(Above: Yoan Capote. Island (see-escape), 2010. Oil, nails, and fishhooks on jute mounted on plywood. Collection Pérez Art Museum Miami.)
When the man who put the Pérez in Pérez Art Museum Miami opens a Cuban art exhibit in the U.S. capital of Cuba-obsessives, it’s guaranteed to be a major event. And the launch of On the Horizon: Contemporary Cuban Art from the Jorge M. Perez Collection at PAMM last week, was a buzzy, prototypically Miamense party. As well as the start of a ten-month cultural odyssey that could be profoundly meaningful for this city.
A gaggle of eager, cheek-kissing, glossily dressed guests gathered for the VIP pre-party tour with Perez, sleek and dark-suited, and chief curator Tobias Ostrander. They streamed up the stairs to the galleries chattering (the two celebrity guides had to ask people to shush more than once.) A number of the showcased artists were there: Tomas Esson, an exile legend, with rock star shades and thick snaking dreads that echo the elastic forms in his paintings; Havana duo jorge & larry (one with bushy hipster beard, the other with sleekly shaven head); Miami-based Sandra Ramos; exile children Leyden Rodriguez-Casanova and Antonia Wright. (Capote and Wright give a talk Thursday June 15 at 7 p.m., part of the PAMM’s Third Thursday series.)
For someone who remembers the days when the Cuban Museum of Art and Culture was bombed for auctioning work by Cuban artists and boundary-breaking Cuban art collector Ramon Cernuda endured years of harassment, the celebratory scene at PAMM still has a surreal echo. The easy back and forth between Cuba and Miami now seems a matter-of-fact given, so normal that even the threat that Trump will announce a return to (at least some) old restrictions seems unlikely to derail it.
On the Horizon is drawn from 170 works that Perez donated to the museum last December, as well as other pieces PAMM purchased with a donation from the billionaire developer and art collector who’s become one of Miami’s most famous exiles. The show is actually three shows, each with its own theme. This first installment, Internal Landscapes, is on view through the summer. The next iteration, Abstracting History, runs from early September to January, 2018; the final chapter, Domestic Anxieties, will be on exhibit mid-December until April 8.
Some have carped over the significance and value of Perez’ collection. But he has gone deep into Cuban art, visiting the island’s artists with Elizabeth Cerejido’s Dialogues in Cuban Art project, which he funded. He’s made a mission of highlighting art from the country his family fled, a heritage and story that help form a personal mythology for him. And I don’t remember a show of this scope on Cuban visual art, in its full homeland and diaspora complexity, in Miami. The possibilities of what On the Horizon could show Miami, and its ever-morphing exile community, about the country that has done so much to shape this city are thrilling.
Cuba is an island, enclosed by the sea and by political barriers; the ocean horizon, infinite and infinitely out of reach, becomes a metaphor for isolation and entrapment. Images of the sea, of distant or ominous horizons, dot Internal Landscapes. The first piece you see is Teresita Fernandez’ Fire (America), where a wall of flame cuts across a shiny black ceramic surface. In Elizabet Cerviño’s Beso en Tierra Muerta (Kiss on Dead Ground), clay brick waves crawl stiffly across the floor to her Horizontes, a misty wall-spanning wash of a barely discernible beyond.
Most striking are Manuel Piña’s untitled photos looking out from Havana’s Malecon, its seaside boulevard; one showing a wide, empty sea, the other with a diving man at the center, cutting the horizon in half, breathtaking in its sense of desperation and bold impulse.
Yoan Capote’s Island (see-escape), is one of the exhibit’s showstoppers: a vast horizontal canvas of a dark, turbulent ocean, whose treacherous waves are made of half a million iron fishhooks. Perez called it “one of those pieces of art that is just mindboggling.” Capote said he was inspired by the Cold War term “iron curtain” and by troubadour Carlos Varela’s songs.
“Our wall is the sea,” he said. Capote, who lives in Havana, enlisted 30 people to help him construct Island, nailing each of the 500,000 hooks separately to the jute surface, united in the painful task (the hooks are sharp), just as they are in the “collective experience of isolation.” He was also prompted by an oft-used term in the Cuban intelligentsia, “geographic fatalism,” the idea that your destiny is decided by where you’re born.
Once Cuban, always Cuban. What that means is something On the Horizon helps us to discover.