Manuel Mendive, The Sons of Water, Talking to a Fish, 2001

Two masters of Cuban contemporary art, Manuel Mendive (born Havana 1944) and Flavio Garciandía (born Villa Clara 1954), are back in the spotlight with new exhibitions demonstrating that for both of them, the artistic pulse is still going strong and the mind is working with great clarity.

Critics and art experts have placed Mendive and Garciandía in two different cultural moments, but they have something significant in common: strong ties to Cuban popular culture. In the “prodigious” decade of the 1960s, when artists and art critics eagerly sought to depict the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in art, Mendive presented works full of Afro-Cuban Yoruba symbols and myths—a sin and a scandal in an atheist, Communist society. From the 1970s on, Garciandía was linked with the so-called generación de la esperanza cierta (the generation of certain hope), the rise of photorealism in Cuba, and the groundbreaking exhibition Volume I.

In the late 1980s, both Mendive and Garciandía were considered essential figures in contemporary Cuban art. Garciandía became an important teacher for successive waves of artists molded at the classrooms of the Instituto Superior de Arte; Mendive worked on well-publicized solo exhibitions at the National Museum of Fine Arts.

Set in a large, colonial-era building in Mexico City, the José Luis Cuevas Museum showcases a wide-ranging collection of works by many artists, amassed by the late Mexican artist for whom the museum was named. It also hosts temporary exhibitions, including Manuel Mendive: La Luz y Las Tinieblas(“The Light and the Darkness), on view through March 3.

Through painting, sculpture, and installation works, the exhibition examines the tri-part dynamic of life, death, and resurrection common to many religions, as reinterpreted by Mendive, a practitioner of the Regla de Ocha (“Rule of Ocha”), or Santería. In these works, the artist refashions myths in the materials and vocabulary of contemporary art. Mendive has been recognized in several Havana Biennials for vibrant performance works in which he painted dancers´naked bodies; his inspiration further extends to metal and bronze sculpture, site-specific installations, and urban interventions (as seen in the 1988 documentary Obataleo by Cuban filmmaker Humberto Solas). In these works, the wisdom of the African gods is melded with a philosophical inquiry about nature and culture.

In the exhibition catalogue, Cuban critic Darys Vázquez says of Mendive´s art: “As a Cuban, he involves the work with his own reality, but also with the reality of the Latin American man and man inside world cartography. And this is done with an infinite attachment to historical tradition.”

Flavio Garciandía chose Villa Manuela Gallery, owned by the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists, as the space for his exhibition I was going to say something very important (. . . but I have already forgotten it.), which closed yesterday (January 31). The humorous tone of the title certainly refers that paradoxical nature of the large canvases that Garciandía has been doing for years. With their dense references to abstraction, they are exquisite lessons in his knowledge of art and artists.

Over the past decade, Garciandia’s work has become a museum of fragments—an immense collage, in which the act of painting is used to express his open and transparent admiration, one artist to another, for the work of others. Living in Monterrey, Mexico and making frequent visits to Havana, Garciandía expresses through his work the thought that he once put this way: “My craft as a painter boils down to what Picasso said: A painter is nothing more than a collector who collects what he likes of others’ work, made by himself.”