Renowned contemporary Cuban artist Roberto Fabelo gazed at his painting of a large rooster with two nude women riding it like a horse.
“The rooster has the splendor, color, vitality and a certain amount of machismo, but here are the two women controlling it,” he said, laughing. “It represents the fabulous part of life.”
The work, Fantastic Voyage Key West, is one of three major pieces Fabelo brought to Key West as part of the two-country exhibit “Una Raza/One Race.” Curators from Cuba and the United States tout the exhibit as groundbreaking, the first cultural exchange between art institutions of the two politically hostile neighbors in the 55 years since Fidel Castro took power.
But while most of Key West has welcomed the contingent — including host sites The Studios of Key West, the Hemingway Home & Museum, the Oldest House & Garden Museum, The Florida Council of the Arts and the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum — a strong minority voice has criticized the exchange from the start.
And notably not participating in the exhibit is the San Carlos Institute, a heritage center founded in 1871 by Cuban exiles who came to Key West to plan the campaign for Cuba’s independence from Spain.
Rafael Peñalver, president of the institute, said its historical building — representing a symbol of hope for a free Cuba — would not legitimize the exchange and allow artists like Fabelo, who are supported by the totalitarian Castro regime, to hang their art.
“The One Race Exhibit … is an aberration of the city’s legacy as a bastion of human rights,” said a statement issued by Peñalver, Elena Spottswood and seven other prominent Key West citizens of Cuban descent.
“Under the guise of a ‘cultural exchange,’ ” the statement continues, “Key West is being used to promote the falsehood that Cuba’s authoritarian regime supports artistic freedom. Our city is extending a red carpet to a group of Cuban artists, some of whom — for personal gain — choose to wear blinders while their brethren are beaten and incarcerated in Cuba.”
Peñalver said they were especially troubled by the exhibit’s inclusion of Fabelo, who in 2003 signed a letter with 26 other Cuban intellectuals that condoned the “forceful measures” that had been taken days earlier by the Cuban government. Those “forceful measures” were the executions of three young men just nine days after they hijacked a ferry boat and attempted to divert it to Key West in search of freedom. The letter was the Cuban government’s attempt to quell the international outrage that followed the executions.
Key West gallery owner Nance Frank, a self-described utopian who has worked years to bring the cultural exchange to fruition and sells Cuban art, said politics should be left out of it.
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“Art can bridge the world,” she said.
Opening night of the exhibit at The Studios of Key West was packed. The crowd came to see the works of Fabelo as well as that of Manuel Mendive, Rocio Garcia and Sandra Ramos.
“For Key West, such an important part of our history and culture and traditions is in our relations to Cuba,” said Jed Dodds, executive director of The Studios. “This is a perfect way to strengthen those ties and keep them alive, bringing them into the present in a way.”
There has been no public display of protest, as was the case in Miami in 1988, when a civil engineer from Cuba paid $500 for a painting by Mendive at an auction — and then set it on fire. The protester, one of many against the sale of paintings by “pro-Castro Cuban artists,” declared it “an act of revulsion against Marxist-Leninist propaganda.”
The exhibit opened first in January at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Havana’s museum of fine art, with 30 woodcarvings by Cuban-American folk artist Mario Sanchez, a cigar maker’s son born in Key West in 1908. He died in 2005.
It was Sanchez’s view of humanity — that all people should be accepted no matter their race, color or religion — that inspired the cultural exchange, say the exhibit’s curators, Frank and Hortensia Montero of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.
“Mario would be doing somersaults with his beautiful clouds,” said Frank, a longtime friend of Sanchez and an expert on and seller of his art. “Mario and I talked about doing this for 10 years.”
Peñalver vehemently disagreed, saying he also knew Sanchez. “He was very much anti-Castro and would be turning in his grave if he knew his art was being exhibited by Castro in his national art palace.”
Last month, Key West opened its side of the cultural exchange with more than 100 pieces from nine prominent Cuban artists and a Cuban-American artist from Miami, Xavier Cortada.
Fabelo and the other Cuban exhibitors told similar stories of artists having “privileged” lives in Havana, with resources, artistic freedom and permission to exhibit and sell their work around the world. The artists say they hope their visit will open the doors even wider with the United States.
But one of the exhibitors, the New York-born Cortada, said that rosy view is not the true picture.
“I realized this exchange had a dead artist exhibiting in Havana and it had Cuban artists, who by definition had to be sanctioned by the Cuban government if they were going to be representing the Cuban museum,” Cortada said. “So I thought there was a voice conspicuously absent in what was presumably a huge, first-time-in-five-decades exchange.”
That’s why Cortada said he dropped everything he was doing in Miami to come to Key West to replace a trio of artists called Stainless, which could not participate at the last minute because two of them could not get visas.
Behind the scenes, Cortada said, he pressed the artists on true freedom. He asked Fabelo why he had signed the letter condoning the executions of the three men trying to reach freedom.
“But not in a confrontational way,” Cortada said, “I asked him: ‘Were you coerced? Were you confused?’ He responded back to me the reason he did it was he was tricked.… When he tried to take it back, it was too late.”
