Cuban culture is a complex mix of contrasting influences. Its music, a creole of African and European sound, is recognized throughout the world; its cuisine is a fusion of Spanish, African, and Caribbean flavor and spices (albeit in short supply); and Cuban literature has its own voice.
Cuban art reflects the nation’s demographic diversity, with contemporary artists emerging after the 1959 Cuban Revolution. In Havana, architecture ranges from colonial, baroque, and neo-classical to art nouveau, art deco, and modernism. This nation with a small ecological footprint boasts low rates of illiteracy and infant mortality, high life expectancy, and its healthcare and education system are models. Although taste for and curiosity about Cuba are high, travel to the island is still restricted to journalists, academic professionals, or those engaged in humanitarian, non-profit, government, or religious work.
The College of New Jersey is presenting a window into Cuban culture with “Video Cubano,” an exhibition of 22 videos created by Cuban artists during the past 10 years, through Sunday, December 15. A related lecture by Cuban-born artist Genady Pavon on “Vanitas: The Political Still Life” takes place Friday, November 8, in the Mayo Concert Hall.
A one-minute video by Luis Garciga turns the rhythmic sound of a ping pong ball bouncing off a hard surface into music. It starts off with an athletic ping pong player thwacking the ball back and forth with his paddle. In the background we see a white tile wall with a significant number of missing tiles. At first we assume he is playing against another player, but soon we see he’s playing off the cinderblock wall inside an open white cabinet. He keeps up a steady rhythm until the ball rolls out of the little cubby space on the wall, then the player picks it up and starts all over again. This process of start and repeat, and determination, is universal, but the decaying surroundings are typical to Cuba.
Behind the player are a stove that looks vintage 1950s, and a window with bars. The U.S. embargoes against Cuba, as well as bureaucratic ineffectiveness, lack of a market economy, and the loss of Soviet subsidies, have led to crumbling infrastructure. “The irony is, he’s playing against an empty Russian refrigerator,” says curator Rachel Perera Weingeist. “Cubans don’t even have a food supply.”
Another video takes us on a tour of a deserted baseball stadium, as a voiceover narrator describes a great moment in the game when he and “Mario” were carried up on the shoulders of the other players. “I could never strike Mario out,” he says in the beginning. Nobody could beat his team. They even played “The Yanquis.” The narrator threw his best pitches and struck them all out. They were heroes, but those days are gone. The epilogue recounts how Hurricane Ike, in 2008, caused considerable human and economic damage throughout the country.
The national game of Cuba, baseball, is quite unifying, says Weingeist. “It’s a small pocket of privilege. One of the only ways to get off the island is traveling with your baseball team, and as with ballet, a large amount of defection takes place that way.”
Another video flashes numbers across the screen as a Spanish-speaking male recites them. These numbers are excerpts of Fidel Castro’s speeches.
The videos are part of the private collection of Shelley and Donald Rubin, largely known for their Tibetan and Indian art collections, and for New York’s Rubin Museum dedicated to the collection, display, and preservation of the art of the Himalayas. Curator Weingeist, senior advisor to the Rubin Foundation, says the Rubins only began collecting Cuban art four years ago. “The Rubins have a large appetite for what is innovative and unique, and Cuba is fascinating to Mr. Rubin, so he started building bridges to see the artwork,” she says. “He was raised by Eastern European communists in New York City and developed a keen interest for the unusual.”
As collectors of Cuban art, the Rubins “are dedicated to providing opportunities for artists, as well as preserving the rich culture of the island.”
Weingeist, who grew up in New York and earned a master’s degree in art history from NYU, traveled to Cuba, visiting artists’ studios. She found the videos an accessible medium for fostering cross-cultural dialogue.
“The videos show a very contemporary slice of life,” she says. “Because of censorship and a totalitarian government, artists have to create a visual language to express themselves, and the result is poetic. There’s a lot of allusion and metaphor that only hint at what they’re really thinking and feeling. The government controls museum exhibitions and galleries, and artists don’t have the opportunity to show the work we’re showing.”
When Weingeist returned to the U.S. she learned that the Guggenheim open call video project was excluding artists from sanctioned countries, so she filled the gap with an open call for Cuban video, and collected 80 videos, giving a voice to Cuban artists to reach a New York audience. Weingeist set up a jury of Cuban cultural and art experts and screened 30 films in 2010. “It took on a life of its own, traveling to San Francisco and other cities throughout U.S. At a time when museums have small budgets, this is an interesting exhibition with low overhead.”
Publicizing the open call to video artists presented a challenge, since less than 10 percent of Cuba has internet access. Artists were sought through professors, curators, and other artists. “There is so much talent on the island, it was successful immediately, and we have continued accepting videos,” she says. The TCNJ exhibit includes many never before seen.
Havana is renowned for its art education, says Weingeist. “Part of revolution included elevating the visual arts, music, dance, and theater. The highly competitive Instituto Superior del Arte opened in the 1960s, educating students who went on to become professors. Artists are the one percent in Cuba. The Cuban government supports the arts far beyond any other culture I’ve experienced.”
Though Cuba is not known as a hotbed of high-tech equipment, video artists have access to equipment based on their personal finances. Having family in the U.S. and the ability to travel or win grants or residencies can enhance their ability to get equipment.
At press time Weingeist was installing “Citizens of the World: Cuba in Queens” at the soon-to-reopen Queens Museum. Through paintings, drawings, sculptures, videos, and installations from the Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection, that exhibit “explores how Cuban visual artists, living both on island and in diaspora, grapple with the profound complexities between identity and place.”
It all began when Donald Rubin, a former longshoreman, and his wife, Shelley, became smitten with a pair of Tibetan paintings in a Madison Avenue gallery window in 1979. “We had just $3,000 in our bank account, and each painting was $1,500,” Rubin told students at TCNJ last year, when the gallery exhibited artwork from the Rubins’ collection of Indian art. “I didn’t know anything about art. I’d never bought a painting before. I don’t think I’d been in a museum except on a school trip.”
The Rubins, who went on to earn their fortune in the healthcare business, didn’t know much about Tibet or Buddhism back in 1975, but felt a connection to the 19th-century paintings.
“It took me no more than 10 seconds to make the decision to acquire that painting,” Rubin said. “If I’d thought about it, I’d never have bought it. I don’t want to know things intellectually — I want to feel the emotions.” He likens the experience to falling in love — you don’t ask for the person’s resume or letters of recommendation. It’s more about “their energy, their looks, their aura.”
Rubin prefers to buy art that reflects “real life” rather than abstract art. “I Will Survive” is a black-and-white video portrait of the people of Havana with a Spanish version of the 1978 eponymous song first performed by Gloria Gaynor. The video does for Havana what Walker Evans did for New York with his black-and-white photos of people on the street.
Many of the films in “Video Cubano” examine aspects of daily life in Cuba, including political propaganda and the military, while other videos explore themes of perseverance and survival.
TCNJ Art Gallery, Arts and Interactive Multimedia Building, 2000 Pennington Road, Ewing. Gallery hours Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, noon to 7 p.m., Sundays 1 to 3 p.m., free. tcnj.edu/artgallery or 609-771-2633.
Vanitas: The Political Still Life, Mayo Concert Hall, College of New Jersey. Friday, November 8, 11:30 a.m. to 12:20 p.m. Geandy Pavon presents lecture. Born in Cuba and educated at the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plasticas, Pavon lives in New Jersey.