The artist Antonio Eligio Fernández—better known as Tonel—has long had a curatorial as well as artistic interest in the contemporary Cuban art scene. With curator Keith Wallace, Tonel organized The Spaces Between: Contemporary Art from Havana, on view through April 13 at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
Participating artists include Juan Carlos Alom, Javier Castro, Sandra Ceballos Obaya, Celia-Yunior, Ricardo G. Elías, Luis Gárciga Romay, Luis Gómez Armenteros, Jesús Hdez-Güero, Ernesto Leal, Glenda León, Eduardo Ponjuán González, Grethell Rasúa, Lázaro Saavedra González, and Jorge Wellesley.
In an email interview, Tonel talked about the ideas behind the exhibition and its two-year development, from concept to opening.
Tell us about The Spaces Between. How did the show come about?
The Spaces Between is an exhibition that grew out of my experiences as a participant and observer of the Havana art scene, from reflections on what happens in that city within and beyond art, and above all thinking about the history of the last fifteen years, approximately. Crucially, the exhibition was shaped by my discussions with Canadian editor, art critic, and longtime curator Keith Wallace, especially after 2005, when I settled in Vancouver. Keith and I have known each other since 1997, when he was the director of the Contemporary Art Gallery director here in Vancouver, and in that capacity served as one of the co-commissioners—along with Scott Watson, Eugenio Valdés, and Juan Antonio Molina—of Utopian Territories, a group exhibition of Cuban art presented that year in several of the most important galleries in Vancouver.
Three or four years ago Keith and I started thinking about an exhibition that would bring together Chinese and Cuban art since the 1980s. In 2004, I worked on an exhibition with that focus (titled Rogue Nations: Cuban and Chinese Artists) in MACLA (Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana), an art space in San Jose, California. Since then, I’ve wanted to do another, similar project. Keith is an Asian art expert and edits magazines in that field (currently as editor of Yishu Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art), so the idea was attractive for him. In the end, for reasons not relevant here, we decided to focus on art made in Havana since the late 1990s. In that way, The Spaces Between brings to the Vancouver audiences a body of work that could be seen as a continuation of what was covered in Utopian Territories. It’s a partial look at what’s happened in the Havana art scene after those 1997 Vancouver exhibitions.
How would you describe the theme of the exhibition?
The exhibition doesn’t have a unified theme, unless we think of it as being Havana and its art. But it’s not even that, because we haven’t gathered examples of everything that’s buzzing today (and certainly not all that glitters) in the Havana art scene. We began by observing the art done in the city, talking to artists and critics, visiting studios and exhibitions, gathering information. This preliminary work was part of my natural interactions with Havana’s art environment. By 2005 or 2006, I was spotting new trends in several shows in Cuba. Some I saw in videos, in catalogues, and in magazine and newspaper articles published on the island.
In my initial discussions with Keith, and more precisely after his return to Havana in 2012 (after a nine-year absence), we identified economic, social, political, and cultural issues that the current art was exploring: the growing importance of money and capital; the ups and downs of the economy and the impact on different levels of society; citizens´ strategies for dealing with bureaucracy and over-regulation of personal and family life; the language, the euphemisms, the many ways of hiding and obfuscating what is being said; the deepening of a national identity at a “granular” level, going into detail in terms of race, gender, class, communities of all kinds; the rediscovery of nature, a nature that often finds its way into the urban environment, which may make us think of the ruralization of the city, and the constant transformation of the architectural and urban heritage—a process that seems in tune with the bodies, the physical and spiritual humanity of those living in the city. These are some of the topics that the art itself revealed to us, so we decided to follow these multiple tracks. And then we came upon the artists and works included in The Spaces Between.
How did you select the artists? What were the criteria?
I think I’ve partly answered this question, but I can perhaps talk about it a little bit more. One of the fundamental goals of our selection process has been to put together a collection of works that, once gathered together, could engage in a dialogue–perhaps unexpected for the artists, spectators and sometimes also for ourselves, the organizers. We chose works that would facilitate productive discussions and offer contrasting perspectives, and in doing so, would complement and support each other. I think that creating a group show is mostly inventing a poetic space where viewers can be immersed in a conversation with works among diverse, supplementary, and serendipitous standpoints. This doesn’t diminish the value of each artwork. But it is essential to facilitate networks, exchanges between works resulting from different intellects, and to see the project as a whole rather than as a sum of separate, individual units.
How do you see the artists’ work playing off each other in the show? How do they contribute to this coherent whole?
To create these networks I referred to, the works need to be incorporated into a real and an imaginary itinerary—real in terms of physical traffic through the gallery, imaginary as to what happens in the minds of viewers—suggested by us, the curators, and clearly influenced by Keith´s and my own interpretations.
How does this manifest itself in the specific works? I could describe part of the assembly in the first gallery, starting with the video Habana solo (2000) by Juan Carlos Alom, which is a sort of a symbolic introduction to the exhibition. This work connects the 20th century to the 21st, the tradition of classic Cuban photography and cinema of the 1960s with more recent sensibilities. It allows us to introduce, from the beginning of the show, several of these thematic lines I’ve referred to. In Alom´s video, the protagonists are Habaneros of all races, ages, genders, and sizes, overflowing in their expressiveness and gestures, inseparable from the architectural environment: city and people merge into a single entity until the incredible end of the film, when the soundtrack is muted while a man dances with the city, and for her. These characters are immersed in everyday realities: they are people working, walking, sweating, laughing, and fighting. They lead us, thanks to Alom´s camera, through a dramatic, fluid, changing space that we traverse, always at the hands of some of the most important musicians of the last decades in Cuba, including Frank Emilio, Tata Guines, Enrique Lázaga, and José Luis Cortés.
