2017-02-16 16:44:09
Art Review: A Bumpy Journey From Havana to New York Ends at ‘Wild Noise/Ruido Salvaje’

Storm clouds have piled up around “Wild Noise/Ruido Salvaje,” an exhibition of contemporary Cuban work at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. The show was planned a few years ago as a two-part mutual exchange of permanent collection work between the Bronx Museum and the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana. In May 2015, the Bronx material, a juicy globalist grab bag, made the trip to Cuba without a hitch and returned home safely. The prearranged shipment of Cuban art from the National Museum to New York, however, hit a roadblock when, according to the Bronx Museum, Cuban authorities refused to let any of it leave the island.

Whatever the full story of that setback, the Bronx Museum moved ahead with a make-do version of the project. Working with two National Museum curators, Corina Matamoros and Aylet Ojeda Jequin, it patched together the present show from its own holdings and American loans. And even then there were problems.

One scheduled artist in the Bronx Museum’s collection, Tania Bruguera, was under government house arrest in Cuba in May 2015 and not included in the Bronx show there, though she could and should have been. She recently backed out of the New York leg of “Wild Noise,” protesting the museum’s failure to speak out critically to the Cuban government. (The museum, for its part, harbors hopes that a Cuba-to-New-York exchange will at some point come off.)

There’s no question that the exhibition as it will finally open here is a far less challenging affair than Ms. Bruguera would have wished. Although it claims to be “an exploration of contemporary Cuban art from the 1970s to the present,” it is in no way a representative survey. Like the Bronx collection display in Havana, it’s a sedate sampler, one without a shaping point of view. Wild and noisy are exactly what it is not.

This is disappointing. At the same time, the show doesn’t lack for political content; there’s plenty, however discreetly framed. And there are advantages to having no ironbound curatorial concept in play: At least the 30 or so artists get equal time with their varied voices, some mild, some strong, several new to New York.

Still, some thematic structuring would have been a help, even at the risk of reinforcing stereotypes of tropical exoticism, revolutionary fervor, etc. One obvious theme is the presence of nature, a universally loaded one in the age of climate crisis. It’s everywhere here. The performance artist Glenda Léon notates music and dance scores with images of raindrops. The Cuban-American conceptualist Maria Elena González punches holes in photographs of palm trees.

Humberto Díaz, currently an artist-in-residence at the Bronx Museum, extends the active life of fallen tree branches he scavenges from the city’s parks by attaching industrial brooms to their tips. For a long-unseen installation from the early 1990s, the artist Alexis Leiva Machado, known as Kcho, transforms a set of palm saplings into what look like giant oars, a reminder of earlier waves of exodus from the island by boat to escape political persecution.

The Cuban-born Ana Mendieta (1948-1985) was part of that refugee generation and came to the United States as a child. Her attachment to Cuba remained profound, often expressed as an intimate, sacrificial identification with the natural world. In a series of works called “Siluetas,” she virtually merged with it, buried herself, by tracing and burning the shape of her body into the earth, as documented in a dozen photographs from her art school years at the University of Iowa in the 1970s.

In such images, Ms. Mendieta was indirectly referring to a specific aspect of Cuban cultural history: the forced mass migration that was the Atlantic slave trade. Beginning in the 16th century, hundreds of thousands of slaves were shipped from Africa to Spanish colonial Cuba to work on sugar plantations, bringing their languages, arts and spiritual lives with them.

The spirit of Afro-Caribbean religions that developed on the island was central to much of Ms. Mendieta’s work, and to that of several other artists in the show. In the 1980s, José Bedia became a priest of Palo Monte, a religion with roots in the Kongo kingdom of Central Africa, home to many New World slaves. Belkis Ayón, who took her own life in Havana in 1999 at age 32, was inspired by Abakuá, an all-male, Nigerian-derived secret society that she, heretically, infuses with female energy in a magnificent body of black-and-white figurative prints.

These hybrid faiths, and others, are still widely practiced. And skin color continues to be, even in a country that once made utopian claims to colorblindness, a social and economic determinant. This is a reality that the artist María Magdalena Campos-Pons has been addressing for years in ritualistic whiteface performances — one took place, unannounced, in Piazza San Marco during the 2013 Venice Biennale — and in role-playing photographic self-portraits, like the ones in the show.

The Cuban Revolution is itself a state religion and its gods inevitably find a place in the show, though as objects of ambivalent devotion. A cigar-puffing Fidel Castro makes an early appearance, surrounded by peasant soldiers and patriotic kids, in a 1969 painting by the political Pop artist Raúl Martínez. José Angel Toirac and Meira Marrero depict Fidel Castro as an absurdly towering titan, while Carlos Garaicoa emblazons his name above a photograph of a headless sculptural angel shot in an upscale Havana hotel.

Ezekiel Suárez, who with the artist Sandra Ceballos founded Havana’s oldest alternative space, Espacio Aglutinador, was hounded by censors in the 1990s. In response, he took to writing secret, tweet-size messages to Castro on the reverse side of his abstract embroideries, literally hiding subversive content in his art.

For decades, to the outside world, Cuban art meant propaganda. Portraits of Castro and Che Guevara were best sellers because that’s all that was on the market. The curators of “Wild Noise” put an antic spin on this phenomenon, without abandoning it. But they also include some genuinely moving political work. In 1996, Mr. Toirac and Ms. Marrero did a series of 12 portraits, from news photos, of corpses found in a city morgue after the Cuban president, Fulgencio Batista, had been overthrown by the Revolution in 1959. Who these people were, and why and how they died, is unrecorded. The military has memorials to unknown soldiers; these are unknown citizens. The artists treat them with reverence, painting their features with wine and gold leaf.

They take a refined, even delicate approach to a large subject. There are other examples. Diana Fonseca Quiñones distills the texture of a crumbling Havana in small abstract collages made of paint scraps harvested from building exteriors. Pedro Pablo Oliva portrays José Martí, the apostle of Cuban independence, as a slumbering saint in dapper tropical whites. And the conceptualist Wilfredo Prieto sketches, in the faintest of ink lines on a long paper scroll, images of every project he has completed in a prolific career.

In the end, Ms. Bruguera’s resistance to a show that she found to be too unprotestingly in line with the Cuban government’s dictatorial control of art is well taken. And this leads to a natural question: If work from the permanent collection of the National Museum in Havana had traveled, would it be any more radical than what we see here?

In short, “Wild Noise” maybe as good as we could expect considering the official sources and compromises involved. We may find a bolder take on truth-in-history in a larger show, “Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950,” which opens at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, on March 5. In terms of point of view, the title alone speaks volumes.