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New Art of Cuba

New Art of Cuba

A comprehensive look at the works of the first generation of Cuban artists completely shaped by the 1959 revolution.

January 2003
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456 pages | 6 x 9 | 24 color and 207 b&w illus. |

Starting with the groundbreaking 1981 exhibit called "Volumen I," New Art of Cuba provided the first comprehensive look at the works of the first generation of Cuban artists completely shaped by the 1959 revolution. This revised edition includes a new epilogue that discusses developments in Cuban art since the book's publication in 1994, including the exodus of artists in the early 1990s, the effects of the new dollar economy on the status of artists, and the shift away from socialist themes to more personal concerns in the artists' works. Twenty-four new color plates augment the more than 200 b&w illustrations of the original volume.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1 "Volumen I"
  • 2 Cuban Influences on the 1980s Generation
  • 3 Art within the Revolution
  • 4 Art Education in Cuba
  • 5 The Generations Following "Volumen I"
  • 6 The Individuals
  • 7 Cuban Art and Postmodernism
  • Postscript
  • Second Postscript
  • Epilogue: Luis Camnitzer with Rachel Weiss
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Luis Camnitzer is Professor Emeritus of Art at the State University of New York at Old Westbury and an internationally renowned artist.


The dedication of this book to Ana Mendieta means much more than paying dues to affection between friends. It was Ana who, on my first trip to Cuba in 1981, directed me to the artists who belong to the beginning of what I once called the Cuban Renaissance without worrying about the cultural dependency implied by the term. It is the subsequent friendship with many of these artists that in the final instance produced this book, not only because of the motivation but also because of their assistance in gathering data and providing ideas. Because of this, I consider this book the product of a team effort.

I was raised in Uruguay, made art and taught there, and made art and taught in the United States. The value of that repetition of activities in different parts of the map is that it helps identify and clarify issues of cultural dependence that are often invisible to those confined to only one place. It took me several years of being away, for example, to develop a sense of admiration for a bronze sculpture in Montevideo too closely inspired by the Venus de Milo, implying to the viewer that amputation is a sign of classic beauty. I also remember fondly a man who, in my childhood, would tell endlessly detailed stories about faraway places although, as I found out later, he had never left town. Only distance helped me see and feel the distortions and alienation operating on the periphery, which become part of culture and which condition one's thoughts and actions. Art in Cuba became interesting to me for the degrees of success and failure in addressing these distortions and alienation.

Artists in Cuba focus their work on their own country more than other Latin American artists, and in order to fully understand Cuban art, one must know the Cuban public and the Cuban sociocultural conditions to which the art is primarily addressed. But since Cuban artists are knowledgeable in the art game as it is played internationally, and since they play that game well, it is tempting to judge Cuban art by international standards. Doing this, one would neglect its role in national culture building, an issue not always visible but a factor in the minds of most of the artists discussed. It is because of this role in culture building, rather than for particular formal solutions, that Cuban art is interesting for Latin America as a model or as an alternative. This was a second important reason for why it caught my interest.

The Cuban process at large, since the Revolution, awoke strong expectations and a sense of curiosity at the same time that it strongly influenced the thoughts of my generation. This was true for the committed Left as much as for those like me who strongly distrusted any governmental structure. My generation had changed its views when, in 1954, the United States bombed Guatemala, overthrew its president, Jacobo Arbenz, and changed the destiny of that country. Coincidentally, this series of actions radicalized Che Guevara, who was in Guatemala at the time. We all felt the absurdity of the nation-state concept installed in Latin America by foreign imposition, and we longed for a way to erase our borderlines, to become a big country. When Latin America became one big police state about twenty years later, the dream nearly came true, though in a fashion very different from our original idea. Our conception had not been wrong, but it was suffused with the Esperanto syndrome. On its superficial merits, it seemed wonderful to have a common language, a common currency, a common government. We just had not counted on the possibility that the language some day might be English, the currency the dollar, and the government housed in the White House.

Both Simón Bolívar and José Martí had warned about this danger. Martí (1853-1895), Cuba's national hero, was particularly close to Uruguay since he had been its consul to the United States. As Latin America deteriorated, Cuba became, more and more, a symbol of independence. The largest procession of cars in Uruguayan history until then was the one accompanying the Cuban ambassador to the airport in the early 1960s, when he had to leave Uruguay because of the OAS-forced break of diplomatic relations.

Travel to Cuba became extremely difficult, and it took me a long time to make my first visit. From Uruguay for many years it meant awkward detours via Czechoslovakia and dangerous harassment upon return. Later, residing in the United States, I felt even more intimidated, at least until the relative liberalization introduced by the Carter administration. By then, with military dictatorship widespread, a context was provided in which Cuba acquired still another distance and dimension. I felt envy. I was both tempted and reluctant to enjoy the consequences of somebody else's revolution at a time when my own country was in an unresolvable mess.

When I finally did go to Cuba, given this history where myth and misinformation had merged, I had developed my own brand of expectation and skepticism. I went to the "First Meeting of Latin American Intellectuals" in 1981. What I remember most about that trip is kitsch, recycling, and the new art generation.

