A month after announcing he would work toward normalizing U.S. relations with Cuba, President Obama urged in his State of the Union address that the trade embargo with the Caribbean island be lifted.
Watching this, along with the rest of the world, was UNLV art professor Robert Tracy, who decided to jump in and curate an exhibit of contemporary Cuban art that would offer a look at the reality of life in the isolated country as the machine of change was in motion.
Cuban-born artist Angel Delgado, who spent prison time for a performance in a Cuban gallery, was already based in Las Vegas, exhibiting works on themes of liberty and oppression at Amanda Harris Gallery of Contemporary Art. Tracy enlisted Las Vegas-based curator and writer Emmanuel Ortega, and together they met with Delgado to map out a plan.
The resulting exhibit, Through Windows, Through Curtains, Call on Us: Contemporary Cuban Art at UNLV’s Donna Beam Fine Art Gallery, brings together the work of four notable artists whose international reach reflects life inside and outside Cuba, throwing light on the artistic merits of a place largely cut off from the rest of world.
As expected, the show has a heavy political thrust. It actively embodies the experience through works that reveal a beautiful collective soul and testament of spirit in the face of surveillance, isolation, shortages, shaky trust and departures of friends and family, all defining so much of Cuban culture in recent decades.
The tone is immediately set with a monitor at the gallery entrance showing live surveillance of Delgado’s “Outside Also” in the next room: four doors with locks and peepholes connected vertically into a square, allowing viewers to peer into the confined and suffocating space—neighbors looking at neighbors under the larger voice of government.
From there, it’s a plunge into installations, paintings, digital videos and mixed-media sculptures of emotional, visceral and intellectual heft. Ariel Orozco’s “Cuba Libre” takes over the gallery’s loft with sprawling islands of drinking glasses filled with desert sand designed to ignite geopolitical reflection, creating trepidation in those who walk through. Sandra Ramos’ beguiling animated videos of evolving sequences feature an illustrated Alice from Through the Looking Glass, observing and participating in her own peculiar island wonderland where Columbus, Uncle Sam, Lenin and Marx have played a role.
Sandra Ceballos’ digital prints present pop culture’s indomitable characters: a video-game heroine emerges in a watery effect, and superhero types stand formidable against a backdrop of political-based scrawl referencing Marx and Lenin. Delgado’s wall installation of neatly hung pristine toilet seats, each marked with a door knob, cabinet handle, peephole or door knocker, directly references his arrest after defecating on a communist newspaper at a 1990 art exhibit in Havana, protesting increasing government censorship.
“We wanted to consider the idea of having different perspectives from different parts of the world,” Ortega says, citing Guantanamo-born Ceballos, who still lives in Cuba; Havana-born Delgado; Sancti Spiritus-born Orozco, who lives in Mexico; and Havana-born Ramos, who lives in Havana and Miami. “A lot of these artists met and talked and shared exhibition spaces in Cuba, in Mexico and in the U.S., starting from the ’90s, so in a way this is a school of ’90s artists that are influencing a new generation of artists that are coming from Cuba.”
For viewers, it delivers what Tracy had hoped for: a window into a culture rich with creative and intellectual perseverance under great economic and political strain.
Through Windows, Through Curtains, Call on Us: Contemporary Cuban Art Through November 14; Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Donna Beam Fine Art Gallery, 702-895-3893.