Two Steps Forward: Contemporary Cuban Art

Two Steps Forward: Contemporary Cuban Art was an exhibition featuring a diverse and compelling range of works by emerging and established Cuban artists, on display April 29 – June 4, 2016.

Two Steps Forward: Contemporary Cuban Art included a significant collection of contemporary Cuban art from the private collection of Greenwich, Connecticut residents Terri and Steven Certilman. The Certilmans, who have sourced pieces directly from the artists during their travels to Cuba over the last decade, are dedicated to promoting the country’s artistic talent.

Steven Certilman offered the following insight into the Cuban art world, “The unique political, social and economic conditions in Cuba have combined to catalyze what may be the world’s highest concentration of artistic talent. Their works are as diverse as the country’s rich cultural heritage. It is said that the eyes are the windows of the soul. Art is the window to the Cuban soul.”

The painting and sculpture in the show, curated by Certilman and guest curator Arianne Faber Kolb, explored Cuban identity, its diverse cultural heritage, and the political climate and its resulting geographical isolation and emigration. The works are expressions of the soul, beauty, and fortitude of the Cuban people, and how they have met and overcome the circumstances imposed upon their lives.

The Two Steps Forward title referred to the political and artistic climate in Cuba and the thaw in relations with the United States. The lifting of travel and trade restrictions between the two countries has allowed artists to have access to more resources and to gain more exposure. However, change is slow and economic strains continue for much of the population. Thus, the title was designed to imply a reference to the adage, “two steps forward, one step back.”

Curator Arianne Faber Kolb stated, “This is the beginning of a transformational phase of Cuban art and culture. The works in the show reflect the evolution of artistic thought and expression over the past fifteen years. This exhibition presents a unique opportunity for the Westport Arts Center to highlight the work of highly talented Cuban artists and to educate the community about what it means to be Cuban on multiple levels.”

The artists represented in the exhibition included established figures, such as Abel Barroso, Luis Enrique Camejo, Manuel Mendive, Juan Roberto Diago, Jose Roberto Fabelo, and Kcho. Barroso’s wooden sculptures and intricately constructed mixed media works made of pencil shavings are witty and humorous commentaries on the economic situation. Kcho’s images of precariously stacked rafts refer to the desire and the risks involved in fleeing from one’s circumstances. Fabelo’s monumental and iconic Mermaid’s Dream depicts a sleeping figure (Cuba) detached from reality and surrounded by drifting boats.

Diago’s moving spiritual and abstract work draws on elements of his Afro-Cuban heritage in addressing issues of race, religion, and slavery. Mendive promotes his Afro-Cuban culture through his colorful art by referencing his Yoruba spirituality, Cuban history, and colonialism.

The young artists emerging on the art scene and making their mark included Joniel Leon, Harold Lopez, William Perez, and Mabel Poblet. While Leon and Lopez describe the desires of Cubans through their highly crafted drawings and paintings, Poblet and Perez make statements about the Cuban identity by employing a variety of materials in innovative ways. 

View the virtual catalog.

Featured image above: Franklin Alvarez’s Shortcut II, watercolor on paper, 2015.

Two Steps Forward  Featured Artists

Abel Barroso Arencibia (b. 1971) creates handcrafted wooden sculptures that represent the Cuban search for identity and emphasize the challenges in accessing new technologies. Barroso has exhibited at the Tate Gallery in London and the Marlborough Gallery in New York, and his work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum.

The moving and spiritual work of Juan Roberto Diago Durruthy (b. 1971) draws on elements of his Afro-Cuban religion in treating race, religion and slavery. His work has been featured in major galleries worldwide, including the Marlborough Gallery in New York. He has exhibited internationally and most recently participated in the 2015 Havana Biennial, as well as numerous group shows in the U.S. and abroad including Queloides at Centro Wilfredo Lam in Havana, and travelled to The Mattress Factory, Harvard University and the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s BAMbill Cover in 2014. He was awarded the Juan Francisco Elso Prize by the National Fine Arts Museum, Cuba and named one of “Six Contemporary Artists you Need to Know About” by Christies in 2015.

Roberto Fabelo (b. 1951) is one of Cuba’s finest artists. A master of drawing, painting, watercolor, engraving and installation, Fabelo uses portraits, grotesque figures and scenery to create works which blur the line between fantasy and reality. In 2004, he was awarded the Premio Nacional de Artes Plásticas, Cuba’s top award in fine arts.

Héctor Frank Heredia García (b. 1961) creates works primarily in an abstract or abstract figurative style. The pieces have evolved over time from works on paper, to canvas and currently repurposed wood. The artist often uses pieces of old doors or furnishings as the foundation for his projects on wood, employing other found materials to accent the paint and bring the character to life by lifting it off the background.

Manuel Mendive Hoyo’s (b. 1944) prolific work crosses many media. He uses drawing, painting, body painting, wood carving, bronze sculpture, and performance that integrates loosely choreographed dance with rhythmic music. The primary theme in his art is his recognition that African religion and African culture have shaped Cuban national identity and culture.

Harold López Muñoz (b. 1977) seeks to create an atmosphere of constant uncertainty, transmitting states of mind rather than easily identifiable events, ignoring the superfluous details and descriptions of detailed environments so that the viewers complete, from their own experience, the interpretation of the scenes that he proposes.

Manuel López Oliva (b. 1947) is both an award-winning artist and an accomplished art critic. Among many national honors, he holds the Award for Distinction in National Culture and an Honorary Degree for Artistic Merit from the Instituto Superior de Arte where he serves as a Consulting Professor. He has also received the Guy Pérez Cisneros National Prize for lifetime achievement in the field of art and cultural criticism.

William Pérez (b. 1965) is a highly acclaimed artist, who has had shows in Germany, Denmark, and Mexico. He sees himself as a creator who is constantly re-inventing himself through his development of new techniques. He strives to evolve and grow as an artist and as a conscientious contributor to society

Ibrahim Miranda Ramos’ (b. 1969) obsession with maps reflects his conscious desire to revise the map of Cuba. He creates his biomorphic landscapes on the surface of these maps almost completely obliterating any trace of the landmass below. He gives us small glimpses of the original surface, as if he is in the process of sculpting a new world over the old Cuba.

Angel Ramírez Roque (b. 1954) uses sarcasm and humor to describe life in Cuba. His art is recognizable by its clear and precise iconoclastic sagacity. He uses recycled objects, text and images, many taken from medieval times. Splendid images, sometimes accompanied by text or words bring to the fore his talent, intelligence, sense of humor and use of sarcasm which all work together to produce the visual poetry that defines his work.

About Terri and Steven Certilman: 

Terri and Steven Certilman, the principals of Discoveries in Art, have traveled the Caribbean and Latin America collecting art for more than thirty years. After many years of art hunting in Haiti, they now center their efforts in Cuba, where they find the opportunities for new and exciting art to be limitless. Founded in 2001,  their mission is to promote the artistic works and artists of Cuba and in doing so to build goodwill, understanding and respect between the people of the United States and our neighbors to the south by focusing attention on the contemporary art of Cuba and highlighting a common denominator between us all – creativity.