Cuban Art in Downtown Houston

Houston is a major center for arts and culture. In addition to the Theatre District, Houston has an impressive Museum District with 18 institutions within walking distance from each other. On the west end of the district is The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), which like a Disney theme park, can easily gobble up your entire day and night.

Established in 1900, MFAH is truly a cultural complex. The largest institution of its kind in the Southwest, a redevelopment set for completion in 2019, will enhance and expand the campus even more. In the meantime, a Texas-sized exhibit of Cuban art will be at MFAH’s main campus Law Building, on Bissonnet, March 5 through May 29.

MFAH says Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950 features “100 of the most important works of painting, graphic design, photography, video, installation, and performance created by more than 50 Cuban artists and designers.”

Adiós Utopia is a project conceived by the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation (CIFO) and organized in partnership with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, where the collection will reside later this year. Interestingly enough, the comprehensive historical exhibition was curated by three experts, all of which currently live in Cuba.

Adiós Utopia is the largest and most important exhibition of contemporary art from Cuba to date. “To produce the Adiós Utopia exhibit was a Herculean task that would have not been possible without the invaluable experience, knowledge, and hard work of the curators,” said Eugenio Valdés Figueroa, Director and Chief Curator at CIFO.

René Francisco, an internationally recognized contemporary artist, has been a professor at Havana’s Instituto Superior de Arte since the 1990s. In 1989 he founded an educational project which was awarded a UNESCO prize. Gerardo Mosquera is an independent art critic, curator, historian, and writer. Dividing his time between Havana and Madrid, he is an advisor to the Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City, among other international art centers. Elsa Vega specializes in Cuban art of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and has been curator of Cuban art at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes since 1993.

Adiós Utopia showcases important paintings, graphics, photos, videos, installations, and performances that took place in Cuba since the onset of Fidel’s regime to the turnover to his brother Raul. The artwork represents key moments in history such as the post-revolutionary euphoria and the alienation with the Soviet Union. The 100 pieces included in Adiós Utopia were all produced on the Island, even if the artists are no longer living there.

For example, Rafael Soriano (1920-2015) was considered one of the greatest of his era. Yet, for several years after he fled his homeland, he was speechless when it came to his art. Once he began to re-connect with his painting, his canvases reflected a new Soriano. Pre- and post-exile compositions are as different as the environments in which he was surrounded.

In his hometown of Matanzas, Cuba, Soriano broke with regional and folkloric themes which once dominated Cuban art, in favor of geometric abstraction. During his life as a Cuban exile in Miami, his work embodied a style combining abstract forms of light, form space, and shadow with an interest in poetic and metaphysical impulses.

While a retrospective of nearly 100 pieces of Soriano’s art, The Artist as Mystic, is currently traveling the U.S. (Boston’s McMullen Museum: January 30–June 4, 2017; Long Beach Museum of Art: June 29–October 1, 2017, and Miami’s Frost Art Museum: October 28, 2017–January 28, 2018), Soriano’s Díptico (1954) will be part of The Artist as Mystic. In this pre-Castro era geometric masterpiece, his brush creates many textures. While the word infers something folded in half or doubled, Soriano’s asymmetric painting comes together with central axis lines. Geometric shapes were pivotal to Soriano’s work. He used to say that “Geometry is in everything that we look at in this planet.”

“Cuba’s artists have been variously supported, controlled, challenged, and promoted by the Cuban government. They also had to confront unusual obstacles stemming from Cuba’s isolation under the U.S. embargo. All of these factors translate into unusually complex careers and experiences,” said Mari Carmen Ramírez, the Wortham Curator of Latin American Art at the MFAH. “Adiós Utopia will bring Cuban and American colleagues together in an unprecedented collaboration to focus on the artistic experience on the island, as Cuba’s artists wrestled with the hopes, realities, and contradictions of an embargoed social utopia.”

For those wanting more information about the artwork and the artists, the MFAH gift shop will sell an Adiós Utopia: Art in Cuba Since 1950. Published in English and Spanish, the book focuses on the evolution of the utopian concept and ideologies within revolutionary and post-revolutionary art in Cuba. A comprehensive chronology by Beatriz Gago Rodríguez creates a frame of reference by bringing light to the events that have influenced and transformed the art over the years. In addition to the featured art from the exhibit, essays by Antonio Eligio (Tonel), Rachel Weiss, Iván de la Nuez, Elsa Vega, Gerardo Mosquera, and René Francisco further clarify art as expressions of society.

To kick off Adiós Utopia, the 60’s era historial, yet kitschy, documentary, “I Am Cuba,” will run opening day, March 5 at 5 p.m. “I Am Cuba” was produced as a propaganda film by Russian/Cuban directors/writers. The film was later restored and re-released in the U.S. by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Tickets to the movie screening are just nine dollars, seven dollars for seniors or MFAH members.

MFAH offers free admission for kids 12 and under, and on weekends all children with a Texas library card enter free. Additionally, the museum welcomes everyone, free of charge, on Thursdays. The museum is closed Mondays.

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