Cuban art is an exceptionally diverse cultural blend of African, South American, European, and North American elements, reflecting the diverse demographic makeup of the island. Cuban artists embraced European modernism, and the early part of the 20th century saw a growth in Cuban avant-garde movements, which were characterized by the mixing of modern artistic genres. Some of the more celebrated 20th-century Cuban artists include Amelia Peláez (1896–1968), best known for a series of mural projects, and painter Wifredo Lam (December 8, 1902 – September 11, 1982), who created a highly personal version of modern primitivism. The Cuban-born painter Federico Beltran Masses (1885–1949), was renowned as a colorist whose seductive portrayals of women sometimes made overt references to the tropical settings of his childhood.
In Centro Habana, a small neighborhood of artists have transformed the walls around them. October 2002
Better known internationally is the work of photographer Alberto Korda, whose photographs following the early days of the Cuban Revolution included a picture of Che Guevara which was to become one of the most recognizable images of the 20th century.
There is a flourishing street art movement influenced by Latin American artists José Guadalupe Posada and the muralist Diego Rivera.
After the Cuban Revolution of 1959, some artists felt it was in their best interests to leave Cuba and produce their art, while others stayed behind, either happy or merely content to be creating art in Cuba, which was sponsored by the government. Because it was state-sponsored, implied censorship occurred, since artists wouldn't want to make art that was against the revolutionary movement as that was the source of their funding. It was during the 1980s in which art began to reflect true uninfluenced expression. The "rebirth" of expression in Cuban art was greatly affected by the emergence of a new generation of Cuban, which did not remember the revolution directly.
In 1981 Cubans saw the introduction of "Volumen Uno", a series of one-man exhibitions featuring contemporary Cuban artists. Three years later, the introduction of the "Havana Bienal" assisted in the further progression of the liberation of art and free speech therein.
In the 1960s the aftermath of the Cuban revolution brought new restrictions, causing an exodus of intellectuals and artists. The new régime required "a practice of culture as ideological propaganda, along with a stereotyped nationalism". Although government policies - driven by limited resources - did narrow artistic expression, they expanded, through education and subsidies, the number of people who could practice art, breaking down barriers through democratization and socialization. The increasing influence of the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s did impact Cuban culture, but the Cuban government did not match the U.S.S.R in its degree of control over the Arts.
Ché poster, 1968, designed by Alfredo Rostgaard, based on a photograph by Alberto Korda. The poster was distributed in OSPAAAL's magazine Tricontinental.
In the 1960s government agencies such as the Commission of Revolutionary Orientation (the publishing division of the Cuban Communist Party, later renamed Editora Politica (EP)) and OSPAAAL began churning out posters for propaganda purposes. Many of these used stereotypically Soviet design features, but even some early samples showed hints of the Cuban flair for colorful and inventive graphic design, and by the late 60s, Cuban graphic art was in its heyday. Though still essentially producing propaganda, artists such as Rene Mederos, Raul Martinez, Alfredo Rostgaard, and Félix Beltran were creating vivid, powerful, and highly distinctive works which had a global influence on graphic design.
An image commonly used by Cuban graphic designers was "Guerillero Heroica", a photograph of Ché Guevara taken by Alberto Korda (b. Havana, 1928 – d. Paris, 2001). The candid shot of a moody exhausted Guevara, taken in March 1960 at a memorial service for victims of an ammunition ship explosion in Havana Harbor, became one of the world's most iconic images. It was eventually altered and adapted for everything from gum wrappers to a 90 ft. tall commemorative iron sculpture in Havana's Plaza de la Revolución. Korda was a popular fashion photographer who became a devoted revolutionary and close companion of Fidel Castro, taking thousands of shots of Castro's travels and Cuba's transformation.
Cubans remained intent on reinforcing a Cuban identity rooted in its own culture, as exemplified by the work of Grupo Antillano. The simultaneous assimilation or synthesis of the tenets of modern western art and the development of Afro-Cuban art schools and movements created a new Cuban culture. Art proliferated under state programs of sponsorship and employment during this post-revolutionary period; the programs both politicized artistic content and inspired confidence in the people within the framework of Cuba's reinvented nationalism. Nelson Dominguez and Roberto Fabelo went from Abstraction and Neoexpressionism of the 1950s, to immortalizing the proletariat, farmers, workers, and soldiers, while continuing to utilize many of the techniques they learned under the tutelage of Antonia Eiriz Vázquez. By combining nationalism with the politicization of art, artists maintained a level of freedom that continues to inspire innovation.
The Salón de Mayo (May Salon) was an art exhibition held in Havana in July 1967. Organized by Carlos Franqui, it presented works by more than a hundred artists and represented rival schools of twentieth-century art: early modernists (Picasso, Miro, Magritte); the next generation (Lam, Calder, Jacques Hérold, Stanley Hayter); and postwar (Asger Jorn, Antonio Saura, Jorge Soto. It represented the high point of artistic free expression in the decade following the revolution.
