A Look at Cuba and a Look Inward
I’ve always felt a double sense of blurriness in regards to U.S. foreign policy. My parents immigrated to the United States from a socialist Yugoslavia and, in a certain sense, passed on their innate skepticism of State narratives (née propaganda). This is compounded by the incredulity that is virtually requisite to navigate the contemporary info-scape. Though perhaps not its explicit intent, Oye Como Va?, a group exhibition now at the Dunedin Fine Art Center, brings this personal blurriness into focus, the necessary shortcomings of a perspective on Cuba bent through the lens of American interests or shutout entirely by a cataract of apathy.
This blur is foregrounded for me immediately upon entering the Art Center’s Douglas Whitley gallery in the video piece El Cuerpo Habla en Pasado/The Body Speaks in Past Tense by Celia y Yunior. During a trip to Trinidad and Tobago the artists met with a political speech writer and asked him to study the body language of Fidel Castro. The video tightly focuses on the speech writer’s hands as it records his spoken analysis. The video offers a literally narrow view and is visually claustrophobic. The speech writer meticulously scrutinizes Castro’s gestures, postures, facial expressions in an authoritative tone. That tone, however, is promptly undermined by the admission that he doesn’t understand Spanish, the analysis’ narrow purview reflecting the near uncomfortably tight shot.
In the course of about a minute, though, the speech writer’s hands become the proper subject of the piece as they flow, flutter, open and close. They seem to dance as his descriptions of oratory skills begin to resemble a sort of choreography. Perhaps both consciously and not, his gestures mimic Castro’s, illustrating the performative nature of, not just speechifying but, socially synthesizing political speech as an audience. Even a single viewing of the video reveals multiple layers of performance, meaning and intention.
Of course, The Body Speaks in Past Tense takes on special significance for an American audience that is still reeling from a particularly dramatic election season and young presidency that gifted its electorate with concepts (which feel like the strange love-child of Post-Structuralist and Alt-Right brains) such as post-truth and “alternative facts.” Outside of the mannerist spectacle of American politics, though, what is the significance of this work, specifically to a Cuban national? I have very little idea (and those little ideas were troubling).
While many Americans are wont to embrace liberal democracy and its (primarily capitalistic) values with unqualified enthusiasm, when the work in this exhibition touches on the matter, the artists generally seem more irresolute. I initially read this as a possible self-tempering for fear of censorship forces. Upon further reflection, though, I really have no idea if this is the case. Frankly, I may be unconsciously projecting my values/experiences onto those of someone very different from me, not unlike analyzing what someone is saying with their hands while not understanding what they’re saying with their mouth.
However, there is something important being said here. Or, rather, there are many important ideas and narratives being related in this exhibition.
Pedro Pablo Oliva’s Weeping Bride stands at the center of the Douglas Whitley gallery, a bronze figure of a woman clasping her face and hair flowing in the wind. As the title suggests, the sculpture is one of a pair – when in situ on the coasts of Florida and Cuba, the bride and husband are separated by the Straits, each longing for the other. Though his sculpture is overly sentimental in its stylings for my taste, the deep feeling with which it was wrought is undeniable.
Of course, this pair of sculptures speak to much more than the romantic yearnings of just two people. The roughly 90 miles separating Florida and Cuba is spanned by an array of often intense, complex and diverse emotions and histories between individuals, families and nations. I’ve lived in Florida for 31 of my 34 years, and it’s offered me a glimpse of what binds this state and that nation. I have a fuzzy idea of the weight of that relationship, but very little of its substance.
Oye Como Va? provides a “a vibrant sampling of the vital, creative culture active in Cuba today” and does so in a pleasant enough and thought provoking manner. However, the exhibition also offers a poignant opportunity to us, Floridian audiences. An audience’s way of looking is always brimming with creative decisions. However, an exhibition so politically, socially, emotionally and historically loaded for a specific audience is not so common. In the instance of such exhibitions, of this exhibition, that audience’s perceptions and “preperceptions” swell in importance. Oye Como Va? presents a valuable occasion for cultural diplomacy as much as an occasion for introspection.