The scholar and author on Cuban contemporary art and how changing US-Cuba diplomacy may impact the art world.
Glenda Salazar, Producción, 2009. Installation: 700 balls of earth, American lettuces, water.
When presidents Obama and Castro made near-simultaneous announcements, in December 2014, about a detente in Cold War-era foreign policy that had stymied diplomatic relationships between the United States and Cuba for nearly six decades, tea-leaf readers and armchair analysts from nearly every sector emerged on both sides of the Florida Straits to offer their predictions and projections on how “The Change” would reverberate. These predictions did not exclude the art world: gallerists, curators, auctioneers, and journalists all spoke about an anticipated boom in the showing and sale of Cuban art.
Less prominent in their analyses, however, was a consideration of the ways in which the so-called “normalization” might impact the very concept of the “art world” in Cuba, and in Havana in particular, as well as artists’ interests, opportunities, and economic status. Given that art had an elevated role within the Cuban Revolution, it was inevitable that any large-scale changes in Cuba’s economic system and social organization would impact artists. (Changes to Cuba’s economics had been underway for several years, thanks to reforms instituted by Raúl Castro after presidential power was transferred to him from his brother, Fidel, in 2006.) As Cuba began to “open” to Americans, certain differences became evident, among them the increasing pervasiveness of and access to technology, especially the Internet, and a greater variety and quantity of goods. The themes, imagery, and preoccupations visible in Cuban art, meanwhile, are only beginning to show evidence of these shifts, as the art is subjected to a growing variety of influences.
When Rachel Price started writing her recently published book in 2013, Planet/Cuba: Art, Culture, and the Future of the Island (Verso, 2015), she had no idea that its release would be so timely. She had certainly been observing changes on the island over the course of more than fifteen years; in fact, Planet/Cuba is, in large part, about the transitions the island’s physical environment has undergone since the collapse of Cuba’s relationship with the former Soviet Union. That rupture precipitated an era of hardship in Cuba that is referred to as “El Período Especial” (“The Special Period”) and, more recently, massive economic reforms. Price examines, for instance, how the abrupt decline of the sugar industry made way for the invasive plant species marabú, and the ways in which marabú has impacted the Cuban landscape. She looks at how climate change is felt in a more tangible, accelerated sense on an island whose citizens can’t ignore pending environmental disaster. She considers how consumption and an increasing demand for fossil fuels will affect—and is already affecting—the waters around Cuba, where deep-water oil explorations have occurred. And, most interestingly, she examines all of these developments through the lens of creative production: how artists and writers representing a variety of genres, including digital media, are interpreting and reacting to their changing environment.
I met Price in a café in Manhattan, just a few blocks away from a gallery that had mounted an exhibit of contemporary Cuban art. We then visited the exhibition together to talk about how all of the changes she has observed, as well as those still unfolding in the wake of “normalization” talks, are being felt by artists and recorded in Cuban art. Recognizing that her own work maps a terrain that is so particular, so unlikely to be immediately familiar to most American readers, we began by discussing how Planet/Cuba made it into print and how we can locate Cuba on, in her words, “a more visible map”—one in which geographical, economic, environmental, and, yes, artistic boundaries are all shifting.
—Julie Schwietert Collazo for Guernica
Guernica: Your book is incredibly specific, about a particular aspect of cubanidad [Cuban-ness] but also about Cuban art, this intersection of art and environment. I’m curious about how you became interested in that intersection.
Rachel Price: I first got interested in a circuitous way. I had done a lot of work on Brazilian concrete art and digital art and I was in Cuba in 2010 at a conference on new media and art, and I saw a really interesting presentation about Cuban video game art by an artist and curator named Rewell Altunaga. I was really struck by the fact that even though there’s so little Internet—especially then—and not even that many books coming into the art schools, he had access to very cutting-edge, North American video game art, which is kind of obscure.
I met with him and he showed me a catalogue he’d done called El Extremo de la Bala, which had a sort of snapshot of a hundred very young Cuban artists. As I was looking through it, I noticed that there were some works interested in the environment. I know [the environment] is something on a lot of our minds, but Cubans have a lot to worry about that’s not the environment, so I was very interested in this engagement with the land.
