Luis Cruz Azaceta, Shifting States: Iran, 2011
Courtesy Lehman College Art Gallery

This spring, the Lehman College Art Gallery is hosting Cuban America: An Empire State of Mind, a group show featuring more than 35 artists of Cuban descent. In a double email interview, co-curators Yuneikys Villalonga and Lehman gallery director Susan Hoeltzel talked about the exhibition, its concept, and what it means for the gallery.

How did the exhibition come about?

YV: Susan had the idea of organizing a Cuban art exhibition, to start the season of celebrations for the gallery’s 30th anniversary. We thought it would be great to go beyond the stiff boundaries of identity that still rule when it comes to Cuban art, due to complicated politics and ideologies between these two countries over the last half century. These have also been affecting arts, and are becoming more and more obsolete, given the transience and settlement of Cubans all over the world today.”

At the exhibition reception: Andres Serrano’s Wunmi Fadipe, Sales Assistant at Investment Bank, 2002
Photo: Cuban Art News

SH: I think there is great interest in Cuba right now. There is great curiosity about all things Cuban. Change—both here and there—seems inevitable. The response from the public and the press has been really impressive. There is also great interest from within the Cuban community—both in support for the idea of the show and wanting to know more about Cuban artists.

Tell us about the concept behind the exhibition. Not all of the artists in the show, for instance, can be described as “Cuban-American.”

YV: The title Cuban America refers more to America as seen through a “Cuban filter,” whatever this means. We tried to balance the list of artists, to include some who were educated and raised here in the States, and some who were educated and raised in Cuba. At this moment, many of those artists raised in Cuba no longer live on the island—many live here, although they were educated there. This gives us a diversity of positions in relation to the theme. Ultimately, calling it a Cuban art show is a great pretext for claiming that all these great people fall into a category that is changing and becoming more abstract every day.

María Martínez Cañas, Untitled [Eakins], 2007
Courtesy Julie Saul Gallery, New York
We felt that focusing on America as a broad subject would divert attention from the usual recurrent topics on Cuba—which were what an American public would expect from a Cuban art show—and would broaden the scope of what Cuban art is. Looking at these works, we come to discover that America might be addressed similarly by the children of other immigrants in this country, or by artists with similar concerns in other places in the world.

Shifting the focus towards America allows other communities to identify with the statements and ideas of these artists as well. It makes Cuban identity a much broader and richer category, even though in some cases, references to Cuba-specific elements appear in the works.

Emilio Pérez, a mighty good reason, 2010
Courtesy Lehman College Art Gallery

Not all statements in the show are literal. Even though some works—like the sculptures of Alexandre Arrechea, or the paintings by Geandy Pavón and Carlos Rodríguez Cárdenas—depict the New York City skyline or specific buildings, others are more abstract. The relationship to the theme comes from the influence of landscape, or ordinary life, as in the case of Teresita Fernández and Emilio Pérez. Andrés Serrano’s work in this exhibition is a portrait from his series America, for which he went around the country taking pictures of ordinary people from all walks of life, while Anthony Goicolea’s pictures of his aunt are more personal, and connect to his family’s past and the process of memory for him as a second-generation child of immigrant parents. Luis Cruz Azaceta is concerned with foreign affairs and war in Shifting States: Irán, while María Elena González’s Climb II is a metaphoric piece that speaks about the human condition.

At the exhibition reception: Teresita Fernández, Night Writing (Tropic of Cancer), 2011
Photo: Cuban Art News

Tell us about the Lehman College Art Gallery. What’s the gallery’s mission? What’s its focus? 

SH: The gallery’s mission is much broader than the campus. It is dedicated to providing a dynamic center for the visual arts for the greater New York area. The gallery presents works by leading figures in contemporary art, promising emerging artists, and significant theme shows. Education is an integral component of exhibition programming. The gallery also promotes the extraordinary cultural resources of the Bronx through its websites, Bronx Architecture and Public Art in the Bronx.

Anthony Goicolea, Aunt (Positive Negative Diptych), 2008
Courtesy Lehman College Art Gallery

Is Cuban America an unusual exhibition for the gallery?

SH: It is, I think, more unusual in that artists from the island and artists who were raised here are combined in one exhibition. In a sense it’s surprising that it’s not done more often, because the art world is much more international in its scope. It’s also interesting to look at an artist like Andres Serrano. His work is very familiar, but one may not think of him as having a Cuban perspective.

What was it like putting the show together? Were there challenges in figuring out the flow, and where certain pieces would go?

SH: We began to organize Cuban America about a year and a half ago. And yes, in our gallery one always thinks about the flow in terms of themes, but one also has to consider scale. Some walls are 23 feet high and others are 8 feet—that’s where we usually show more intimate work. The exhibition design is always a little like solving a riddle, or like balancing a collage composition. We started very early on, for instance, with Glexis Novoa’s oversized work Private Drone (2011). He has his own wall.

Glexis Novoa, Private Drone, 2011
Courtesy Lehman College Art Gallery

The exhibition includes a program of videos guest-curated by Meykén Barreto. Why was it important to include video in the exhibition? What position does video hold in the Cuban art scene in general?

YV: The short answer: There is great work on video out there, and we have a video room available. Barreto has been working with Cuban video art for a long time, and we thought that, together with Elvis Fuentes’ organization of related events, a video program would complement the works in the gallery.

In my opinion, there is a tendency to work with video in Cuba at the moment. Once you have a camera (which is sometimes shared among friends, in the case of the younger artists), producing video is cost-efficient. Another trend is showcasing the documentation of actions and social interventions in the gallery. Barreto chose a varied selection of videos, employing the same concept as the show. Some of them are by artists whose careers are still very young, such as Luis Gárciga and Ana Olema, while others have been produced by artists who have influenced and inspired young artists, such as Tony Labat or Allora and Calzadilla.

Geandy Pavón, Empire, 2013
Courtesy Lehman College Art Gallery

Cuban America: An Empire State of Mind runs through May 14, 2014, at the Lehman College Art Gallery.