The 1960s and 1970s saw the introduction of conceptual art, shifting emphasis away from craftsmanship to ideas. This often meant the elimination of objects in art production; only ideas were stated or discussed. It required an enhanced level of participation by the patron (interactive participation or a set of instructions to follow). Conceptual art, Minimalism, Earth art, and Performance art mingled together to expand the very definition of Art.
By the late 1970s, many of the graduates of the school of the arts in Cuba, "the Facultad de Artes Plasticas of the Instituto Superior de Arte" (founded in 1976) were going to work as schoolteachers, teaching art to young Cubans across the island. This provided a platform for the graduates to teach students about freedom of expression in medium, message, and style of art. It was this new level of experimentation and expression that was to enable the movement of the 1980s.
In Cuba, these new developments were naturally synthesized through the Afro-Cuban sensibility and emerged as The New Art, an art movement widely recognized as distinctly Cuban. Young artists born after the revolution rebelled against modernism and embraced conceptual art, amongst other genres. Many would carry on folkloric traditions and Santeria motifs in their individual expressions while infusing their message with humor and mockery. The art took a qualitative leap by creating international art structured on African views, not from the outside like surrealism but from the inside, alive with the cultural-spiritual complexities of their own existence.
The exhibition Volumen Uno, in 1981, wrenched open the doors for The New Art. Participants, many of whom were still in school, created a typical generational backlash by artists of the previous generation including Alberto Jorge Carol, Nelson Dominguez, and César Leal, who went on the attack against the upstarts. The group, Volumen Uno - made up of Jose Bedia, Lucy Lippard, Ana Mendieta, Ricardo Brey, Leandro Soto, Juan Francisco Elso, Flavio Garciandia, Gustavo Perez Monzon, Rubin Torres Lloret, Gory (Rogelio Lopez Marin), and Tomas Sanchez - presented a "fresh eclectic mix filtered through informalism, pop, minimalism, conceptualism, performance, graffiti and Arte Povera reconfigured and reactivated … to be critically, ethically, and organically Cuban".
This age of artists was dedicated to people who were willing to take risks in their art and truly express themselves, rather than to express things that supported the political movement. While looking at the art of the 1980s we see a trend in the use of the shape of Cuba itself as inspiration for art. One-piece, Immediately Geographic by artist Florencio Gelabert Soto, is a sculpture in the shape of Cuba but is broken into many pieces. One interpretation could reflect the still unequal treatment towards artists, and the repression they were under. A movement that mirrored this artistic piece was underway in which the shape of Cuba became a token in the artwork in a phase known as "tokenization". This artwork often combined the shape of the island of Cuba with other attributes of the nation, such as the flag. By combining the various symbols of Cuba the artists were proudly proclaiming 'this is who we are'. Some art critics and historians however will argue that this was partially due to the isolated nature of the island, and that use of the island in artwork represented a feeling of being alone; as with all art, the intention of the artist can have many interpretations.
By the middle of the 1980s, another group of artists sought a more explicit political responsibility to "revive the mess", "revive the confusion", as Aldo Menendez incorporated into his 1988 installation. Accompanying Menéndez's installation was a note: "As you can see, this work is almost blank. I could only start it due to the lack of materials. Please help me." Here is the Cuban humor, the photo, "perhaps the most quintessentially Cuban expression".
Laughter became the antidote of anarchistic energy for and from the revolution; "one moment an aggressive undertow, then a jester's provocation, pressuring the tensions", wrote Rachel Weiss in To and from Utopia in the New Cuban Art. "The photo is allergic to authority and prestige, the enemy of order in all its manifestations…civil disenchantment, the incredulous and mocking inner nature of the Cuban rises to the surface." The photo, doing away with exactitude, tends to depict the extreme limits of an example. This sardonic Cuban humor has become as ubiquitous in Cuban art as the bright Caribbean colors of its palette. Eduardo Ponjuan, Glexis Novoa (of the ABTV group), Carlos Rodriguez Cardenas, Carlos Garaicoa, René Francisco and Enrique Silvestre are exemplars of this sensibility, mixing it with kitsch and harkening back in time while identifying with current Cuban attitudes, liberating art on the eve of the Cuban 'special period', in which the Soviet Union withdrew its financial aid.
In 1990 the Cuban government began programs to stimulate the tourist trade as a means of offsetting the loss of Soviet support. In 1992 the constitution was amended[to allow and protect foreign-owned property, and in 1993 the dollar was permitted to circulate legally. In 1994 a cabinet-level department was created, the Ministry of Tourism, to further enhance tourism, which is Cuba's largest source of income. The initial reaction of the artists, as well as the general population, was withdrawal; "Withdrawal from the public to the private…from the collective to the individual…from the epic to the mundane…from satire to metaphor...Withdrawal from controversy…withdrawal from confrontation". But it was the withdrawal from conceptual to figurative art that defined the change in painting. Due in large measure to the interest of tourists, art took on higher-visibility, as well as returning to a more figurative mode of expression. Art also worked as space where Cubans debated some of the social problems magnified by the "Special Period", as illustrated by the Queloides art project, which deals with issues of race and discrimination.
"Every Cuban is an artist and every home is an art gallery," wrote Rachel Weiss in To and from Utopia in the New Cuban Art.