At the same time, I was meeting with a curator named Samuel Riera who used to be a designer, who now has a gallery in Havana. He dated [this interest in the land] very much to the change [of power] from Fidel to Raúl, and he said that it was an abandonment of all these messianic, solidarity, international projects of the ’70s and ’80s. When Raúl took over it was much more about local, national problems, and even sort of an abandonment of Cuba as this kind of icon. It was really like, “Let’s get down to work and figure out what’s happening in our own land.” And so for Samuel, that was an invitation to focus on much more local problems, and that’s when he started this magazine in 2006, Marabusál, which I talk about [in Planet/Cuba]. It was a type of conceptual art project in which [Samuel and a collective of artists] asked for land from the government that was given over to the [invasive species of] weed, marabú. They tried to convert it into a sort of ecological community. He became totally disillusioned when it didn’t work. Everybody stole the parts because they really needed the elements more than the art—they didn’t even understand that it was art. And so he went on to do other things and returned to the more typical art world.
Guernica: Samuel’s story is poignant because of that element of utopic hopefulness. In the book, you also mention that his laptop was stolen in Venezuela, so all of the plans for the magazine and the community were lost and the artists who were collaborating with him abandoned their plan.
Rachel Price: Right. It’s interesting to think about that shift in some of those terms: What did it mean for certain artists to give up those questions of a certain kind of globalization and then focus on a very different one? I started looking into different issues and began encountering more and more works along those lines [of preoccupation with the environment]. But I also think that it was my own sense—you know, I wrote this between 2013 and 2015, right before the announcement [about the changes in US-Cuba foreign policy]; I mean, I finished it two days before the announcement. So I’m not saying I was prescient, I did not see the normalization coming, but on the other hand, I did see that the economy is totally in ruins and something is going to radically change and make use of this very abandoned agriculture besides tourism. So I was also thinking about what the engagement was going to be with the future of the island. Those were my own concerns about what was going to happen with the future of Cuba.
US policy toward Cuba [at the time] had two tracks. Track 1 was to assassinate Fidel Castro. Track 2 was to subvert the regime through people-to-people contact.
Guernica: Was 2010 the first time you visited Cuba?
Rachel Price: I started going to Cuba in 1998. I worked for three years between college and graduate school at the Social Science Research Council, which at the time had a working group on Cuba, designed to facilitate collaboration between US and Cuban academics. US policy toward Cuba [at the time] had two tracks. Track 1 was to assassinate Fidel Castro. Track 2 was to subvert the regime through people-to-people contact. One of the casualties of this system was that all collaborations were suspect because you could be trying to do people-to-people contact. What we were trying to do was allow for genuine academic collaboration, despite track 2.
I worked for them for three years and I would go [to Cuba] every three months to do these workshops, so I got to know the libraries and archives really well. That made me more interested in working [on this topic]. And then I did a PhD in comparative literature so I continued to work on Cuba off and on.
Guernica: Let’s talk about how Cuban art has been presented and represented in the United States in relation to the production of art and what you’re seeing in Cuba. I’d argue that there’s still a limited frame around what constitutes Cuban art here. Is one opportunity in this changing landscape of US-Cuba foreign relations the possibility of seeing a bigger picture of Cuban art?
Rachel Price: I’m curious: If you had to summarize how you feel Cuban art is imagined or presented here, how would you do that?
Guernica: I think there’s an artistic equivalent to the way Cuba is represented photographically in the media here—we associate Cuba photographically with old cars, and rum, and cigars. And in art, the equivalent of that is the palm trees, the ocean, things that are clearly of symbolic value and concern. It’s clear why they are part of the symbology, but that’s the extent of it. A “Cuban art” show here is palm trees and water and horizons and ruined architecture.
Rachel Price: I instinctively shied away from that imagery [in the book] because I just didn’t find it that interesting. One of the changes I was marking in the book was that some of that imagery is more [properly ascribed] to the Special Period of the 1990s, the post-Soviet emergence of Cuba as a post-Communist Caribbean island [where] the ideology continued to be visible in posters and slogans, but life had long since departed from that. So it was folklorically interesting, but, on the ground, Cuban art has always been beyond that. A lot of the artists in the book have had residencies in Amsterdam, Spain, Switzerland, China, and elsewhere; they’re showing just as contemporary artists. But I think in the US they’re shown as Cuban artists.
