Amid crumbling marble ruins and vintage American automobiles, the last thing Harry Naar expected to see in Cuba were the spacious, light-filled, and well-outfitted studios of artists. And in a society that is pretty much cut off from the rest of the world, Naar, a professor of fine arts at Rider University, was surprised and delighted to discover that artists were producing contemporary work that is very much influenced by the international art world.
“The artwork we saw included traditional realistic images, invented abstraction, computer art, and, to our surprise, political images, satire, and social commentary,” says Naar. “I knew I needed to figure out a way to exhibit some of this artwork. It was an exceptional artistic and cross cultural opportunity to expose our community to this work and demonstrate the creative spirit, efforts, and accomplishments of the Cuban artists.”
“Printmaking in Cuba Today,” on view at the Gallery at Rider University through Sunday, March 1, is a sampling of the work seen by gallery director Naar.
As travelers gear up to go to Cuba in the wake of President Obama loosening the economic embargo, it is expected that the island nation will change. To meet the needs of tourists, American-style fast food restaurants and hotel chains will spring up. But Naar and his wife, Barbara, an attorney, had the opportunity to see the country and its art community in 2013.
They found themselves drawn to Cuba after their son, Aaron, made a documentary about a musician who learned to speak Spanish in jail, and subsequently began recording in Spanish, including with the Buena Vista Social Club. Aaron, who lives in Los Angeles, traveled to Cuba for the film and urged his parents to go.
As an artist Naar says he is always looking at the terrain. He creates large canvases with highly detailed drawings of thicket and brush. But he is not especially an outdoorsman. When he and Barbara traveled to Vietnam, for example, he sat in the back of bus with his sketchpad, making quick sketches he would rework in his studio. “If the terrain is the same for a while I can look at it and piece it together,” he says. Closer to home, “As I’m driving around and see land that strikes me, I do a few quick lines, capturing the way the trees bend in a particular way. I remember that in the development of the big picture.”
In Cuba Naar and his wife were interested in music. They were there for the International Jazz Festival. They flew to Miami and then Havana. “It was like a movie set, with old American cars from the 1950s and crazy-looking cars built by Russians called Ladas. We saw incredibly beautiful marble buildings, some crumbling. When the Russians came they built cement block buildings with no architectural interest, so it was a mish-mash. Everything was in need of a facelift.”
Barbara noticed pictures of Che Guevara prominently displayed but few images of Fidel Castro. “That’s probably because he’s still living and is considered one of the people,” she says.
“The people are warm and outgoing, and a lot of them hitchhike,” says Naar. Even doctors hitchhike, they observed. “The buses don’t run well; they are always breaking down. We also saw horse-drawn carts. You should go now, before all that changes.”
Their Havana hotel was cooled by old fans and was “grandiose but shabby, not maintained,” says Barbara, who speaks Spanish fluently. Before becoming an attorney she was a language educator and served as translator for Harry, both in their travels and putting the exhibition together. The hotel “was perfectly adequate and had charm.”
Though tempted, the Naars did not hitchhike. When not driven in a bus, they hired a 1950s car. “It reminded me of my youth, but the motors had been replaced,” says Naar. “Nothing works inside, the roll windows don’t roll, and things are coming out from the seats.”
With their free time Barbara and Harry indulged their passion for looking at art. In outdoor markets they saw work that was “really commercial, what tourists would buy”: paintings of cars, Che Guevara, and Hemingway’s bar.
“We went to the government-owned Center for the Development of Visual Arts, but it was closed,” says Harry. When a person came to the entry, Naar presented a catalog from a show at Rider, and through Barbara as interpreter, “I told her that I was an American artist, a professor of fine arts and director of my university’s gallery, and that we were visiting for only a few days. We were told to wait. In a few minutes a young woman came out to greet us.
“Her name was Marilyn Sampera Rosado, the curator of the center. Marilyn gave us a personal tour and informed us there were lots of artists we could visit and offered to take us around. So for two wonderful days we hired a vintage car and Marilyn, with her keen eye, expertise, and wide-ranging contacts, took us to meet Cuban artists in their work spaces,” Naar recounts in the bilingual exhibition catalog.
Studios were neat and well organized, Naar observed, and artists were businesslike, with printed cards and electronic presentations of their artwork.
“It was like being in a candy store,” continues Naar. “We saw 15 or 20 artists. Some were living in homes with studios, one had a huge studio in a marble building that was once fantastic but crumbling — he was renovating it. He was a sculptor and ceramicist and had a 12-piece place setting with a picture of Castro in a variety of sexual positions, screwing Cuba. I wondered, ‘Can he get away with this?’ We saw a lot of uncensored satire and political commentary in the artwork.”
The art market in Cuba is thriving. Long before talk of a thaw in Cuba-American relations, international art buyers discovered the Cuban aesthetic. Artists are prized and highly educated. Wealthy intellectuals who have traveled to Cuba on “people-to-people” trips have also sought art.
According to a recent article in the New York Times, “the Cuban government has given extra freedom to artists, who are viewed as a pillar of the country’s cultural prestige, allowing them to travel and keep a large share of their income.”
Naar observed “A lot of the artists are doing quite well. Some artists just out of school seemed advanced in techniques, politically savvy, commercially aware, and very entrepreneurial.”
Of the artists the Naars visited, one had created a landscape with a bridge that became three-dimensional when viewed through 3-D goggles. “Another artist was using stamps with political statements to create a structure of buildings. A young woman was making images of buildings from meticulously hand-cut paper, showing the crumbling environment.
“The artists are successful and have been exhibited in the U.S., and know American and European economies,” says Naar. “We went to one studio, a house divided into sections in which each artist had a room. They handed us their card, they knew exactly what to do. They had been doing for this for a while.”
Naar says he is unaware of whether artists moving into a neighborhood in Cuba makes it upscale, as in parts of the U.S., but “artists are inventive and figure out how to make a go of it in a run-down space.”
The Naars invited Marilyn Sampera Rosado to visit Rider and the gallery, and she suggested an exhibition of works on paper that she could personally transport. “It’s an interesting cross-section of the work we saw and gives a feeling of the kind of work occurring in Cuba,” says Naar.
Printmaking: Cuba Today, Bart Luedeke Center, Rider University, 2083 Lawrenceville Road, Lawrenceville. Thursday, February 5, through Sunday, March 1. Free. Opening reception, Thursday, February 5, 5 to 7 p.m. Gallery talk, Thursday, February 12, 7 p.m. 609-895-5588 or www.rider.edu/artgallery.