An installation view of The Spaces Between, with works by Juan Carlos Alom at left and Celia and Yunior at rear.
Photo by Michael R. Barrick, courtesy Belkin Art Gallery

In our previous conversation with the artist Tonel (Antonio Eligio Fernández), we spoke about The Spaces Between, the show of contemporary art from Havana, now on view in Vancouver, that he co-curated. In this segment, the conversation turns to a broader view of contemporary Cuban art, its relation to the overall art scene, and what the future might hold.

How would you describe the current art scene in Havana? Has it changed much in, say, the past five years?

Artistically, Havana has long been, and still is, an open city with a vital scene, developed in parallel with—almost never behind—processes taking place elsewhere. One proof of this is the obvious synchrony between segments of the Havana art world, represented in The Spaces Between by artists from several generations, and the types of art favored on the global art circuit. This is due in part to access to information, and to informal interchanges and coincidences. In the city, the openness about art is always accompanied by a sense, more or less accentuated, of isolation. Moreover, I know from my own experience that in Havana cultural circles, cosmopolitan qualities converge with unpleasant provincial memories and aftertastes; I don’t think this has changed much.

The artist and curator Tonel (Antonio Eligio Fernández)

In recent years, many members of the local art scene have been working with the care and attention typical of archeologists: creatively speaking, they retain and use the foundations and surviving structures of premises built and abandoned in Havana over the course of decades. In view of this, it would be advisable to refer to a cumulative renewal, rather than a series of spectacular leaps or reversals. It’s good that, in some way, the energy that gave rise to Cuban art, at least since the start of the modern tradition in the first decades of the 20th century, is kept alive. Historically, that impulse has helped to even out the priorities, to balance the intense attraction to vernacular sources against the fascination with art and cultures beyond the island.

Generally, when I think about issues that might be troubling or negative, the most pressing seems to be the way the “Special Period” and its aftermath have affected the quality of the art education system. I say this without overlooking the educational projects that have been crucial in recent decades. Nor do I dismiss the importance of those who for years have chaired the different schools. But as I understand it, a number of artists and theorists can’t or don´t want to teach according to the system; there are many reasons for this, almost all of them quite understandable. It also happens that many students, from early in the training process, focus their energies on opportunities beyond academia. I must say that my knowledge of the subject is not based on direct experience—my contact with teaching on the island is remote today. I was associated with ISA in various capacities beginning in 1980 and, being always a student of art history, for ten years (1987 – 1997) I was a thesis advisor at the Faculty of Fine Arts. My dialogues continue with various individuals, from graduate artists in recent years to others who are or have been teachers at ISA and the San Alejandro Academy. I think in education, as in other areas, the evolution of society will continue, for better or worse, to dictate the pace of change—often, of course, with unpredictable consequences.

Tonel, For a Constructive Radio, 1989/2013
Courtesy Tonel and Belkin Art Gallery

Taking a longer view, is there a way of thinking about the path of Cuban contemporary art, from the late 1970s to the present, that can offer useful insights?

I prefer to imagine the process from the late 1970s to today not as a path, as you say, but as a field of concentric circles whose area has been permeated by works and artists from different trends and generational groups. This imaginary spatial configuration of widening circles could serve as an alternative scheme to a more simplistic, linear unfolding in one direction—from the so-called “Eighties” to the “Nineties” and then to recent events and figures after 2001. Seen in this way, the chronology of Cuban art could be understood, not as a straight line but as a spiral: a process of accretion informed by constant transformation, influenced by what came before and after.

How do you see Cuban art in the context of international art? What is Cuban art—both on the island and elsewhere—contributing to the ongoing creative discourse? What would you like to see happen with Cuban art in the next five years, both on the island and internationally? What do you think will happen?

If, since its founding in 1984, the Havana Biennial has embodied the most efficient mode of interaction between Cuban art and the world beyond, from the beginnings of the 1990s, relations with the outside world have been touched by more than one historic change. Since the last decade of the 20th century, Cuba and its artists have had to learn, on the fly, how to deal with the not-always-pleasant implications of moving through a “post- socialist” and “post-Cold War” world.

We know that, for the cohort of artists hailed as leaders of the “new art” in the 1980s, it was more or less standard to emigrate and establish themselves elsewhere, above all in the United States. The artists of the 1990s—no matter where their primary residences are—have by and large maintained close ties with the Cuban art scene and art institutions. Younger generations, from 2000 to the present—no doubt observing the trajectories of artists like Los Carpinteros, Carlos Garaicoa, José Toirac, Tania Bruguera, Kcho. Abel Barroso, and Sandra Ramos—have learned that it’s possible for their art to be seen by a global public. They also know, from the experiences of these slightly older colleagues, that this broader reception of their work will influence, either before or after, the umbilical cord that binds them to the Cuban womb. To one extent or another, most of the artists who joined the Havana art scene in the 21st century and who maintain a sustained international presence—think Yoan Capote, Iván Capote, Wilfredo Prieto, Glenda León, and Duvier del Dago, among others—cultivate professional relationships, some of them quite active, with art spaces and events in Havana.

On the other hand, the experiences of Havana artists these days are in part shaped by the increasing importance and growing influence of the phenomenon known as the “glocal”—the fusion of the global and the local—and its consequences, especially the so-called “glocalization” of world culture. This situation presents us with questions that deserve some real attention. How integrated or subordinated will Cuban art be in the “glocalization” culture fostered by the globalization of capitalism? What kind of balance can we hope to achieve in this regard as we advance into the 21st century? The global situation in which Cuban art participates is to some extent characterized by the correlation between the flow of capital and opening of markets in the overall economy, and the parallel movement of artists and artworks over the borders of this selfsame world, connected by capital and growing increasingly interdependent. In the case of Cuba, it’s obvious that certain artists—inevitably, with their participation in the Havana Biennial as an indispensable biographical note—have succeeded in integrating their work into these circuits. Hopefully, the opportunity for Cuban artists to participate in the global art economy will continue to open and expand.

Tonel, Dress in Black, 2008
Courtesy Tonel and Belkin Art Gallery

Let’s turn to Tonel the artist. You started 2013 with a solo exhibition at Factoría Habana in Havana. What does 2014 hold in terms of creating and exhibiting your own work?

I’m working on an installation that I’ll present at the 8th Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art in May. It incorporates dozens of works on paper (drawings and prints), sculptural elements, several artists’ books, and sound. It’s designed for a room of about 5 x 10 meters. Each book has its own soundtrack, done in collaboration with Bob Turner, a Canadian musician and friend—viewers can hear the soundtracks when they visit the installation. The working title is Comercio (Commerce). I see it as a continuation of my interest in themes associated with the Cold War, themes that I’ve explored in individual works or whole exhibitions. Themes like the space race, the wars in the second half of the 20th century in Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East—in which Cuba was sometimes involved, directly or indirectly. The economic policies of the Communist Bloc countries, with which Cuba was aligned on a strategic level after the Revolution of 1959. And the perception and representation of that confrontation in Cuba, from the 1960s onward. The installation refers to the history of Cuba from the late 19th century to the late 20th, as a way of seeing Havana as a crossroads for several empires (and the historical figures attached to them): the Spanish, the Americans, the Soviets. Along with this, I’m working on a parallel project: a solo exhibition that I should be presenting next summer in the Paolo Maria Deanesi Gallery in Roveretto, Italy.

The Spaces Between: Contemporary Art from Havana, co-curated by Tonel and Keith Wallace, runs through April 13 at the Belkin Art Gallery, University of British Columbia, and Vancouver.