EL YUMA [curated by Sachie Hernandez and Aynel David Guerra] Nov. 24, 2016 - Mar. 10, 2017.
A R E A’ s inaugural exhibition, El Yuma, features the work of 15
Cuban artists who have been invited to present their perspectives on the United
The United States is popularly known in Cuba as “El Yuma.” Shortly after the
American Western film ‘3:10 to Yuma’ (Delmer Daves, 1957) was screened in
the theaters of the island, Cubans started to use the term Yumas for American
visitors and El Yuma to refer to the United States.
Organized by Havana-based curator Sachie Hernandez and Aynel David
Guerra, co-founder of A R E A, the exhibition addresses the perceptions of a
group of artists who approach the United States from their generational
perspectives and personal interactions with the American reality, and a
discourse that dissects multiple axes of the bilateral context.
I am sitting at a café in the Boston downtown area, a few days before the opening of the exhibition. I am working on some final details, and expectantly waiting, like most of the American society and a significant part of the world, for the election results. I can’t help feeling a certain excitement for the fact that I am sharing the unique experience that, maybe, America will have her first female President, and a Democrat too. Also, I am waiting for my old time friend, Aynel David, co-curator of this exhibition, who lives and works in this city. In order to launch his alternative art project, A R E A, he trusted in Cuban Art. On top of everything, the tune of an iconic danzon by Arsenio Rodriguez called Beautiful Cuban Woman can be heard.
I tell this story and it seems easy, but a number of serious difficulties have been overcome, most of all political, many that are above us, as well as many prejudices and economic restrictions, for this project to become true.
Ever since the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US at the end of the year 2014, in the midst of the renewed enthusiasm and curiosity for the island, many international exhibitions of Cuban art have been organized, promoting a comprehensive, inter-generational and multi-genre perspective on the artistic forms developing in Cuba at present.
This time we were of the opinion that we could encourage a group of Cuban of artists to openly reflect on their perceptions about the United States of America. After all, Americans have constructed their own vision about the rest of the world and shared it openly, sometimes on the basis of lack of knowledge and extreme stereotypes. In the case of post-revolutionary Cuba, the oversimplification and bias increased.
However, El Yuma does not intend to be a response to this approximation, it is just an attempt at dialogue. It is one more of the multiple institutional and private initiatives that are trustfully starting a transparent, dynamic and respectful exchange between the peoples of Cuba and the United States.
On the other hand, despite the Revolution or because of it, we Cubans cannot escape the fascination for this country. It is well known that whatever is forbidden or excluded ends up arising some sort of vertigo, curiosity, or intense yearning.
“A universe thoroughly decaying from wealth, power, senility, indifference, puritanism and mental obsessions; destitution and wastefulness, technological pride and useless violence. The whole world keeps dreaming about it, no matter how dominated and exploited it may be” would comment Jean Boudrillard in his essay America.
“Yumas” are all foreigners in Cuba, but the most Yumas of all, the real Yumas, have always been Americans. When someone travels to the US to visit or emigrate, it is common to say “I’m going to Yuma”. This popular denotation was initiated in Cuba with the screening of the Western 3:10 Train to Yuma (Delmer Daves, 1957).
The artists participating in the exhibition were born in Cuba from the end of the 60’s to the beginning of the 90’s, most live and work in the Island, but all have had the possibility of traveling, even to the US, at least once. There are some who live and work between Havana and another part of the world, including Miami, so their points of view are no necessarily local. We asked them to provide their personal opinion about the United States, ranging from stereotype to solid reflection, from criticism to apology. Likewise, we did not set limits to the topics to be tackled.
We will find works that deal with the theme of the Cuba-US relations, as in the cases of Meira & Toirac, Alejandro Gonzalez, Abel Barreto and Mari Claudia Garcia. Meira and Toirac use a historical approach, based on a revised vision of the explosion of American battleship Maine at Havana Harbor, which started the Spanish American War at the end of the 19th Century and eventually brought about the US intervention in Cuba. The piece also refers to the vicissitudes suffered by the monument erected to commemorate this event, which is an almost perfect metaphor of the evolution of the relations between both countries. It uses the handmade pottery medium, that is, souvenir dishes in ceramic, since it was around this accident and the arrival of many American tourists in Cuba that history and patriotism were turned into merchandise.
Alejandro, on the other hand, reconstructs a more recent history, which has to do with the ideological representation that the Cuban government has systematically made of the United States and of the dangers that a closer connection between the countries could imply for the Revolution. It is the story of the stereotype officially created in Cuba from the logic of fear; an ongoing story—we still have government officials ready to remind us of “the enemy’s” attempts to bring us down, nowadays with different methods and manners. And it is not a question of being naïve and dismissing the interests behind the steps taken by President Obama’s administration, or underestimating the challenges of a closer relation, but of facing them more bravely and less self-consciously, with more creativity and less bravado.
Barreto’s work is perhaps more subtle and symbolic, nonetheless as strong. The supposed calm that one could wish or perceive in the horizon suggested by the rope becomes questioned by the powerful tension of the knot. There is no horizon, neither geographic nor other, or closeness in terms of family relations or life alternatives for a Cuban except the US.
Mari Claudia’s, the most tautological piece in reference to her positioning towards the exhibition title, registers her family’s opinions about “El Yuma”. She does not ask them about the US, but almost all the answers spontaneously refer to him/her. It is a record of the varied ways of thinking and contradictions about the topic we can come across in the same Cuban family, taking into account different ages and life experiences. A number of postcards bought in Amazon, Yuma County, also make up her proposal. She has brought her relatives’ messages and would like the American audience to respond to them by corresponding via the postcards.