Guernica: Right. We’re situating this entirely as a relationship between the US and Cuba, which is in many ways problematic because the whole rest of the world has continued to have relationships with Cuba. Is the fact that we’re restricted in what we’re seeing with respect to Cuban art in the US a function of what gallerists are interested in and, to a certain extent, this commercial element, too—this Cuba that we want to see?
Rachel Price: The really great gallerists have always been interested in imagery that is not that imagery. I feel that that some of the better-known Cuban artists, like Tania Bruguera or Carlos Garaicoa, don’t get shunted into that kind of category.
Guernica: There’s this bifurcation: this common, consistent imagery we’ve talked about, but also outliers—within the US concept of Cuban art—like Tania Bruguera, who’ve become something of a commodity here in many ways.
Rachel Price: But I feel like Tania Bruguera and select other artists have managed to transcend the category of “Cuban artist.” Tania is just a contemporary conceptual artist, or contemporary performance artist, or relational artist. In part, she went to the Art Institute [in Havana] and she was early on enmeshed in global circuits that didn’t confine her to that label. And her work doesn’t only engage Cuban reality. Everywhere she goes, she engages with the local conditions.
He feels like the only people who are worried about the absolutely marginalized [are in] the art world, a certain kind of community engagement.
Guernica: Do you think that what we see here and what’s marketed here as Cuban art is a function of gallerists running a particular circuit in Cuba and, in particular, Havana? Are they likely, for example, to meet someone like Samuel Riera and the “art brut” artists he represents?
Rachel Price: There’s been a diversification of the circuit. So Samuel Riera, who was kind of marginal and almost proudly so, had a show in a gallery on the Lower East Side last winter. He came to New York. People who actually were out of the typical circuit have started making connections and alliances and their work has started circulating. So there has been a diversification in general in the face of Cuban art.
I was [in Cuba] last week and I met with Riera and we were talking about his projects and about the way in which, to date, the normalization has very much been occurring from above—between the two governments. I’m incredibly enthusiastic about the normalization, I think it’s very promising. But I do think there are some worrisome aspects. For example, in Mariel, the port where one of the first US companies has agreed to assemble tractors: the standards are still that Cubans will not earn [fair] salaries. So Samuel Riera and I were talking about all this and he said he feels like the socialist now because he’s trying to actually follow up with these people who are being totally excluded from everything. And the rhetoric is that the state is the socialist state, which it isn’t.
Guernica: And in a way never has been.
Rachel Price: Right. He feels like the only people who are worried about the absolutely marginalized [are in] the art world, a certain kind of community engagement. That was an interesting perspective.
Guernica: Where do artists figure into the whole panorama of “The Change,” particularly within this commercial landscape?
Rachel Price: Well, it’s interesting: I found out when I was there last week that Galleria Continua, an Italian gallery, just signed a lease on an abandoned movie theatre in Barrio Chino [Havana’s Chinatown] and they’re opening their own outpost there. This represents the first presence of international galleries in Havana. I feel like Havana has always been such an amazing, cosmopolitan city that it makes sense that a lot of galleries will want to be present.
On the other hand, I do wonder if it will spell the end of this kind of golden period for Cuban artists. As you know, in the 1990s [artists] were among the first to be allowed to leave the island and keep their money in dollars. Now everyone can kind of do that sort of thing but Cuban artists had, for a while, a privileged position within Cuba that is probably going to become slightly less restricted to them. I think they’ll continue to join the international art world, so those people who are extremely successful will become even more so and those who are struggling will continue to struggle. In general, these kinds of increased access and communication can only be for the good, but I think this special protected niche that Cuban artists had will disappear.
Guernica: There is that excitement, but there’s also, among some people, this lament that a particular brand of Cuban creativity, one fueled by the need to be ingenious due to scarcity and limited resources, is going to disappear. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Rachel Price: I think it’s a minority of the really interesting works that trade on the particularity of recycled parts, for example. But what I think will disappear is free time, the ocio, which has the side effect of allowing collaborations and investment in your art practice to happen. That will probably diminish.
Guernica: Here in the US we often talk about the disconnect between the gallery and the public. What are you seeing with respect to gallery dynamics in Havana?