In Cuba, if artists don’t toe the party line, it is almost impossible to get art supplies and an art education, said Juan EGO (Eduardo Garcia O’Farrill), who was put in jail for a year after he was caught trying to flee the island at 15. When he got out, he was forced to work as a mechanic until the 1994 exodus. EGO fled again, this time successfully with his wife and five others aboard a rickety homemade raft. He made a new life in Virginia before moving to Key West 31/2 years ago to open two Cuban restaurants and work on his self-taught art.
As the cultural exchange was opening in Key West, 28 paintings and carvings by EGO already were being exhibited at the Lemonade Stand Gallery in Bahama Village. They included a colorful acrylic painting of that stormy crossing of the Florida Straits, where a canvas that was supposed to be for protection from the rain turned into a sail that brought them into the path of a U.S. Coast Guard boat and, eventually, safety.
EGO, 61, also has a painting depicting the “Ladies in White,” an opposition movement in Cuba made up of wives and female relatives of jailed dissidents. He passionately described the piece: “The only color is from the blood from her son, a political prisoner, who died from a hunger strike in prison.”
EGO said he is not against a cultural exchange, but said it should include Cuban artists living freely in the United States being able to exhibit their work in Havana.
“I don’t think I would be permitted to show the painting of the Ladies in White,” he said. “[The Cuban government] would control what they show. It would not be a free exchange. There always are conditions.”
He said that while some artists in Cuba are willing to live with conditions, he wasn’t. “It’s like being a bird in a cage,” he said. “They will give you medicine and food and teach you how to think. That’s not freedom.”
Fabelo was born in 1950 and grew up in the countryside, where his first experience of art was using mud, branches and beeswax to create fake spiders to scare his grandmother. Art supplies were in short supply, until he got to school, where his talent opened the doors. For many others with artistic talent, however, those doors are slammed shut.
But times are changing, despite the continuous hostile political rhetoric between the governments of Cuba and the United States, and despite the calls by some hardliners to keep the U.S. embargo.
In 2011, the Obama Administration extended the duration of nonimmigrant visas for Cubans from six months to five years and allowed for multiple entries. Last year, Cuba eliminated the necessity for its citizens to obtain exit visas to travel abroad and extended the time abroad from 11 months to two years.
This has allowed for more “real cultural exchanges,” like the ones promoted by the Cuban Soul Foundation, founded in 2011 by Pedro Vidal of Miami.
The foundation has helped about 35 dissident artists so far, Vidal said. They come to the United States and see for themselves how free artists operate. They are taught how to raise funds for their art and how to run it like a business, so they can survive when they return to Cuba. And in Cuba, the foundation has helped to put together three community-based cultural centers.
“It was the artistic movement in Serbia that helped to overthrow [Slobodan] Milosevic,” Vidal said.
Most of the Cuban artists for the “Una Raza/One Race” exchange brought art that was apolitical, like Reinerio Tamayo, who is showcasing a series of 29 colorful paintings devoted to great baseball players and world-renowned artists. One has Hemingway dressed as a baseball player swinging a marlin as a bat.
Ruben Alpizar, who showed a painting he called an architectural smorgasbord, with different whimsical and humorous scenes inside each compartment, said, “We are free to make whatever we want. We live from our art. We sell our art. Very few artists in the world live from their art. They have to work other jobs like clean plates during the day, and at night they get to paint. They are very tired. No, we don’t have to. We live well.”
The most provocative work at the exhibit, by Sandra Ramos, shows a young girl’s body lying across a bridge that is trying to connect two lands just 90 miles apart that have been isolated by politics.
“I always try to be as free as I want,” said Ramos, 33, who deals with racism, poverty and mass migration in her art. “My work always has to do with political and social issues at the personal level. I think that’s why I have been able to touch difficult subjects with my work.
“I’ve never been censored directly in Cuba. I don’t think about being censored when I do my work.”
She insisted she never has wanted to emigrate from her country. But since Castro took over in 1959, more than a million people have fled the island, many dying in the Florida Straits. As the exhibits were being put in place, news surfaced that three windsurfers had risked their lives going from Cuba to Key West in search of freedom. One almost died. He was found on a remote island, dehydrated and in desperate need of medical attention.
For the government-supported artists, leaving Cuba has not been a problem. Several of them have been exhibiting their work for decades in galleries and museums around the world. Most have been to the United States several times. Ramos currently is working on a residency in Miami. And Moreno, the curator from Havana, has two adult children living in South Florida.
Cortada said many of the Cuban artists at the exchange say they have freedom because they have been given permission to whisper while most in Cuba are not allowed to speak.
“We need to get rid of this distorted old narrative that there’s Cubans in Miami who are completely out of touch and don’t have any contact with Cubans on the island,” Cortada said. “And here comes the great white knight of cultural exchange to bridge the divide.”
People should support the dissident artists who do not have an international voice, Vidal said.
And Peñalver said they should not support artists hand-picked by the Cuban government: “The paintings and the painters and the terms of cultural exchange and historical ties are just tools in a much larger process. The real exchange is taking place between deep-pocketed foreign interests who seek profit and the Castro government officials, who see it as a way to stay in power. In exchange, the foreigners look the other way and do not demand any kinds of reforms in Cuba. It’s gone on with Spain and Canada and Brazil for years.”