There are two artists who explore the tremendous influence that the US has exerted on the development of music and visual arts in Cuba. Ernesto Garcia Sanchez indistinctly appropriates three beautiful pieces by Frank Stella, Sol Le Witt and Mark Rothko, by means of tools that he invents or whose original purpose he subverts in order to generate his own aesthetics, which has to do with the experiment and the difficulties of the pictorial process. Forming part of a very young generation, he grew up with a less militant vision about the US-maybe that’s why post-pictorial abstraction, conceptualism and minimalism are their relevant references.
Francisco Alejandro’s work is not directly about music, but about the visual universe built around the foreign music, especially American, that was popular in the Island in the 80’s. His pieces are the representation of his memories around the attempt to decorate his cassette tapes, in his effort to make them the most personal, the most Yuma-like possible. But it was not just about the music that used to be heard or the visual image of the object that spread it, Jimmy formed part of a group of youngsters that tried to cope with the excessive homogeneity of Cuban society, by trying to devise a different way of dressing, of being, of hanging around, of living. They were called “ideological deviationists”, but most did not worship the US, but showed a reaction against the decline of individuality and diversity in the Cuban society of the time.
Angel Ricardo Rios also directed his attention to the processes of appropriation and assimilation of codes and icons of American mass culture, obviously winking at Warhol. In his case, on account to his prolonged stay in Mexico, he carried out a paradoxical deconstruction of Walt Disney’s great myths, such as Mickey and Mini, through the craft production of birthday party pinatas. It seems that, unwillingly, people make an imitation of the American animated cartoon characters that become a caricature, somewhat ridiculous and ugly. On top of everything, the pinata is systematically beaten until destroyed as tradition would have it. For Richard, it’s as if the love-hate historical relationship that many Latin American countries have vis-a-vis the US became perpetuated by means of this tradition.
Three other artists explore the profound feeling of duality experienced towards this nation. All things good and terrible can be found here, everything ever produced by humanity, from side to side, intimidatingly.
Adriana Arronte has created a bas-relief, some sort of archaeological locket where varied historical, political and cultural symbols of the US are put together. They join, transform each other, contaminate themselves; annulling or strengthening each other are several referents of the Hippy movement and the struggle for the Civil Rights, the conquest of the West, the nature of the continent, war and violence, baseball, luxury, vanity.
From the photographic archives of Michel Pou, like an essay about his first trip to the USA, we want to show what he has digitally shared with his friends in Cuba, exactly as it was. We also find an abundance of detail that illustrates ambivalence. There are photos that tell about his spell under the urban or rural fall landscapes that he “accidentally” found on his way. But most are not randomly taken. Side by side with the ecological beauty of some green gardens grown on the roofs of New York are absurd prohibitions in park signs and the worship to ownership, to private property, even in public places. Next to the profusely lit beauty and unlimited verticality of the buildings of New York and Chicago are the Latin and African American areas, sunk in grayness, filth, ugliness. We can find infinite diversity of faces, physical or cultural identities on the streets, together with American chauvinism and the American flag, an omnipresent background, maybe not “as a patriotic signal, but as a logo for a good trademark”. And among many other contrasts, in order to conclude: the frantic movement, the brush of thousands of human bodies and their loneliness.
Humberto evokes a more subtle, philosophical and universal contradiction through his piece, the title of which plays upon the history of Boston at its foundation. One thing is what you dream about, what you think, and another is the reality. How can a nation whose main foundational value was liberty end up restraining it world-wise and distorting it at a federal level. Our ideas can be the most liberating spaces of mental constructions and the most oppressive spaces. Thus, at the window.
The showpiece that implies the most direct criticism to the arrogant and hostile manner in which the US has established and maintained its hegemony over the world is Levy Orta’s. He decided to print the KUBARK interrogation manual, used by the CIA and the military in Latin America since 1963 and more recently in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Base, and requested it be symbolically and systematically erased. The document was declassified in 2014 but will be soon forgotten, except by some experts or students who will consult it now and then. Contemporary society is very much compelled to consume the news and every day tabloid scandals and alienate the accessibility and weight of certain historical truths which should be forever remembered, never to be repeated.
In close connection with the latter, we have Sandra Perez’s sculpture piece, as if establishing a poetic balance in the understanding of the USA. She decided to use a mirror where to look at ourselves, and integrate all of us, but to preserve, almost as a wound, a fragment where to understand we are alone. In this world nothing is isolated, everything is connected and we are all responsible for what happens every day and accumulates in order to generate positive and negative transformations. Human beings repeat themselves, and repeat the same vices and virtues all over the world. The “monster”, as she defines it, which may be the US, but is also the monster that all nations are, all individuals as well. The only possibility of exorcising the demons and being healed is to look inside us more deeply and with more generosity outwardly.
When I was about to finish this text, we finally learned about the sad results of the elections. I say sad because, no matter how much I respect the American people’s decisions in the exercise of democracy, they deeply affected most of my American and Cuban friends who live in this country, with whom I share certain political sensitivity in terms of acknowledging the dignity of human beings. I could not fail to be concerned with the implications for the future of the relations of Cuba and the US either.
I thought about Sandra Ramos, one of the artists in this exhibition. I left my commentary on her work for the end, because it is the confusion that she intends to capture in her collages perhaps the best expression of the latest events. After two years in the US, she considers that the society’s complicity, unity and convergence has more to do with the frantic energy and the intense rivalry and trivialization of the way of life promoted by the media than with a political and cultural foundation. She commented that she would like there to be a television channel where the good news, the positive proposals and initiatives of citizens and politicians were reflexively dealt with. She was worn out by all the visibility-frequently negative but visibility anyway, that the media overwhelmingly provided Trump with.
However, as I just read on a street sign, “of course it’s not the end”, nor the failure, I hope, of the sincere reconciliation of our peoples and cultures.
Sachie Hernandez, co-curator of El Yuma.