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An exhibition of Cuban art makes its way from La Habana to LA

Untitled piece by Manuel Mendive, from the exhibition
Untitled piece by Manuel Mendive, from the exhibition "Made in Cuba! / Hecho en Cuba!"
Courtesy of Center for Cuban Studies and Santa Monica Art Studios
Untitled piece by Manuel Mendive, from the exhibition
"El Equipo del Siglo" by Alfredo Manzo is one of the pieces on display in the exhibition "Made in Cuba! / Hecho en Cuba!" at Santa Monica Art Studios
Courtesy of Center for Cuban Studies and Santa Monica Art Studios
Untitled piece by Manuel Mendive, from the exhibition
"Havana Monopoly" by Kadir López, from the show "Made in Cuba! / Hecho en Cuba!"
Courtesy of Center for Cuban Studies and Santa Monica Art Studios
Untitled piece by Manuel Mendive, from the exhibition
"Mi papalote" by Marlys Fuego, a mixed media piece currently on display in the exhibition "Made in Cuba! / Hecho en Cuba!"
Courtesy of Center for Cuban Studies and Santa Monica Art Studios

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As the U.S. and Cuba continue to work on their new relationship, cultural observers are watching to see what effect the diplomatic thaw will have on Cuban art and artists.

One of the leading promoters of Cuban visual art in the United States is the Center for Cuban Studies, which operates a gallery at its New York offices. That gallery is run by Sandra Levinson, and she recently curated a show of Cuban art that is currently at the Santa Monica Airport Art Studios.

("Target HC" by Kadir López and Jorge Enrique Valdez)

When Levinson joined us at The Frame studios, she talked about how she first fell in love with Cuban art, the ways in which Cuban art might change as relations between Cuba and the U.S. improve, and the best way to transport art from Cuba to the U.S. (hint: it's in your own suitcase).

Interview Highlights:

You're originally from Iowa, so how did a nice Iowa girl end up a Cuba-phile?

[laughs] When I read about the Cuban Revolution happening, I said, Wow, a revolution in our hemisphere! I want to be there! I went on July 4, 1969, planning to spend a week or two, and ended up spending six weeks.

I really fell in love with the country and the conversations were great. It was like being back in my first year of college, where you stayed up all night and talked about sex, politics, religion or whatever was the hot topic of the day.

They were super enthusiastic about talking about anything, whether it was for the revolution, against the revolution — whatever was happening. And I found that very exciting.

At what point did you get involved with Cuban art and Cuban artists?

When I got to Cuba, the first circle of people that I met — because of friends who'd already been there and who they had recommended — were writers, artists and musicians. A completely different kind of circle from what I was used to. And I really became enamored of the cultural life of Cuba and the way it was happening at that time.

So that's what really stuck me, and I immediately started bringing in Cuban posters. That was my first love — film posters, solidarity posters. I think the first poster I ripped off a wall was a huge poster of Fidel [Castro], and the second one was a big announcement for a dance performance. [laughs]

("Untitled (Fish Mobile)" by Osvaldo Castilla)

How long has the Center for Cuban Studies had a gallery devoted to Cuban art in New York?

Since 1999. We sued the U.S. Treasury Department in 1991 for the right to bring in original Cuban art, which was not allowed at that time, and we won the case. But we didn't have the money to open a gallery, and I always wondered why other people were not taking advantage of the fact that they could bring that art in. But I think people were still somewhat timid about traveling to Cuba, buying art — they just didn't do it.

Has the recent thawing of relations between the U.S. and Cuba changed anything in the realm in which you work? Is it difficult to mount shows of Cuban art here? What are the challenges?

I don't think it's difficult. People think it's more difficult than it is. I think the biggest difficulty is simply bringing the art. When people come to the center and they see all we have, they always ask, "How did you get that here?" And I always say, "In my luggage." And that's literally how I've brought it.

I have sent exactly one piece by air from Cuba to the center, so this is the first show that we've mounted where many pieces had to be flown in from Cuba, more or less directly. Obviously, there's no FedEx, there's no UPS, nothing like that, so we've had to send things via Copa [Airlines], via Panama. If a piece of art is over 70 inches, it has to go via Virgin via London to Los Angeles. Some pieces have come via Canada, too, and it's very, very costly.

(Untitled piece by Yuri Santana)

With the thawing of relations between the two nations, is the expectation that things will change somehow with Cuban art, its place in the market, and its relationship to the art market in the United States?

I think it will change quite a lot. First of all, there's the question of whether it will change the art itself. Cuban art is already quite daring, given the context of the society. Cuban artists will do art about everything, and sometimes they get in trouble for it, of course.

But they're not afraid, and I think that one of the things that worries me about the thawing of relations is the fear that some of the artists will start to do art that they think is more commercially viable.

On the other hand, the very best artists have already been selling in the States, collectors have been going to Cuba for many years and I think that serious people will continue to visit serious artists.

You've brought up the word "market" a few times. Are Cuban artists allowed to openly sell their work there and abroad?

Absolutely. One of the things that is sad, however, is that there is really no domestic market in Cuba, because people simply do not have the money to spend on art. I hope that, with the changing of relations and the hope that the economy in Cuba will improve as a result, there will be a domestic market.

And then some of the art will change because they'll be speaking to one another, not trying to speak only to the people who come from outside or people who live inside Cuba who have money to purchase art. You can't help but start to do a kind of art that makes it possible to have a conversation with the person who comes to look at your art, hopefully to buy it. 

The show "Made in Cuba! / Hecho en Cuba!: Recycling Memory and Culture" is at Santa Monica Art Studios' Arena 1 gallery through Nov. 21.

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