Kitsch was omnipresent, partially because I was staying in the Hotel Riviera. The hotel is a Meyer Lansky-North American Mafia monument built in 1957, continually restored by the Cubans to maintain its original look. As a synthesizing symbol, the hotel offers a staircase in the lobby that stops halfway toward the ceiling with no apparent function beyond being itself. It is still used today by just-married couples to pose for their wedding pictures.

But kitsch is not only "made in the U.S.A."--it has also become an intrinsic part of Cuban culture as a byproduct of colonization, the "ersatz" both popularly accepted and generated as one of the responses to imposed culture. Despite the concern of the government for what some see as a debasement of culture, there has been no organized drive to eliminate kitsch. It has been syncretized in artifacts used in the Afro-Cuban rituals of Santería, appropriated and revitalized in some folk art and anonymous contributions, or used as an inspiration for high-culture products. It is also an occasional and accidental byproduct of recycling.

Recycling was present in everything from food to buildings. With admirable ingenuity, food remnants would be presented again in meals to follow rather than going to waste. At the other extreme, buildings in a pompous style inherited from the Batista regime were redesigned internally to serve more useful purposes. A building partially constructed under Batista to house the National Bank was finished under Castro as the biggest hospital in Havana, the "Hermanos Ameijeiras." This policy, while making economical sense, sacrifices the development of an official architectural language. New government buildings are variations of the international style nicely spiced with tropical vegetation and, mostly, respectful of the human scale. Fascist wedding-cake style buildings constructed in honor of Batista's glory are now used for socially useful functions such as hospitals. The symbolic communication of architecture becomes muddled, particularly for those future generations with no memory to be used as a corrective tool. The problem does not exist because of a lack of awareness but because of a scarcity of funds. It creates a critical situation that has been discussed by several Cuban architects.

Between food and buildings I should mention the contributions of the ANIR (Asociación Nacional de Innovadores y Racionalizadores, or the National Association of Innovators and Rationalizers), a group designed to find alternative solutions for those technological products no longer available because of the U.S. blockade. When an institution needed hinges to build silkscreen drying racks, this group designed them by bending pieces of scrap aluminum that turn around nails. The whole printing industry was saved by ANIR, which was able to keep the presses functional by recreating missing and broken pieces. The paper industry was also reconstructed following this drive for a degree of selfsufficiency, and a process for paper-making was developed using an 80 percent bagasse (cane remnants from the sugar production) content.

The new art generation was so impressive primarily because it was just that, a generation, formed by people educated after the Revolution, with no prerevolutionary memories. Its members met regularly to discuss art-making problems in Cuba and their own work. A critic, Gerardo Mosquera, joined and provided them with a theoretical framework for their art. They were all under thirty, some still students, and well informed about both socialist and capitalist art and aesthetics. While sharing common concerns, they were developing distinct individual languages and showed a refreshing openness in their approaches. My ties with this group were strengthened in subsequent trips and later when three of the artists came to my college for a four-month artist-in-residence program.

Going to Cuba under official auspices is like traveling through a smile. Generosity seems unlimited and friendship easy, profound, and lasting. As a result, first impressions are somewhat schematic, blending one's own prejudices with a conveyed aura of perfection. It took several trips for me to understand that Cuba is not a monolith. There is a constant interplay of alternative and sometimes opposing views on many issues. At least during the decade discussed here, what I often interpreted as representing a conservative art approach to some topics did not come from above in the form of governmental instructions but from the sides, from peer pressure. In the arts, there was the odd feeling that if any verticality in the power structure existed, it mostly operated from the bottom up. The complexity of the tendencies in the bottom level led to many contradictory results. The higher levels of the art bureaucracy during the 1980s, however enlightened and progressive in its intentions (meaning that I share most of them), often had to find middle grounds to accommodate these pluralistic tendencies.

The Cuban proceso is not neat. It is an "untidy revolution," where the ideological comb has not untangled all strands and where many issues seem to be overlooked or purposely left aside. Much of the power and seductiveness of the Cuban Revolution is based on this untidiness. The untidiness has acted as a protective shield even during the Revolution's more dogmatic moments, ensuring room for eccentricities and thus providing a fertile ground for the growth of this generation.

By and large, this generation has become dominant in Cuba today and represents the country in most international events. These are the artists who now are shaping the next generations and are beginning to be perceived by the younger artists as the new "establishment." Their art is not the only art being created, but in my view it is the most interesting art being made in Cuba today. At the time of editing this text (early 1992), however, due to the economic conditions, many Cuban artists have moved out of Cuba. There are now fifty-seven artists in Mexico. Although they go back and forth to Cuba, the cultural momentum is bound to be affected.

