If a fascination with the Otherness of the East is Orientalism, is a fascination with the Otherness of Cuba called Meridianism? Cubanism? Carribeanism? Certainly not Castroism. At any rate, Cuba is a mysterious country that seems to exist more in the mythic imagination with figures and concepts that loom larger than life: monsterized dictatorial communist leader Castro; folklorish revolutionary hero Che Guevara; the poor, proud, and very literate populace; baseball players and artists who build rafts made of sticks and prayers to float across the Caribbean in hopes of reaching Miami; pork sandwiches and siestas; hot sweaty sensual Cubano rhythms. What is Cuba to those of us who see it only from afar, knowing it through sound bites, CDs, and independent films like Strawberry and Chocolate? Cuba is a place that exists in my imagination, a Caribbean Island I may never see, but one whose politics seem to make the news weekly.
The realization that the Cuba I think I know exists only in my mind is precisely why the Cuba! Art and History from 1868 to Today exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is so striking. It brings over 450 works from this mysterious country to the public, most on loan from Havana’s Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. The rest of the work is drawn from the Fototeca de Cuba, the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum and many private collections. The works cover a range of media, though photography and painting predominate.
The exhibit is organized into five sections, and the visitor travels through time, passing from room to room. The first sets of rooms show Cuba’s earliest interaction with various western powers of the day -- the ousting of the Spanish and the sugar plantation overlords, the US arrival on the scene, and subsequent periods of interference. Then, it moves onto Cuba’s romance with revolution, a celebration of Communism and an embrace of Socialist spirit. An especially interesting room of propagandistic posters and photos relate to Cuba’s revolution and the arrival of Castro on the scene. Then, the exhibit turns to the present, where more modern influences are visible. The embargo by the US and the collapse of the USSR are evident more in a mood shift, rather than overt criticism.
For a country that sees so inaccessible and unfamiliar today, the artists show considerable familiarity with the global art world. For example, Wilfredo Lam (1902-82) paints surreal and cubist figures in the style of Picasso. The interwar futurist avant-garde drawings and paintings of Marcelo Pogolotti celebrate the unity of workers as one mass. There are numerous other artists to celebrate here. Furthermore, the exhibition demonstrates an incredible tolerance towards art styles and innovation.
Of course, it is difficult to recognize Cuba’s artistic achievements without noting that exiled artists or reference to them is notably absent. There is almost no suggestion of dissatisfaction with Castro or the present state of affairs. The absence of such works makes a loud statement.