Rachel Price: There aren’t that many galleries in Havana. There are a few state galleries and an ever-increasing but still limited number of independent galleries; there’s no comparison with the number in New York. The leading state gallery is similar to what you might expect from, say, a Chelsea gallery with respect to who it might attract and the tone. But I think some of the more independent galleries are similar to some of the younger galleries in New York, where there’s a more porous relationship to the public and they show younger artists and they’re more accessible. What do you see in Havana that you think is different?
Guernica: In Havana, I see less of viewer as performer; my sister-in-law, for example, doesn’t go to an opening in Havana as a capital A-L “Art Lover.” Everyone is a part of the scene in a way because of the Cuban Revolution’s emphasis on the arts, so there’s not the sense that you have to have a certain background or critical appreciation. There’s the enjoyment of art for art’s sake rather than going to show how erudite you are.
Rachel Price: I would agree with that.
Guernica: Let’s discuss the role of the state in Cuban art. We’ve talked a bit about Tania Bruguera, who has been detained by the police on more than one occasion, but there’s also the more recent example of El Sexto, an artist who was detained and imprisoned by the state. I want to hear about the positives of the state’s role in art, but also about the notion of intervention and attention and art as a threat.
Rachel Price: I was surprised about El Sexto, because it felt so anachronistic. What could the [state] possibly be afraid of at this point? An interesting anecdote about this book is that a friend in Cuba asked me to bring a printed copy of it and at customs, they took me aside. I had also brought all this equipment because I was doing this show about video game art—and so I thought, Oh, I’m going to have to pay all these importations. But they weren’t interested in that. They pulled me aside and said, “We want to talk with you about your documents.” And I said, “What documents?” And it was my manuscript. They said, “What is this?” And I said, “Oh, it’s a book about Cuban art,” and I sort of emphasized the ecological aspect, thinking it wouldn’t upset anyone. And they said, “Why are you talking about Raúl Castro?” And I said, “Oh, it’s for context. Do you want me to translate some of it for you?” I just randomly translated some parts as I wished and then it was fine. But when I was researching some of the work in Camagüey state security came twice to the house where I was staying to ask about what I was doing.
On the one hand, that makes the case of El Sexto seem like part of a continuum. But this time, when I arrived in Cuba, nobody even batted their eyes. But that’s why the cases of repression that do continue to happen—where the role of the state is everything that has been true, continues to be true—need to be understood. I do think self-censorship and censorship is less now.
But I feel like fear is very embedded and it’s still there. Allowing certain subjects to be treated in certain contexts, and by certain artists, can be okay.
Guernica: One of the issues that has been discussed in mainstream media is how the normalization of US-Cuba relations is likely to affect Afro-Cubans. Do you have any thoughts about how normalization might affect Afro-Cuban artists in terms of visibility in the art world, abilities to exhibit abroad, and actual economic gains? Are Afro-Cuban artists on the margins now? Are they likely to stay on the margins?
Rachel Price: It’s a good question. Sometimes when I think about this question and about what’s happening in terms of racial inequalities, I really want to see more data. In terms of concrete inequalities, it probably is true that as these market reforms increase, it will exaggerate racialized inequality.
In terms of the art world, I don’t know. I feel like because black Cuban artists don’t have the kind of pressure to thematize race in the way that African-American artists do, there’s more space for them to do their art without having to discuss it in terms of racial identity. I think there are Afro-Cuban artists present and participating in all of the spheres of art—from the very elite to the very marginal—but I can only imagine that racial inequality is replicated in the art world and will only be increasingly so. Have you seen anything that made you curious about this?
Guernica: I haven’t, but when I think about the Cuban artists whose work comes to the US, they’re white and privileged, relatively speaking.
Rachel Price: But I think you see that in a lot of strata.
Guernica: Absolutely. Regardless of what one’s feelings are about the Revolution, one thing we’ve learned from it is how durable class systems are. Despite the best, most ambitious, most aggressive efforts to level the playing field or eradicate class strata, it’s so entrenched. And of course, the art world replicates that, subtly and not so subtly.
Rachel Price: In my most optimistic moments, I think there’s so much in this transformation that’s yet to unfold and there really is a space for a lot of different actors to take a role in shaping what happens. And because there’s such a long tradition of the arts being very prominent and very varied in Cuban culture and society, people do use the art world as a space for critical reflection and people look to it for that. I think the art world will continue to be a place where people have a certain freedom and creativity to think about what’s happening in Cuba.
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