In the United States, Cristina Vives has been acclaimed as the curator of Nkame: A Retrospective of Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayón, which debuted in 2016 at the Fowler Museum in Los Angeles. A top pick by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and other publications, the show continues to tour US museums, opening at the Chicago Cultural Center in early 2020.
In Havana, Vives is perhaps best known for the adventurous exhibitions of contemporary art presented by Estudio Figueroa-Vives—the private art space in Vedado that she runs with her husband, photographer José A. Figueroa, and daughter, curator Cristina Figueroa-Vives—in collaboration with the Norwegian Embassy next door.
Over a double espresso at a Manhattan café, Vives spoke about recent and upcoming projects, and the current art scene in Havana.
It’s a pleasure to see you. What brings you to New York?
It’s a mix of different reasons. I didn’t expect to be in New York in summer. (laughs) It’s really hot.
Worse than Havana?
In some ways, yes. The reason we’re here has to do with visas. The new rules, you know—one entry, to be used within three months.
After five months of waiting, my husband Figueroa got a new visa to visit his family. But for only one visit. So we had to use it—it’s a very uncertain time. So we put together an extended itinerary.
Hopefully I can be back in October for the opening of MoMA [after several months of renovation]. It’s the first time Latin American art will have more exposure in the collection.
Were you involved in that?
No, not exactly. But MoMA curatorial staff have been visiting us in our studio in Havana, and they have published good pieces about some of the exhibitions we have had. So we have a friendly professional relationship, and I would like to be with them at such an important moment.
Tell us about the arrangement with your next-door neighbor, the Norwegian Embassy. How did that come about?
The Embassy moved next door in 2014. They have a program supporting the arts—fine arts, movies, theater, music. The ambassador at the time, John Petter Opdahl, and his husband Francisco Cabrera Gatell, were very active and knowledgeable about Cuban art.
Since we were next door, and we had a long history of using our home as a place to show art, they said: We want to be part of your project. So they offered us their space for an extended exhibition program.
We immediately took the offer. Our next show, scheduled for September 11, will be the 16th in collaboration with the Embassy.
The relationship is simple. We are the curators, we generate the ideas. We propose the show—the artists, the art, the way we would like to show it. We curate the whole thing, including the graphic design and media promotion.
The Embassy helps with logistics. Lending the space is very important, because they have outdoor space too, and space for big projections—physical conditions that help us produce better, more complex shows.
Also, they offer some support to the artists to produce the art, and also for the installation process. That’s very important, too.
During the Havana Biennial this spring, Estudio Figueroa-Vives and the Norwegian Embassy presented the exhibition Obsessions and Accumulations: The Artist’s Cabinet. You were in Japan at the time. What were you working on?
I was curating the Cuban presence at the 7th edition of the Kyotographie International Festival, a big photographic festival in Kyoto. I had been invited to curate the “Cuban pavilion,” as they call it.
I called the exhibition About Her, about Me, and about Them: Cuba through the Art and Life of Three Photographers.
I tried to suggest a brief history of Cuba in three moments and three generations. I invited artists who were witnesses to three sensitive political turning points in Cuba.
One was Alberto Korda. Not his images of Cuban leaders that are so well known, but the fashion and beauty photos, his real passion in his life and professional work. Korda was like the “father” for our family and the Estudio, since the beginning. This part of the exhibition was about Cuban women and their transition between the 1950s and the early 1960s.
The second artist was René Peña. He is from the generation that came of age during the collapse of socialism in Europe. That is another moment of transition in Cuba, from the late 1980s to the early 1990s.
The third artist was Alejandro González. We call him one of the “kids” of our studio. We have been working with him for 20 years now. His recent pieces are a reflection of another moment of transition in Cuba, happening now.
The opening day and hour in Kyoto coincided with the exhibition in our Estudio. I really preferred to be in Havana at that time, but it was impossible, so Cristina Figueroa-Vives took care of the most complex part of the project at the Estudio.
During the Biennial, President Trump announced his administration’s new regulations and restrictions. How are things in Cuba now?
I’m not an expert. But from an individual perspective, and from my field of art and culture, it affects a lot. It’s an uncertain time for all of us. Once again.
For people in the United States close to the art world, it’s a sad situation. They don’t have the same freedom, the same confidence, to fly to the island or to keep in contact with artists.
From our side, the same. Now on both sides, you are not able to plan a show, an exchange, or visits for a residency program for artists. We have no control over the situation. On both sides we are dependent on political decisions—and in my opinion, very wrong decisions—from the administration in the United States.
So people in the art field are suffering the consequences. In terms of uncertainty, incertidumbre, we say.
The lack of materials is another issue. We are immersed in a very deep economic crisis in Cuba. Artists need materials. In recent years they planned their visits not only to show their work but to buy the things they need, or to be in touch with art producers here. Art is getting more and more complex. It requires technology. We need all kinds of supplies, and some doors are now closed.
Artists also need to be in touch with the international art world. And beyond any political situation, for years and years the United States has been one of the main centers of international art. Not the only one, but an important one to be in touch with on a permanent basis.
During this year’s Havana Biennial there were many exhibitions and events presented by the private sector. There was a lot of energy in that.
Yes, the private sector is growing up. It’s more solid. It has a big presence in Havana right now, and the most recent Biennial proved it.
The first Biennial when we really started to see independent action from the artists and curators was in 1997. And it was not well received by the institution—I remember that. But some of the most interesting exhibitions happened because the curatorial work of the artists themselves, in private homes in 1997, was a fight between the institution’s aim of control and the artists’ position. But that was just the beginning.
Year by year the Biennials have had to accept the presence of independent places and independent efforts, even when it wasn’t official. They call that colaterales, like a “side program,” but it becomes central and the institution has nothing to do with it, really.
It’s impossible to go against that. And it’s a very big mistake, to try to control it—to censor or analyze or decide what is correct or not. It’s contra natura, totally contra natura when you talk about art.
Good art will survive, but made with the effort of many different intelligences, not only one institutional position. Good art has many faces.
What we saw in this Biennial—the big presence of many different individual activities—is the result of a long process, and in the end it is the logical consequence of art.
What about the latest generation? How would you describe the art that you’re seeing by young artists in Cuba?
I would say that most of the emerging artists are still very interested in social issues and social commentary, sometimes taking an anthropological point of view in their art. But they are also very interested in technologies, and in global issues.
Even something that seems like a local topic, they can make it global. Because for them art is a concept. But not in the way that Conceptualism has been defined by art history or the international art academy.
It’s conceptual because for them, the concept, the idea, comes first and determines the shape of the art. And they are very well trained in concept and thought and analysis. They are like think tanks, many of them.
In general, we Cubans are raised to think in social, economic, and political terms. We see almost everything as a connected system, and the same is true in art.
In each of the most recent generations, the best artists have been those who are well trained in thought. All the exhibitions, and all the best works are distinguished by this.
Next: A preview of the upcoming exhibition at Estudio Figueroa-Vives and the Norwegian Embassy, featuring never-shown work by Belkis Ayón, commemorating the 20th anniversary of her death, and a commemoration of the September 11, 2001 attack in New York.