Cuban Video Artists at CAM

A Cuban living room environment is the setting for watching unique videos on contemporary life in Cuba.


Excerpt from the video “Cubiertas de deseos” (“Covers of Yearnings”) by Grethell Rasúa of Cubans doing their best to paint over decaying facades.  It is part of the exhibition Occupying, Building,Thinking: Poetic and Discursive Perspectives on Contemporary Cuban Video Art at the USF Contemporary Art Museum.


By Barbara Meledez

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (June 24, 2013) – Curious about modern-day life in Cuba?  You can arrange a visit right on campus at the University of South Florida’s Contemporary Art Museum.


A new exhibition, Occupying, Building,Thinking: Poetic and Discursive Perspectives on Contemporary Cuban Video Art (1990-2010), looks at Cuban society from multiple perspectives.


“The artists speak with a great variety of voices,” said Noel Smith, CAM’s curator of education and Latin America and Caribbean Art, who curated the exhibition. “Their concerns are about the state of their country and their society.” 


Twenty-two artists, some very well-known, contributed videos of varying lengths – 37 seconds to 13 minutes. Most of the artists are still based in Cuba but many have worked throughout the world.


Cuban art critic Dennys Matos came up with the concept and curated the videos which were first presented at Centro Cultural Español Miami (CCEM) last September.


“Dennys has put a particular emphasis on what the artists have to say about the place of the individual within that country, where the public and the private have been supplanted by the State,” Smith explained.


Matos, who moved to Miami from Madrid last year, came to Smith’s attention via Dagoberto Rodriguez of the Cuban art duo Los Carpinteros, who first exhibited at CAM in 2005. He is an independent curator and writes art criticism for the Spanish version of the Miami Herald. Smith invited him to USF and he brought with him his compilation of videos. 


“Our Director Margaret Miller and I loved them, and thought they would be a great introduction to Cuban video for our community. While we have presented quite a bit of Cuban contemporary art at the CAM, we haven't paid much attention to video.”


With that decision made, the next challenge was creating the right atmosphere. 


The solution required the contribution of yet another artist – a Cuban-American herself.


“I had the idea to make an environment to show the videos in, a kind of Cuban living room that would contextualize the videos a bit and also provide a cozy seating space for viewers,” Smith said. “We were lucky to have sculptor Vanessa Diaz, a recent MFA graduate (from the USF School of Art and Art History), who created just the kind of ambiance I was looking for.


“I had been following her work since she entered the MFA program three years ago. The opportunity to work with a young, emerging artist whom I had watched develop over the past few years was a very gratifying experience for me.”


Smith said the idea of creating such an environment was a curatorial experiment.


“We generally try to be more experimental in our summer shows and have some fun and take some risks. The concurrent show at CAM, Paul Robinson: Form of Absence, is a beautiful exercise in recreating metaphorically the living space of a celebrated Slovenian architect using diverse cast, carved, painted, printed and photographic elements. We certainly will continue to strive to offer new, exciting and relevant exhibitions that interest and challenge us all.”


The Cuban presentation is divided into three sections. Comfortable chairs next to tables and art on the walls give visitors the chance to feel at home. A gate of the type typically found in Havana hangs in the air.  Occupying, building and thinking are the themes explored in distinct sections.


“We have one large screen where all three sections of the videos are shown in one loop, that's about an hour and a half. Then we have three separate monitors, each with one of the separate sections. So people can sit and watch for a shorter period.”


And she’s happy with the response.


“I am gratified to see people sitting down and watching the videos, and to observe that they look comfortable and interested.”


Smith has travelled to Cuba many times and worked extensively with Cuban artists over the past 13 years. 


“First I always want people to recognize the very high quality of art that Cuban contemporary artists produce,” she said. ”Their education is rigorous and they are prepared to compete on the international stage on both formal and thematic levels. This particular group of artists is very diverse in terms of their ages and the times in which they grew up.


“There have been many shifts in the political and economic climate of Cuba between the eras of the artists who came up in the 1980s and those who are just emerging now in the 2000s.” she added. “For example, because of technological challenges, Cuban artists came late to using video compared to artists in more advanced countries. So established artists such as Lázaro Saavedra, José Toirac and Juan Carlos Alom began to use video later in their careers, while the younger artists such as Yaima Carrazana, Celia González and Adrián Melis have always had video as part of their practices.” 


Each artist’s vision is unique.


“In ‘I Stroll with My Grandfather,’ Jairo Alfonso takes us on a charming stroll through the village where he grew up with his grandfather, yet we see the depredations of poverty and industrialization on the countryside.


“In ‘Covers of Yearnings,’ Grethell Rasúa shows us ordinary people painting the outside of their apartments in bright colors, yet the paint is but a brave face on buildings that are deteriorating from neglect; she shows us people doing the best they can with what they have. Several of the videos are very political, and transcend Cuba to be universal.


“Carlos Garaicoa, in ‘I don’t want to see my neighbors anymore,’ deals with the idea of walls and their divisive effects – beginning with the wall that he built around his own house – he shows us walls that separate countries and peoples worldwide.”


All point to the artists’ disappointment with various aspects of the Cuban Revolution. 


“I feel they give a very good idea of contemporary life in Cuba,” Matos said. He grew up and attended school with several of the artists and kept in touch with them over the years after moving to Spain. “The idea was to make a chart of the phenomenon of contemporary video art in contrast with other visual art forms such as painting and photography which have received attention.”


He pointed out that no one else so far has documented the evolution of Cuban video art. The plan is to offer the exhibition for travel to other institutions.


“Meeting and working with Dennys has been great,” Smith said. “He is such an accomplished curator, writer and critic. Working with him has really broadened my horizons and he has contributed quite a lot to our understanding of Cuban art and of video in general. Showing the work of so many artists whom we haven’t shown here before is terrific.”


Occupying, Building,Thinking: Poetic and Discursive Perspectives on Contemporary Cuban Video Art (1990-2010) is on view through Aug. 3. USFCAM. is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Saturdays from 1 to 4 p.m. For more information call (813) 974-4133.


Barbara Meledez can be reached at 813-974-4563.