René Peña, Cigarette (from the series “White Things”), 1997

In Part 1 of our conversation, curator Elvis Fuentes talked about the thinking behind Caribbean: Crossroads of the World and the factors that helped to shape the exhibition. Here, he talks about some of the themes in the show and how Cuban works reflect them, and weighs in on what makes an artwork Cuban, on and off the island.

The theme of immigration and diaspora is important throughout the Caribbean, but particularly for Cuba. How is that addressed in the show?

Today people think of Cuban art as divided between the Cubans on the island and the Cubans abroad. But that doesn’t make any sense. Think of what happened in the 19th century or even in the 20th century with an artist like Wifredo Lam. He produced most of his work in France. Or Agustín Cárdenas—he definitely produced the majority of his work outside of Cuba. Esteban Chartrand—he painted a lot in New York while he was escaping the wars in Cuba.[A correction from Elvis: it’s Guillermo Callazo, not Chartrand, who did so much of his painting in New York. Chartrand came to New York and died there, but didn’t do much of his work there. Another painter who did work in New York is Juan José Peoli.]  And we don’t question that that’s part of the history of Cuban art. Today because of the political situation we tend to see this division, but that’s totally overrated, I would say. And it’s something that’s not going to last forever, I’m pretty sure of that.

Why is that?

Because it happened before, such as with those artists I just mentioned. And people now don’t question that—“Oh no, because this was made outside of Cuba, this isn’t Cuban art.” No one debates that Esteban Chartrand is not Cuban art, anywhere he made it—it doesn’t matter. The same with Agustín Cárdenas. The same will happen with artists like Ana Mendieta or Félix Gonzalez-Torres. So those are important things that we can take into account. For me, where the artist is producing the work is important in terms of the artist’s history, his context, and all. It’s less important in terms of the overall history that we’re going to tell. So diaspora is in the show, but it’s integrated.

We have a small section where we talk about the Cuban War of Independence, and the figure of Antonio Maceo. He was seen as this really, really important military figure, but he’s somehow an outcast, somehow presented as a dissident from the mainstream Cuban history. Maceo was the one who refused the pact with the Spanish after the War of Independence. There are stories about how the whole relationship between Maceo and José Martí was really rough.

Maceo is this figure who has been almost adored—like a saint, with all the scars. But still he’s depicted as someone who is an outlaw, someone who’s not in the mainstream. The mainstream is José Martí. He was, for obvious reasons, an émigré. He was more of a New Yorker than a Cuban. So that’s very, very interesting and it’s a very curious relationship that you have there. That theme has to do with what… race? Probably. Maybe not. but there are some issues there that cast a shadow on the way the figure of Maceo has been represented. He’s seen as a powerful, brave soldier but not as an intellectual figure, someone who could contribute to the whole idea of nationhood as José Martí did. Cuban nationhood is José Martí, simply. The others are just, like, little footnotes.

In the show we have this painting by Armando Menocal that is actually a study for a bigger painting that’s in Cuba. We have the Carlos Enríquez painting of Manuel García, a kind of alter ego—this bandit that is at the center of the whole mythology of his Romancero guajiro. And then we have a sculpture by Agustín Cárdenas that’s completely abstract, but it’s his homage to Antonio Maceo. To me, the fact that he produced this in Paris is not important at all. He was doing this piece thinking of Antonio Maceo and trying to be part of the conversation on the representation of heroes in Cuban art. So why make the distinction? “Oh no, this was made in Paris, outside of the official discourse.”

Let’s jump ahead to the contemporary art in the show. What was the selection process like in this area?

Like the modern and the more historical, the contemporary art responded to an overarching narrative that has more to do with the Caribbean than it has to do with Cuba. When we were talking, for instance, about the theme of “The Outlaw,” this was something that I knew of Cuban art more than I knew of the art of other places. So for me it was easier to put some of these in place. I mean, we had only so much space; we couldn’t put everything we wanted in there.

There were some artists I would have loved to have had in the show, like Douglas Pérez. He did a series on the Güije, a mythological character of the rivers in Cuba, which is a playful figure in the form of a black boy. Well, Douglas did this series in the 1990s that I think is very relevant, in which he compares what would be the fate of the Güije before and after the Revolution. And that, within the context of the outlaws in the Caribbean, would have been very significant. I couldn’t locate the artist nor the work; it was very difficult, and we ended up not having it.

To discuss the notion of the outlaw and how this intermixed with the myths of race was important to have different approaches. There are some artists, like René Peña, who have a more, I would say, playful approach to this, and yet really critical. His whole idea of using the knife to refer to black sexual power is interesting.

And then we have work like Geandy Pavón’s, which is more overtly political, reflecting on Orlando Zapata Tamayo’s death, and the fact that this person who is presented in Cuba as “the outlaw”—the typical person that you shouldn’t care about because of their supposed outlaw status—then became a symbolic figure of many things that haven’t been discussed in Cuba, like racism, and the positioning of black people in Cuban society.

Next: Art, race, and exhibition labels.