By covering a period roughly from 1980 to 1990 I can refer to three generations of artists educated under the Revolution. The word generation does not refer precisely to the age of its members but to their place in the artistic development during this period. Above all, the manner in which the art was generated classifies these generations and puts them in sequence, rather than the direct appreciation of the work of the artists. The first group is the one I met in 1981. It achieved notoriety through a much-remembered exhibit, "Volumen I," in January 1981, which is now seen as an important formal break with previous Cuban art. A second group, closely attached to the first one, became known later and expanded its work. The third group is more properly a generation both in age and in interests. It started to exhibit in 1988 and defines itself clearly as separate from its predecessors and as a visual reflection of the present Cuban "rectification" process, a process that challenges a purely mechanical approach to economics and tries to bring in ethical and political motivation with renewed force. It is an artistically militant generation, intensely preoccupied with content and producing controversial work that raises some opposition in Cuba. With this generation, art is not subject to politics but is an active participant in politics.

My initial and convenient closing date for this book was 1988. I had chosen the Fourth Congress of the UNEAC (Union of Cuban Writers and Artists), which took place in January, as the final event. The UNEAC groups recognized cultural producers in Cuba and translates issues pertaining to rights and duties of artists and writers into law. Presently there are two thousand members in sections including music, writing, visual arts, performing arts, and film, radio, and television. Congresses are organized every five years to discuss major cultural policy issues. UNEAC membership has aged over the years. A great pressure was exerted during this last congress to open access for the newer generations, only a few of whose members have been allowed into the organization. Major speeches by Minister of Culture Armando Hart, Vice-President Carlos Rafael Rodríguez, and President Fidel Castro stressed the need for youth, the evils of dogmatic approaches, and the importance of freedom in form and content in the arts. In that sense, the congress was used to confirm most of the issues that were brought to the surface by the first generation of the 1980s. However, the nearly unrestricted openness signaled by the congress was subsequently subdued by controversies generated by exhibits of the younger generation in the following months. This new development was a consequence of a complex combination of factors that include some lack of tact on the side of the artists toward the quasi-religious atmosphere surrounding aspects of the Revolution. The artists produced work not completely rigorous in terms of the communication of content, sometimes accidentally expressing things that they did not believe in, and often focusing only on how artistically accomplished their work was from a formal point of view. The lower ranks of the art bureaucracy sometimes showed an excess of paternalism toward the public combined with a lack of artistic sophistication and an excess of dogmatic revolutionary zeal. Some of the events were exploited by pseudoartistic groups with a direct view toward international news services trying to imply an atmosphere parallel to that previously suffered by dissidents in the USSR.

The entanglement of these conditions and the crucial recognition that the artists are working within the Revolution and not against it, led the Ministry of Culture to organize a cycle of exhibitions in the Castillo de la Real Fuerza (Castle of the Royal Force), an old Spanish fortress in Havana, the construction of which was started in 1562. This program was created in order to allow these artists to express themselves publicly with more rigor, without a change of their political beliefs, and also to include explanatory and educational components. Their voice was to be heard in an unambiguous way, and an accurate debate of the issues was intended. This effort of the ministry was designed to stop a process of "self-censorship" that began in mid-1988 and that was threatening to echo a similar tendency in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The importance of these events led me to extend the span of the book beyond my initial plan. Some stunning exhibits took place; however, tensions did not subside and, if anything, increased. After less than a year the cycle was stopped.

As a nonhistorian I am particularly resentful of the constraints of historical narrative, of the distortions imposed by the need to fit events into a linear sequence of neatly circumscribed units. Chronology is often helpful, but I have the feeling of having to describe a bubbling surface; the bubbles coexist, some dominate for a moment, but no sequential order represents the process in its true essence. The frustration created by the incongruity between a preestablished design of the language and the complicated weaving of the subject matter is therefore a major component in this text. It makes me feel that I am about to touch things without being able to make contact with them.

My own generational deformations may prove another obstacle for any expected scholarly objectivity. I was formed in a set of contradictions, within a cultural tradition that celebrated art for its formal excellence and a political tradition that instinctively mistrusted any sign of authority and dogma. While writing this book I realized that both categories of my background contaminate each other. I often find myself hoping for a greater excellence in form in the political structure and more erasure of dogma and authority in art solutions. To compound the problem, this ideological seesaw often is inconsistent with my own taste in art. In many instances I found myself surprisingly doctrinaire in the realm of politics and, alternatively, excessively demanding or lenient in the realm of aesthetics. The new Cuban art generations operate on this same seesaw, but they often use a different rhythm, something I had to force myself to respect.

The difficulties are overridden by the interest inherent in many of the issues associated with contemporary Cuban art, especially in the context of the fragmentation and distortion of the information about Cuba that reaches the United States. The U.S. blockade isolates both countries from each other, not just Cuba from the United States. It therefore seems puzzling to an observer placed in the United States to see that artistic freedom is working well in a socialist system stereotyped as stymieing. The artists using this freedom not only break conventions but also soon after are placed in teaching positions from which they encourage the continuation of this process. The role of art education in Cuba is fundamental to this situation, initially because of the sheer length of the course of studies and more recently because of curricular reforms. Other issues pertain to the flow of information between the hegemonic mainstream and peripheral cultures. Art in Cuba was subject to unrestricted colonizing influences during the past, and it is from this unrejected past in combination with an informed present that the new Cuban art from this decade has emerged. And it points in a direction that I believe crucial as an example for the rest of Latin America.