Very near Habana solo, exhibition visitors find some of [Eduardo] Ponjuán´s drawings, focused on the representation of gold and money—the latter seen as pure object, reduced to monochromatic icon—which can be interpreted as an incisive reflection on the socioeconomic realities Alom addresses so vertiginously. Ponjuán, on the other hand, urges us to imagine a future in which the links between paper money, precious metals, and the economic structure of the nation could be much clearer for its citizens. Alom shows us the people inhabiting this reality in a circuit where gold and money are every day more important: they’re the ones scrabbling to make a living in whatever way they can, moving among the crumbling buildings, jumping into the sea from the malecón.
To complete a triangle with these works, in front of Habana solo are 12 photos from Ricardo Elías´ series Oro seco (Dry Gold, 2005-09). This is a collection of stunning images, all documenting the abandonment and ruin of the architecture and machinery that served as the backbone of sugar production on the island. The contraction of the sugar industry is a key aspect of the “Special Period,” and in documenting this process Elías reveals a different side of the cultural and economic reality that Ponjuán and Alom approach from other angles. These relationships, between one artwork and another, and between several of them, are suggested throughout the show. In the best case, we emphasize connections fostered by the works as they were conceived and motivated by common experiences that were to some extent shared by all the artists.
How long did it take to put the show together, from initial concept to the opening? What were the challenges?
Keith Wallace and I worked on this idea for about two and a half years, from the initial decision to propose the project to the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, here in Vancouver at the University of British Columbia, to the day we opened the exhibition there on January 9, 2014. The challenges in designing and making this exhibition are not very different from those usually faced in this work: to convince institutions to participate, to raise the funds that would permit us to move forward with the highest possible level of professionalism, etc. Perhaps an additional challenge is the geographic distance between Vancouver, a city on the northwest coast of North America, and Havana. This forced us to plan our visits to the island for maximum efficiency and productivity.
What do you hope the exhibition will achieve?
Locally, in the case of Vancouver, we hope that the exhibition will help maintain public interest in Cuban contemporary art. In presenting Utopian Territories in 1997, the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery began a sustained relationship with Cuban art and culture. Following that event, works by contemporary Cuban artists joined the gallery’s permanent collection. That exhibition was followed by additional solo and group shows that featured the work of Cuban artists; I had the honor of being invited to present a solo show, Lecciones de Soledad (2000), which had Eugenio Valdés and Scott Watson as curators. The Belkin also exhibited Certain Encounters (2006), a selection of works from the Daros Latin American collection, curated by Keith Wallace, with works by Iván Capote, Manuel Piña, Lázaro Saavedra, and Ana Mendieta, among others.
The Spaces Between is an attempt to show the complexity and richness of contemporary Cuban art, and in particular the peculiar relationship that exists between the art made in Havana and the society, economy, politics, and physical environment that these works are created in. We are also interested in presenting the Havana art scene as a process, a phenomenon of sedimentation, based on continuities but not overlooking the ruptures. In the exhibition are artists who have been teachers of other artists in the show. This project spans different generations: well known figures from the 1980s, such as Saavedra, Ernesto Leal, Sandra Ceballos, and Ponjuán, and artists who have emerged in the last five years, such as Celia-Yunior and Grethell Rasúa. And others who, in certain moments, served to connect one phase to the next: Luis Gómez in the period ranging from the 1980s to the 1990s, or Glenda León from the 20th century to the new millennium. The exhibition reveals very different aesthetic affiliations and a wide range of genres: video art, painting, printmaking, drawing, photography, installation, and sound art.
Tell us about the catalogue, which is being published in London.
The catalog will be released by Black Dog Publishing, and we hope to come off the presses in March or April, before the exhibition closes in Vancouver. It was conceived as a book that can be understood and enjoyed independent of the exhibition—though of course, it will include detailed information on all the works, plenty of images, and a section with the artists’ biographies. It will include essays by Keith Wallace, Cecilia Andersson, the curator at the Bildmuseet, Umeå University, and myself. All essays will appear in Spanish, English, and Swedish. Currently we are working on the manuscript, and we have about 200 images—because in addition to the works on display, others by the same artists will be included, as well as historic information and illustrations, to provide data on artistic and cultural contexts as needed.
You mentioned the Bildmuseet in Sweden. The show was co-produced by that museum, at Umeå University. Will it travel there?
Indeed, the exhibition has been co-produced by the Bildmuseet. Cecilia Andersson is a curator at that institution, which is dedicated to contemporary art and culture. She met Keith Wallace for the first time during the 11th Havana Biennial in 2012, and they talked about collaborating on a project focused on Havana art—something they both had experience in. By this time Keith and I were working on what would become The Spaces Between, and we agreed that Cecilia would be informed of the ideas we were discussing and the progress of our project. The proposal that Keith and I presented was accepted by Cecilia Andersson and the Bildmuseet, and they joined as co-producers. The exhibition will be presented at Umeå University in early 2015.
In part 2 of our conversation, Tonel reflects on the current state of contemporary Cuban art, on the island and in the global art scene.
The Spaces Between: Contemporary Art from Havana runs through April 13 at the Belkin Art Gallery, University of British Columbia, and Vancouver.