evident as much by its smell as by its physicality. It represented, Asbury suggested, the return of the repressed carnality locally absent from the universal, transcendentally beautiful architecture of the city.

But if Cuba’s utopian revolution fell victim to what Merleau-Ponty calls the flesh of contingency, Cuba might also be the place where the balance in art between local and universal, conceptual and sensual, is recalibrated. As Alicia Alonso, founder of Cuba’s national ballet, puts it in Elizabeth Hanly’s Santería – an alternative pulse (‘Cuba in Mind’, New York: Vintage, 2004, p 200), ‘our genius as Cubans’ is ‘our ability to communicate with our bodies’; Cuban religion, Hanley claims, sees ‘body as soul’ (p 201).

This applies to local forms of Roman Catholicism as well as to Cuba’s other major imported religion, Santería, whose roots lie in the Yoruba folk rituals of Africans brought over as slaves to work the plantations. Many Cubans, apparently, practise both. Indeed, the whole island is characterised by a sense of indistinct boundaries, of cultural hybridity, that affects the best of its art, much of which – most notably the remarkable work of probably its most famous art, Wifredo Lam – is energised by a typically Cuban synthesis of Santería and Modernism. Lam returned to his native Cuba in 1941, just as the creative springs of modernism in Europe were beginning to dry up, and used the somatic energies of Cuban life to re-energise his art. (Sadly, as the recent exhibition at Tate Modern demonstrated, this moment of creative energy did not last long).

Another example of cultural hybridity, a perfect example of Cuban artistic-religious syncretism, is the face of the statue of Jesus that watches over Havana, which bears a remarkable similarity to that of Che Guevara, just as the ‘O’ (for Orissa) in Santería iconography also represents the consecrated host in Christian churches, and Christian Santa Barbara is equally a Yoruba deity.

Arguably, the same impulse to incarnate the world of conceptual art into the everyday is also demonstrated by the Havana biennale (which actually occurs every three years). A morning of lectures – one of the most interesting events of the conference – charted its history; recent biennales have moved out of the galleries and into town, using some 40–50 different locations across the city: ‘the City is the exhibition hall’. In this way, we were told, the human body is ‘reinserted’ into art. Art becomes more corporeal, less corporate; more locally carnal, less universally cerebral. Maybe the local is perhaps best defined by the felt presence of the body, a correlative dynamic of the gaze in particular eyes.

Lam remarked in 1980 that ‘my art is an art of decolonisation’. By opening himself to the influence of the local as against the homogenising universal, he may indeed have limited his artistic language and influence, but arguably he deepens his art. The flip-side of the local is the mortal (the universal is eternal), and it might be argued that good art acknowledges mortality – even if artists will rarely be rewarded for reminding their viewers that we are fleshly mortals who will one day die, rather like the three caged cocks that, on the occasion I visited the Callejon de Hamel, a particular alley known for its Santería-influenced public art and dancing, mysteriously disappeared shortly after my guide, a Santería priest named Miko, had left me to take the Sunday evening service. Once again, art and religion appear in a strange, very Cuban, partnership.

In attempting to balance the local and the universal, the fleshly and the holy, perhaps art is not unlike religion; just as churches house locally commissioned altarpieces to express a universal symbolic language, so art incarnates the utopian into the real in different ways in different places. In Cuba, it seemed, there was a particularly distinctive balance. To take four examples of Cuban art more or less at random from the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, which might be seen as testimony to the critical power of localised symbology, Esterio Segura’s Santo de paeso por el trópico (1991) is a life-size sculpture of St Sebastian, but pierced not by arrows but machetes (as used in the C19th war of liberation against Spain, and thus symbolic of liberation). Rubén Torres Lorca’s Esta es tu obra (‘This is thy work’) (1989) is a magnificent altarpiece to the complexity of Cuban religious life – some 30 different iconographic symbols with appropriate devotional texts derived from both Santería and Christian popular culture adorn a stepped monument, while the bust of Lenin at the top contrives at the same time to criticise the inappropriateness of the imposition of Stalinist-style communism upon the rich regional culture of Cuba. Roberto Diago’s Virgen de la Caridad (1946) is a highly stylised, faux-naif painting of the patron Virgin of Cuba (also identified with the Santería goddess Oshún) that exhibits an expressive syncretism that could only come from Cuba.

And finally, for me the biggest discovery was the artist and sculptor Antonia Eiriz, the daughter of Galician immigrants who, before being silenced by the regime in the late 60s, developed a remarkable expressionist style in which to record the hopes and fears of her fellow Cubans. Notable especially is her extraordinarily powerful Annunciation of 1964, where a worn-out Mary, here no young virgin but a toothless seamstress, slumps back, away from the sewing machine which evidently has been occupying her for far too long; the angel Gabriel is skeletal, and reaches out a bony hand towards her breast. Clearly, the artist implies, the great Utopian promise of the Cuban revolution is – even in 1964 – threatened with abortion.

Whether we inhabit the small island super-prison of Cuba or the increasingly barren plains of modernity, we all dream Utopian dreams of escape only to plunge back into mortality.


Charles Pickstone

An edited version will appear in the Spring issue of Art and Christianity.