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Heart of Cuba

Have a vision of Havana? Waves crashing on Malecon Boulevard? Ancient cars, worn buildings, nightclub dancers? Or perhaps Cole Porter’s Begin the Beguine: “And down by the shore, an orchestra’s playing …”

Cuba today is also the pain of families split as artists and others escape tyranny.

In Cuba on My Mind, the Naples Art Association surveys paintings and photography by artists living in Cuba and Florida today. It’s the third time the association’s von Liebig Art Center has displayed Cuban art and members’ photography of Havana.

Last June, curator Jack O’Brien, with John Parke Wright IV, CEO of J.P. Wright & Co., Naples, saw a score of important artists in Havana. Wright, a sixth-generation Floridian, descends from the Lykes family, known for cattle ranching, shipping and banking. He has sold beef to Cuba and wants more American trade there.

“Because of his connections, we were able to see many artists in one week,” O’Brien says. “In Cuba, artists are treated like rock stars and live fairly well. Some have large studios and big staffs. Their work is tremendous!

 “I was surprised to see how well they had learned to paint. We found work that is clean, contemporary; and examples of installation art. Some painting looks to earlier styles. There was great variety of expression. All [the artists] we saw were university-educated.”

He says the Cuban artists shipped their work out after the government exacted an export tax.

The curator showed photographs by Cirenaica Moreira. Her powerful symbolism suggests a longing for freedom and unrequited love. In Small Paper Boat, My Unfaithful Friend, a woman in black stands in water in a basin as a tiny boat sinks between her feet. In another image, a woman, yearning for a lover who doesn’t write, stretches her arm and hand past normal length. Also in high tension, a standing Moreira draws a large Cuban flag over her body, exposing breasts and flank.

 The von Liebig Art Center also displays Eduardo Abela’s delicately painted fantasies recalling 18th-century fairy tales. He exhibited his work with three generations of his family at Domingo Padron Gallery, Coral Gables, in 1997 and has shown in Toronto and Puerto Rico. Three Abelas are in this Naples show. Eduardo’s daughter, Maria Abela, lives in Bonita Springs.

Another artist, JAMA—an acronym for initials beginning with José—paints abstractions based on geometry and circles. At 36, with a wife and daughter, he works in his home and studio in Golden Gate Estates. He has lived in the United States for 10 years. From his native Havana, JAMA first visited Costa Rica. Friends invited him to Miami, and he decided to stay. He moved to Naples, “because it is paradise and quiet compared to Miami. Making art is a big responsibility, and you have to work very hard,” he says.

 He had a difficult time adapting to the United States. “It was a different conception for someone born in Cuba. In America, there are so many possibilities. In comparison, this is the best experience. Here, you can work without government control.” He knows American artists’ work but sees his own evolving from his personal ideas. He exhibits in France, works with a gallery in Tel Aviv and has private dealers in Miami.


The Road to Naples

This Cuban exhibition originated with Wright and Joel Kessler, director of the Naples Art Association. Kessler owned a gallery on Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road and earlier was a publishing executive with ARTnews magazine. “I thought it was time to do a Cuban show,” he says. “We are also showing a collection of period photographs, what Cuba was like before Fidel Castro, from the Naples collection of Heidi Rolfes.”

Seeking Cuban artists living in Miami, Kessler asked a friend, Carol Damian, to help. She directs and is chief curator of the Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University. Damian sees herself as a sounding board in the selection of two-dimensional works for Naples.  

“There is a huge art scene in Miami,” she says. “The city has become the center for all Latin American art in the United States. Cuban artists are in the majority and come from several generations of immigrants. Possibly the generation that came in the 1990s is best known.

“Their technical skills are grounded in academia: They were well-trained in Cuba in the French art historical method, and they revere the old masters. But their fame was censored in Cuba, and art materials were restricted. They became masters of non-traditional materials, working from scraps of whatever they could find—so different from American artists buying paints and brushes at a store.”

Damian finds Cuban art in Miami is an explosive subject because artists and the public have conflicting political views about Cuba. Many want to keep America’s 51-year-old trade and political embargo against their former homeland and the Castro regime. Others seek full American recognition of Cuba.

Kessler makes clear he is interested in providing an arresting and informative exhibition at The von Liebig Art Center, not political controversy. But he is aware of the hurt that thousands of Cubans have experienced as their loved ones left to find freedom and create art. Despite bitter nostalgia, he notes conditions have improved somewhat.

On Dec. 20, Ray Suarez of PBS’s NewsHour interviewed Wright on horseback at a cattle ranch in Cuba. Wright, who also paints, said of Cuba on My Mind, “I was very pleased to help Jack O’Brien and the Naples Art Association—and to support cultural relations with Cuba. This is a first step. Bravo, brave move!”

Cuba on My Mind will be on exhibit from March 12 through April 30 at The von Liebig Art Center, 585 Park St., Naples. Carol Damian will speak there on “Cuban Art: A Journey through Time and Place,” March 11 at 4 p.m.


Abstraction: Cuba to Costa Rica by JAMA shows the use of geometry in his artwork.

Delicate touch: La Illuminada by Eduardo Abela has intricate detail.

Portrait of a woman: Females are the focus of the painting Josefina by Eduardo Abela (above) and the photograph vive en Cincinnati y ni siquiera me escribe by Cirenaica Moreira (right).

Puzzling painting: The eye attempts to create a new pattern when viewing Untitled by Manuel Lopez Oliva

From a dream: Infanta & Malecón by Eduardo Alba has a dreamlike quality.

What do you see?: JAMA fills his abstract Maternity with color.

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