Many of us have seen Cuban silkscreen posters, featuring films or revolutionary campaigns from the 60s and 70s., recognised internationally now as design classics – with their powerful, yet simple designs.
This rare exhibition in the UK begs the question: What's happening in printmaking in Cuba today?
The answer seems to be – everything but times have changed. Since the beginning of the 1980s, printmaking as the rest of Cuban contemporary art has become more conceptual, more critical and more challenging of the public. The 80s saw a burst of experimentation, performance art, use of natural and found materials, use of video. The very first Havana Biennal took place in 1984 – dedicated to art from Cuba but also from other developing world countries, excluded at that time from the international scene. Many members of the ‘Volumen 1' group of artists formed in the early ‘80s, went on to teach art at the Superior Institute of Art (ISA) and in turn produced some very creative and questioning students in the 90s.
One of these artists who emerged from ISA in the 90s is Sandra Ramos, co- curator of ‘Cuban Gold' (jointly with London based Cuban artist David Palacios). Sandra has for years produced narrative prints featuring her alter ego, Alice (in wonderland) or a young pioneer, apprehensive, reflecting uncertainty about the future. Sandra and other artists formed ‘La Huella Multiple' Project in 1996 aiming to bring together the best graphic works produced in Cuba by established and emerging artists – venturing beyond traditional printmaking to incorporate digital art, photography, performance, video and installations. ‘Cuban Gold' is a selection of works from that project, and others, representing more than 20 artists.
Many of the pieces are subtle, funny, intriguing and beautiful, some using historical some religious references with no overt political message, more personal or universal themes. Approaching Janet Brosard's life size etching of an elderly couple standing together on their front step gives you a warm feeling about compromise and survival of relationships – until you read the title: "Ah George, I hate you."
Established artist Luis Gomez's ‘Jules Verne's Bedroom' is a set of 4 colour prints of grand hotel bedrooms which appear to have been printed onto pages from a mechanics manual with diagrams, instructions and names of parts all in 4 languages but not Spanish. They create a seductive space about travel, but disorientating if we can't understand what the instructions are for, nor how to follow them.
Abel Barroso's ‘Pantalla Plana/Flat Screen' is an intriguing and funny piece, a hand sculpted wooden computer screen, referencing Cubans' ability to create something from nothing, particularly learned during 1990s' Special Period but also perhaps referring to frustrations with the computer's limitations.
Osmeivy Ortega's ‘American Dreams' are printed on hand made fabric, to look like domestic wall hangings – but the images and text collide to question expectations – how real Cuban life cannot match up to an idealised and white US movie version. "I don't understand" say a white wedding couple embracing in snow.
Catch the exhibition now:
‘Cuban Gold: Viva la Reproduccion' is on at London Print Studio until 4 June 2011. Tues-Sat 10.30am-6pm. Free admission. 425 Harrow Road, London W10 4RE www.londonprintstudio.org.uk
Review appeared in CubaSi magazine Spring 2011 issue.