Admittedly, I was extremely anxious about traveling to Cuba. But now, having returned from a trip to Havana made possible through MoMA’s 12-month internship program, I feel enlivened. Although complicated politics still surround Cuban-American relations, Cuba has much to offer. The beaches are as beautiful as the vistas in Old Havana. Music and dance can be heard and seen in the city as well as in its surrounding regions, making for a lively experience despite the visibility of poverty. Havana’s charmingly dilapidated urban landscape is speckled with a mix of Lada automobiles from the 1970s and modern Peugeots. And while Cuba’s backdrop may sometimes seem a little dated, its arts culture, and more specifically its contemporary printmaking scene, is far beyond its time.
This isn’t surprising given the number of studios, galleries, and universities that have been established in the fairly recent past. Taller Experimental de Gráfica, a prominent printmaking studio that also has a small gallery space situated just off of Plaza de la Catedral, launched in 1962. The year before, Castro converted a country club into an arts complex called Instituto Superior de Artes (ISA), a campus devoted to the teaching of the theory and practice of art.
In 1984, Havana hosted its first biennial, which focused on artists from Latin America and the Caribbean and has since included a more international array of participants. Both older and newer galleries, including La Casona and Villa Manuela (founded in 1995 and 2004, respectively), have dedicated themselves to contemporary art, exhibiting materially diverse works by a younger generation of artists. Among the artists I had a chance to meet were Sandra Ramos and Abel Barroso, both of whom are represented in MoMA’s collection.
Sandra Ramos’s 1993 etching The Damned Circumstances of Water Everywhere, whose title references Virgilio Piñera’s poem “Burdened Island” (1943), is a vividly colored print that depicts a woman in the shape of Cuba. Though the female figure suggests Ramos, it isn’t a direct self-portrait. Ramos first created the character in 1993 and still incorporates it in many of her other works. Resembling Lewis Carroll’s Alice, it represents, as the artist has stated, “a kind of character who doesn’t really understand the world around her.” Lying on her back with arms above her head and her left knee bent, the figure seems to float with ease in the surrounding blue waters.
As light and flowing as she appears to be, however, palm trees run the length of the figure’s body, as if pinning her down in place. The work, aptly named, communicates ideas of isolation: an island is geographically cut off from the rest of the world, and Ramos uses this characteristic to suggest Cuba’s political and ideological isolation. Her work takes on a more personal meaning as well. By choosing to represent Cuba as a female figure, a composite of herself and Alice, Ramos expresses her own feelings of remoteness, which stem from her experience during Cuba’s Special Period, a time of economic crisis in the 1990s. The lack of electricity and transportation encouraged Ramos to remain in her studio, interpreting her loneliness in visual forms.
I met with Abel Barroso a few hours after visiting Ramos’s home and studio, and I noticed similarities in the concepts both artists are addressing: ideas of national identity and isolation, Cuba’s relationship with the rest of the world, and how these themes inform their work. Barroso is known for his wooden sculptures that seem to be constructed from matrices prepared for printing. The artist does sometimes run his plates through the press, but for the most part, it is the plate that becomes the work, combining aspects of sculpture and printmaking in a unique approach. One project he described was a series of birdhouses he had created and installed, which allowed birds to flutter from one house to another, a comment on the freedom of movement without immigration law. A more recent work is a birdhouse that only opens when the viewer slides a passport, carved from wood, through a slit that releases a latch.
Barroso’s cigar box titled Cigars with Ideology (2001) is a playful, functional device operated with two cranks, which, upon turning, reveals a scroll with a series of images that explore the interconnectedness between Cuba, the United States, and cigars. As with many of his other works, the cigar box invites the viewer to interact with it, a kind of game Barroso likes to play with his audience. For example, for his installation The Third World Internet Café at the 7th Havana Biennial, he filled an actual café with handmade wooden computers with his signature cranks.
The inside lid of the cigar box contains a woodcut, printed with the block that is also the top of the box when closed, and a lithograph scroll featuring three segments: a portrait of Che Guevara smoking a cigar, a row of neatly placed cigars, and, perhaps most intriguing, three seated male figures, one of which resembles Uncle Sam, smoking Cohiba brand cigars. An inscription reads, “Finally we share the same taste,” revealing the artist’s sense of humor; although politics may not be a binding force between the United States and Cuba, at least cigars can bring the two together.
Interestingly, both Ramos’s and Barroso’s works refer to older traditions of Cuban printmaking. In the 18th century, printmaking became helpful for cartographers who used the medium to represent Cuba’s landscapes. At the same time, prints were used to advertise and decorate cigar boxes and bands. (There was a small gallery space at Museo Nacional that exhibited a variety of maps and designs for cigar containers.) Obviously, Ramos and Barroso aren’t trying to replicate 18th-century prints. But that both artists use distinctly Cuban themes as a way of dealing with current dilemmas—for Ramos, the geography of Cuba as a depiction of the country’s isolation, and for Barroso, the consumption of cigars as the only commonality between Cuba and the outside world—suggests a native reaction to their present circumstances. In describing the nature of her work, Ramos says she is interested in “how life is determined by the very country you were born in.”