Cuba on the cusp 

Indy native and Cuban artists on justice and religion

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Something momentous happened in Cuba last August. The American flag went up — for the first time in 64 years — at the building that is now the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba.

Former Indy resident Artur Silva witnessed this flag raising along with Spanish artist Elena Lavellés. In December of 2015, Lavellés and Silva returned to Cuba, along with CalArts MFA student Elizabeth Webb to work on the documentation that would become Transaction Boundaries.


This exhibition, at the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art (iMOCA) uses the reopening of relations between the U.S. and Cuba as a lens to explore — through video, photography, and sculpture — issues of economic justice and religion amongst the white-sand beaches and rolling mountains. How the artists had to transport the work is also a story in itself.

The raising of the flag over the U.S. Embassy, according to Silva, raised many questions. And Secretary of State John Kerry raised a question or two in the speech he gave at the ceremony.

"Kerry's talking about returning the property that the revolution has taken from some of the people that are now in Miami which turns out to be seven billion dollars," says Silva, currently also working toward his MFA at CalArts.

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There's the large question of how the opening of relations with the U.S. will change Cuba. How far will the Socialist government adapt to the influence of the behemoth free-market economy to the north to which they've just reestablished relations?

The combination, or syncretism, of seemingly irreconcilable ideas — whether they be economic or religious in nature — is a major theme of this exhibition. In another video you see Santería sculptures, made in China, facing the Mariel Harbor, a harbor in the process of being transformed into a center of capitalist enterprise, construction cranes spanning the horizon.

The anguished history of Santería and its presence in Cuba (Santería is a mix of West African religion and Catholicism) is another theme.

"This show for me is rather personal," says Silva. "I grew up in Brazil. And [this is the] culture that I know and am familiar with. Some of the popular culture of Brazil is connected to West Africa. Candomblé is a religion that was created in Brazil through the mixing of people ... of the slaves who created Candomblé (also known as Santería). They were stripped of their identity, their name, everything. So out of that comes this subversive creative revolutionary, to be assigned a new representation for your God or Goddess. That's incredibly powerful."

In the exhibit you don't see Yoruba sculptures used in Santería ceremonies but rather the molds that are used to create the sculptures.

"We decided to show the molds because the molds had the meanings of impressions, of shaping," says Lavellés.

To describe this mixing of various cultures and their belief systems that led to Santería, it makes more sense to talk in terms of routes than roots, according to Elizabeth Webb.

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"Roots implies such a static [thing], routes implies evolution and change," says Webb. "We were thinking a lot about that in terms of travel by sea but also in terms of trade, trade routes. Companies own certain trade routes. So in terms of identity where is the ownership of identity?"

Unfortunately, the route that Webb, Lavellés, and Silva had mapped out this December for voyaging from Florida to Cuba and then returning on the same ship was a rout — because of bad weather off the Florida coast.

"Arturo had this idea several years ago to transport these Santería sculptures to the U.S. from Cuba," says Webb. "So we chartered a Canadian flagged vessel because there are fewer restrictions in terms of traveling to Cuba ... When he was coming down from another part of Florida and he was rounding Cape Canaveral to pick us up in Key West, he got caught in a terrible storm. And [it] rendered his vessel un-sailable."

So the three artists flew into Cuba, paying for round-trip tickets almost at the last minute, an expensive transaction that they didn't anticipate. And then later at the Havana marina they had to arrange passage back to the United States on a boat, a voyage that they wished to make by sea to preserve the integrity of their artistic project. They found a yacht captain who was willing to take them back. But whether or not they'd sail on the yacht wasn't entirely up to him.

"Luckily we met some really wonderful people at the U.S. Embassy that just opened and they were able to communicate with the U.S. Coast Guard and do sort of an unheard of thing and amend the coast guard document to allow us to travel," says Webb. "It was all very last minute and we didn't know if we were going to get back until we were actually on the boat."

This potential bureaucratic snafu was a boundary that they wouldn't have been able to cross before the opening of the U.S Embassy last year.

But it's an experience that relates to the idea of this exhibition, and to crossing boundaries put in place by ideology and history. And the legacy of the slave trade and colonialism in the Americas, of course, is not just specific to Cuba.

"These conversations to me connect very well with Ferguson and other spots in the country where awful things are happening," says Silva. "Although it happened in history, it's a very current conversation to have about how people are represented."

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