In 1983, nine Cuban exile artists came together and exhibited their works in a show called "The Miami Generation." They didn't know it then, but despite the contrasts in their artistic styles and influences, that show at the now-defunct Cuban Museum of Arts and Culture in Miami would bind them together more than 30 years later.
Nova Southeastern University's Museum of Art|Fort Lauderdale opened "The Miami Generation: Revisited" on July 12 with works presented from the earlier show and new pieces created over the years since. Three artists — Fernando Garcia, Juan González, and Carlos Maciá — have since passed away, but the remaining six — Mario Bencomo, María Brito, Humberto Calzada, Pablo Cano, Emilio Falero, and César Trasobares — are still, fortunately, full-time working artists.
What the nine artists shared was that they immigrated to Miami in the 1960s, and all studied art in Miami. They were among the first group in the exile community to do so, joining an art scene that had begun to take hold in South Florida in the early '80s. "The Miami Generation" set the stage for their artistic careers, and it went on to showcase in D.C., Philadelphia, and Panama. Critics gave it favorable reviews, although they didn't always understand the works.
"I didn't have a clue that this show would become a benchmark for the history of Cuban-American art," recalls Brito, who soon after exhibited work in major cultural institutions, snagging national cred.
At the opening reception at the Museum of Art|Fort Lauderdale, director Bonnie Clearwater described the reunion show as "bittersweet." Curator Jorge Santis decided to present this collection as his final hurrah at the museum, where he has worked for 35 years. The audience gave him a standing ovation, perhaps because Santis has handled one of the largest collections of Cuban and Latin American art in North America.
"I think it's ["The Miami Generation"] the most appropriate farewell performance I can give to the community," Santis explained by phone a few days before the opening. "I'm Cuban, and nothing gives me more pleasure than to deal and display the art of my compatriots — the nine I have in this show are among the best we ever had."
Former Miami Herald art critic Helen L. Kohen, who also penned the catalog, pointed out during the panel that the label "Cuban-American" does little to describe the talent the artists possess. "As a group, they were a nongroup," she observed.
The panel continued in which each artist fielded two questions: What does "Cuban-American" mean to you? And how does Miami play a role in your work?
The response from Cano, a marionette creator and the youngest of the crew, was perhaps the most eloquent: "Yes, we're Cuban, we're American, but we're something more poetic than a label." (His mother, Margarita, curated the 1983 show.) He went on to say that Miami was pivotal to his career. In 1998, he began giving microtheater performances at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami and did so for 16 years.
Brito, on the other hand, said that surroundings have little impact on her work, adding that she could live anywhere and her sculptures and installations would come alive through intuition and personal reflection. She doesn't plan her pieces but instead reacts to what is in front of her, delving into her subconscious and exploring instances of fear, a universal condition that often permeates her work. "Don't look at my work through a Cuban-American lens," she said. "There are no references in my work that I was born in Cuba."
Having left the island in the early 1960s as part of the CIA's Operation Peter Pan, which brought nearly 14,000 children without their parents to Miami, Brito has never returned. "My parents went through tough times and never told me about it. I'm thankful for the sacrifice," she recalled. "My bother and I came to Miami when I was 13, and we were picked up by a man named George at the airport. He and a nun took us to a camp in Kendall, so we stayed there for I don't know how long; that's where my memory fails me. But fortunately for the both of us, there was a couple living here pre-Castro who knew my family. One day, they showed up at the camp, took us to their house, and kept us there until my parents came six months later."
Today, she maintains her roots in a peculiar way: "I have three cups of Cuban coffee a day, two before lunch, and one after. That's what gives me my daily fuel," she chuckles.
Trasobares, artist and scholar, includes his austere oak and marble installation "You and Me 1," which consists of two chair sculptures facing each other. He made it in the mid-'90s, inspired by a kiss. "I reached a point in my life of transition and wanted to leave behind this whole baggage of being a Cuban exile," he said. "I left Holguín, eastern part of the island, in '65."
"What's important about this exhibition is it covers the past," he observed, "the deep past and how the survivors and the ones who died were affected by the Miami art scene, way before it would change later with [Art] Basel."