‘(Art)Xiomas’ at Art Museum of the Americas

I’m not sure how far it is expected — or even desired — for a art column to pursue a densely wound historical thread through a body of work. The situation is made more challenging when, like so much contemporary art, that work is evocative in an allusive yet abstract way. How important is a comprehensive understanding of history when it is employed by artists as a tool of expression rather than through direct reference?

Ultimately, this turgid and self-imposed rhetorical interrogation amounts to how thoroughly I should set the scene of Cuban-American relations and the current conditions of Cuba’s cultural atmosphere (inasmuch as I even know about it). And assuming I go through all that in the space of about 200 words, how much will it contribute to a discussion of the work on display in “(Art)Xiomas: CubaAhora, The Next Generation,” a smart and intensely interesting exhibition at the Art Museum of the Americas?

Because here’s the thing: After a full generation of isolation from Cuba, Americans have developed their own ideas about this strong-willed neighboring country, and our preconceptions, whether sympathetic or critical, are what largely seem to control the dialogue.

But one of the many intentions of “(Art)Xiomas,” on view through Aug. 7, is to alter this conversation as we enter a new era of U.S.-Cuba relations.

In a nutshell: We, the United States, helped liberate Cuba from Spain around the turn of the century, after which we proceeded to dominate Cuba with a heavy hand. Then, in 1953, a young lawyer named Fidel Castro led a Communist revolution against Gen. Fulgencio Batista, the corrupt and repressive dictator who had ascended to power through a series of political and military coups.

Batista had remained in delicate allegiance with the U.S., which sold him arms to fight Castro throughout the revolution, while Castro was backed by the Soviets. Castro and his rebel soldiers prevailed in 1958, but by 1961 the Bay of Pigs fiasco, soon followed by the Cuban Missile Crisis, left U.S.-Cuba relations devastated. Finally, in 2014, after a series of diplomatic meetings hosted both by Canada and the Vatican, Washington and Havana resumed diplomatic relations.

So where does that leave us?

“(Art)Xiomas” confronts this challenge by connecting Cuban culture to the international community, helping audiences to see through the eyes of Cuban artists and find common ground among social, religious, aesthetic, political and familial traditions.

The first work you see upon entering is an entire wall littered like buckshot with jagged sea-glass, dispersed throughout with framed paper cutouts on which are written the major world religions and large numbers. The numbers, according to the artist, Ariamna Contino, are the number of people affiliated with each religion, as well as the deaths caused by religious violence. And yet the central theme of this piece deals with the Western tradition of representing the ascension of Jesus Christ in painting. Without going into it any further, it is an idea presented in code — and in relative abstraction, to be sure — and so holds up beautifully as a contemporary installation.

Lisandra Ramírez’s moving work, “They Coming,” is a whimsical meditation on immigration, cultural appropriation, identity and influence. A collection of kitschy-looking childlike mobiles — hot air balloons, rocket ships and airplanes — hang from the ceiling, collaged with cultural and historical images that represent immigration and the movement of cultural memory. On one airplane, for instance, there is Obama, Brad Pitt, Marilyn Monroe and David Beckham, as well as a hippo, a Baroque stone lion and a toy giraffe. On the wings are pictures of a street in Havana — one showing it clean, beautiful and full of people, the other showing the same street empty and in ruins after the war. The parallels to the dismal worldwide immigration crisis, as well as to the steady desolation of once-prosperous cities throughout the Middle East, are striking.

Perhaps the most moving piece in the show — both beautiful and surprisingly emotional — is Adislén Reyes’s “Loza (Tableware).” Reyes handpaints paper plates and cups to look like fine porcelain, imprinted with family monograms in the Cuban tradition of fine dinnerware. Evoking the rich traditions of a proud country and the personal heartbreak of economic poverty on Cuban families and the history that brought it to pass, it is a stunning allusion to everything from trade embargoes and political turmoil to cultural heritage and the very nature of art.

“(Art)Xiomas” grounds and contextualizes contemporary Cuban art in a way that reestablishes the value of the country to world culture. It is remarkable to think that such a small country had such a great impact on the 20th century. In 2016, it is surprising and beautiful to see it coming back into focus.

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