Osmeivy Ortega, Emigrants, 2007
Courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland

It’s not Miami, Mexico City, or Madrid. But this fall and through the spring, Cleveland, Ohio is the site of an interesting experiment in cross-generational communications among contemporary Cuban artists.

The Cuba Project, as it’s formally known, was inspired by a 2009 lecture at the Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA) by Helmo Hernández, the president of the Ludwig Foundation, a nonprofit cultural organization based in Havana. The cultural exchange that Hernández proposed brought three CIA faculty members to Havana. There, they interviewed more than 40 artists, selecting five to participate in a series of overlapping eight-week residencies.

“Other residencies tend to emphasize more established Cuban artists of the 1980s and 1990s,” says David Hart, associate professor of art history at the Institute and coordinator of the Cuba Project. In structuring the CIA residencies, says Hart, he and his colleagues—Saul Ostrow, associate professor of painting and chair of the department of visual arts and technologies, and Charles Tucker, associate professor and head of sculpture—were looking for a more dynamic interaction that would set the program apart.

But the intergenerational dialogue scheduled for this fall almost didn’t happen, when Abel Barroso, the first artist scheduled to arrive, ran into problems with his U.S. visa. “It’s no easy matter to have people visiting from Cuba,” says Hart, who has curated shows of Cuban art but had not previously managed residencies for Cuban artists. “There can be glitches at times.” With Barroso unable to come, the first residency spot was taken by Alejandro Aguilera, a Cuban artist of the 1980s generation. “He lives in the U.S. now, in Atlanta,” says Hart, “but he was very much involved in the cultural milieu of Cuba in the 1980s and 1990s, and is in much of the literature about it.”

Aguilera was soon joined by Osmeivy Ortega, a Havana artist born in 1980. Although the two freely discussed the concept of intergenerational dialogue at the Cuba Project’s autumn symposium in October, the sense of intellectual inquiry didn’t stop there. “All these artists engage in critical dialogue in other ways,” says Hart. “They all have a grounding in a particular medium, but they’re very interested in challenging the boundaries of that medium, and looking in an aesthetically critical way at their art.”

As an example, Hart talks about Ortega, one of the younger visiting artists in the Cuba Project. Trained as a printmaker, he continues to create traditional works on paper, but has also begun to make prints on a type of rough cloth that’s commonly used in Cuba as a rag for mops. “There are conceptual and aesthetic ideas behind that,” says Hart, “but he is essentially pushing the boundaries of his medium beyond paper, and moving into these found objects on which he’s printing.” A recent article on Cleveland.com describes one of the pieces Ortega worked on during his residency: The Air from the North, an outsized work that stands more than 12 feet high, which will eventually be two-sided and will inflate to become a three-dimensional installation.

The idea is to eventually exhibit the works created during the residencies, such as Ortega’s The Air from the North, in a group exhibition. For now, though, previous work by the Cuba Project artists is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, where The Cuba Project: Cleveland Institute of Art at MOCA runs through the end of this month.

With Aguilera and Ortega having completed their residencies, the next artists on the schedule are Alex Hernández, who arrives in early January, and the team of José Ángel Toirac and Meira Marrero, who arrive in early February. Hart is also working with Abel Barroso to try to reschedule his residency for the spring.

“I was aware that contemporary Cuban artists have gotten the best education in the Caribbean,” says Hart in conclusion. “That’s well documented.” Even so, he was caught by the extent of the knowledge that they’ve brought to the Cleveland Institute of Art. “All the artists we’ve had so far have been able to rattle off the names of important, compelling articles and books for students to read,” he says. “That fits very well with the kind of education we want our students to have. It continues to impress me. And others.”