Dreams and Experiences of Ten Contemporary Cuban Artists

Generally connected to the sole idea of migration, traveling has been a permanent topic in Cuban art and literature, and in the study of our identity. In its closest sense of physical displacement, or as action of embarking on a project, or even as metaphor of an escape from the present and construction of a future, traveling, under the present circumstances of the Cuban context, frequently means abandoning the island and not returning. Thus understood, the journey may appear as the circle of personal, economic, political or ideological conflicts. Always influenced by the ideology and politics, traveling has always been a frequent theme in the lives of hundreds of thousands of Cuban families scattered today in very diverse latitudes, and naturally, a topic of conflicts and radical rupture between generations of Cubans.

However, the journey is indeed more than that. It is a particular capacity of human beings to extend the borders of their minds and bodies. This is especially notorious when these human beings are artists. They can travel into themselves and exit, go back and forth from their specific geographies with the help of their imagination or spirit; and even if the trip never takes place, they are able to transmit to us that sense of freedom that is present in any attempted journey.

Thinking “the journey” is also undertaking it. It is an exercise of cognitive and spiritual preparation. A permanent learning about our immediate environment and about ourselves. It demands from us the reasons or pretended intentions we have to achieve it, and many times makes us reconsider the here and now of our lives. Nothing closer to undertaking a trip than to place ourselves in the depths of the space and time we have to live.

Conceived as four sections, the explores, without exhausting them, some of the concepts of journey that appear in the work of ten of the most outstanding contemporary Cuban artists. Each one of them traces possible roads to cover – in fact, they have covered them – and therefore the authenticity of the life experience they transmit. The Permanent Journey asks the artists what a journey is, and the answers are in their works and lives.

I. Loss, Memory, and Displacements

Migration, a familiar path for many Cubans, becomes a journey marked by loss and an escape from political upheaval. The sea, surrounding the island, serves as a conduit for hope and despair, connection and separation. These waters, steeped in the struggles of migration, are not just a physical barrier but a poignant symbol in Cuban visual arts. The island’s geography, particularly during crises, has heavily influenced its cultural narrative, shaping themes of loss and memory in art. The artists José A. Figueroa, Yoan Capote, and Fernando Rodríguez Falcón each engage with Cuba’s national consciousness through their unique artistic expressions:

José A. Figueroa is a veteran photographer who has captured the evolution of Cuban society over six decades, from the fervor of the Cuban Revolution to today’s complex realities. His Exilio series is a profound exploration of the Cuban diaspora, documenting the emotional landscape of separation and the enduring impact of displacement.

Yoan Capote’s art is an interactive experience, designed to stimulate the senses. His sculptures and installations, often made from found objects and at human scale, demand a tactile and emotional response, creating a strong thematic dialogue on migration, loss, and the human condition.

Fernando Rodríguez Falcón’s work, created in collaboration with his alter ego Francisco de la Cal, uses pulped documents of Cuban cultural significance to create abstract pieces that comment on the disintegration of societal structures and the lingering ties to Cuban identity, despite geographical and emotional distances.

Together, these artists offer diverse perspectives on the Cuban experience, reflecting on the island’s history and the intimate narratives of its inhabitants.

See more

II. History and Destiny: The African Legacy

Cuba’s identity is a mosaic, shaped by the confluence of European and African migrants who, through centuries of coalescence and conflict, crafted the nation’s soul. This synthesis, marked by imposition and struggle, evolved into a unique cultural identity beyond the sum of its parts. Revisiting this shared history is not about seeking reparation but about understanding it as a foundational element for interpreting the present and constructing the future. Artists like Marta María Pérez Bravo and Belkis Ayón have delved into this legacy, using their art to explore and express the spiritual and religious dimensions of Cuban heritage.

Marta María Pérez Bravo emerged from Havana’s Higher Institute of Art in 1984, contributing to the diversification of artistic expression and a softening of the decade’s cultural policies. Her work, often devoid of explicit political messaging, explores spirituality and individual identity. Belkis Ayón, graduating in 1991 amidst the collapse of European socialism, investigated the nation’s African and European roots through the lens of religious and spiritual narratives, using her body as a canvas for these cultural imprints. Both artists eschewed exoticism and manipulation of gender, race, or belief, instead embarking on a journey of self-liberation and expression.

Belkis Ayón, who tragically ended her life at thirty-two, left a significant mark on contemporary printmaking by centering her work on the Abakuá Secret Society, an all-male fraternity brought to Cuba by African slaves. Her work blended Abakuá’s imagery with Christian and other religious motifs to construct a universal critique of exclusion, censorship, and oppression. Ayón’s La Sentencia, displayed in significant exhibitions, encapsulates her powerful commentary on marginality and the quest for freedom, emblematic of the enduring African legacy within Cuban culture.

See more

III. The Inner Journey: Conscience, Refuge, and Protection

The voyage into one’s own consciousness is among the most challenging of human endeavors, requiring not only willpower but also intellectual depth and courage. For artists, this inward journey is a deep dive into the essence of creation itself, probing the depths of why and how to express their inner world to the outer. This process isn’t always verbalizable, yet it’s vividly present in their works, enriched by the quality of their lived experiences and the mysterious essence of talent.

Linet Sánchez Gutiérrez articulates the solitude of the mind’s landscape, a place where all experiences unfold in isolation. Her visual arts background, combined with her early dance discipline, informs her photographic work which captures spaces laden with memory and emotion. She constructs and photographs meticulous models, creating spaces of introspection—her ‘self-absorption’ sanctuaries.

Alejandro Campins translates his mental and physical travels into a visual narrative, with early sketches, photographs, and paintings forming a comprehensive archive of his journey. His Altares series particularly reflects on the faded ideological monuments of Cuba, capturing the impermanence of past glories and the silent decay of once-revered spaces.

Jacqueline Maggi’s work is a tangible chronicle of personal and collective migrations. Her Shelters series, carved from the detritus of demolished buildings, represents her quest for a place to call home, echoing the universal human desire for security and peace, and transforming humble bricks into repositories of human experiences and emotions.

Tomás Sánchez’s paintings emerge from his spiritual practice, where he seeks to expand his consciousness. His landscapes, while seemingly realistic, are actually profound reflections of his inner self, marrying the seen with the sensed, and the external world with his internal meditations.

See more

IV. The Uncertainty: a Journey to the Future

Navigating the future is akin to traversing a swamp, full of unseen turns and obscured paths, a concept captured in Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt’s 1971 film SWAMP. As the film progresses, a woman’s voice responds to guiding instructions, symbolizing the tension between direction and disorientation. This piece becomes a powerful allegory for the journey into the unknown—a walk into the future that is as uncertain as the swamp they attempt to navigate.

René Francisco Rodríguez’s work Entropía echoes this sentiment through a 3D animation that simulates a journey through a disordered cityscape, evoking the rich yet deteriorating architecture of Havana. The video, layered with the sound from SWAMP, creates a juxtaposition of past and present, of Smithson and Holt’s time with Rodriguez’s contemporary Cuba, both illustrating the persistent challenge of finding clarity and direction in the journey towards what lies ahead.

See more