Two Cubans are exhibiting their art in Britain – despite being imprisoned in the US – in a groundbreaking new show
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 18 April 2012 14.00 EDT
Antonio Guerrero /Por Quien Merece Amor View larger picture
A detail from Por Quien Merece Amor (For Those Who Deserve Love) by Antonio Guerrero. (Click to see the full picture)
Two of the artists featured in a new exhibition will definitely not be present on the opening night. Instead of mingling with fellow artists in London’s West End, they will each be spending the time in a high-security cell in a penitentiary in the US.
The pair, Antonio Guerrero and Gerardo Hernández, are members of the so-called Miami Five, who were jailed in the US in 2001 at the conclusion of a controversial trial. The five were Cubans who had infiltrated militant anti-Castro exile groups in Florida that were suspected of carrying out sabotage attacks aimed at destabilising Cuba.
The men were sentenced in Miami to terms varying from 15 years to “double life” on the grounds that they were acting in the US as agents of a foreign power. Their defence was that they were seeking to disrupt terrorist attacks which, the Cuban government claims, have caused hundreds of deaths, most recently in a 90s bombing campaign in Havana hotels and clubs aimed at derailing the booming holiday industry.
Lawyers for the five argued unsuccessfully that a fair trial in the toxic anti-Castro atmosphere of Miami was impossible. In 2011, one of the five, René González, was released and remains on parole in Florida.
The art exhibition, entitled Beyond the Frame, which moves to Glasgow in May, will show the work of 26 of the best-known Cuban artists and of 20 other international artists who have donated work to draw attention to the case. It is the largest collection of Cuban artists ever to be shown in the UK.
“The art itself is very surprising,” says Dodie Weppler, an expert on Cuban art who is co-ordinating the exhibition. “There’s no socialist realism, it’s all things you might not expect. Culture has always been a vital element in Cuba’s radical tradition, but the revolution made possible a cultural experiment on a scale never before seen in the Americas.” A number of artists being exhibited – “Kcho”, Manuel Mendive, “Choco”, José Fuster, Juan Roberto Diago – already have international reputations.
Antonio Guerrero learned to draw and paint while in jail in Florence, Colorado, as the pupil of a cellmate, an African-American artist. He works in watercolours, charcoal, oil and pastel, his latest subjects being exotic birds and butterflies, and has written that, through art, “I have overcome imprisonment.” Hernández was an amateur cartoonist before his arrest; cartooning remains his speciality.
Art was originally seen as a key part of the Cuban revolution. There are still 14 art schools on the island and a university of the fine arts in Havana. According to Rene Duquesne of Cuba’s National Council of Visual Arts, there are 13,000 “registered artists” there. “With this number, there are simply not enough galleries or materials – most of the materials have to be imported,” he says. “The blockade causes enormous difficulties. Artists who don’t have a salary – who aren’t book designers, art teachers or other related jobs – have to rely on the sales of their work. This forces Cuban artists to look abroad.”
Weppler says the reputation of Cuban art has increased steadily, as evidenced by an article four years ago in the Wall Street Journal – no great admirer of the Castro brothers – which highlighted Cuba as “the next hot art hub” for investors. The US still operates a blockade against Cuba and a near-total ban on Americans visiting the island, although there has been a slight loosening of restrictions under Barack Obama. Cuban art, however, can be bought by Americans, provided it has not been commissioned; Afro-Cuban artefacts, such as drums or plates, fall foul of the embargo because they have a use and thus fail to qualify as “artworks”.
Other artists, mainly UK-based, who have donated their work in support of the show include John Keane, Mona Hatoum, Alasdair Gray, Derek Boshier, John Byrne, David Harding, the kennardphillipps collective and Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell.
“We called the exhibition Beyond the Frame because it ruptured the traditional role of the frame as a boundary and acknowledged the Five have been ‘framed’ by the US government,” says Weppler, who put the show together with the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, in the hope that it will highlight the case of the Miami Five – a cause célèbre on the island – as well as the scope of Cuban art.
“I didn’t know a great deal about the Miami Five before,” says Keane, official war artist of the 1991 Gulf war. “But I believe in using art to help the course of justice. If art can provide some sort of conscience, it’s preferable to merely being a currency for the super-rich.” Boshier, the British artist now based in Los Angeles, said that he had made his first artwork connected to the island, entitled Situation in Cuba, back in 1961: “It was a reaction to the Bay of Pigs [the failed US-backed invasion by Cuban exiles].” His contribution to the current exhibition is a 2011 reconstruction of that work.
• Beyond the Frame – Contemporary Cuban Art is at Gallery 27, London W1, 23–28 April, and The Lighthouse, Glasgow, 7–13 May.