While I'm not sure if I can claim complete objectivity, "Unbroken Ties: Dialogues in Cuban Art" is much too important an exhibition to let go unaddressed. So let me make full disclosure before I offer some commentary.
A couple of years ago, when "Unbroken Ties" was still in its infancy, I was employed as an editor by the museum and consequently worked on some of the wall text panels that accompany the show as well as its catalog. I was excited about the exhibition then, and I'm excited about it now, not because of my meager involvement but because all along, it has had the feel of something significant taking shape.
A show focusing exclusively on Cuban and Cuban-American art might seem like a natural for South Florida, but the harsh sociopolitical reality is that anything coming out of Cuba — other than exiles — has long been treated with suspicion and even outright contempt here. That a major museum would dare to host an exhibition featuring the art of not only Cuban exiles but also Cuban nationals is therefore something of a wonder. Note too that the museum in question is in Fort Lauderdale, not Miami.
"Unbroken Ties," which features roughly 80 works by nearly 60 artists, is a labor of love for longtime Museum of Art curator Jorge H. Santis, himself a Cuban exile who arrived at Port Everglades in 1963. Santis set about collecting the work of fellow exiles for the museum in the early 1990s, depending largely upon donations by artists and collectors (and himself), and within a decade had amassed a multimedia collection unmatched in its breadth and depth outside the island.
Santis initially concentrated on the art of exiles and the occasional second-generation Cuban, and by 1997, he had accumulated enough work to stage "Breaking Barriers: Selections From the Museum of Art's Permanent Contemporary Cuban Collection." It was a landmark show — more than 150 pieces by 91 artists — that immediately established the museum as a force to be reckoned with in terms of Latin American art in general and Cuban art in particular.
In 2002, Santis broadened the scope to include artists still residing in Cuba, a potentially controversial move but one that also made the current exhibition possible. "Unbroken Ties" can be seen as a sort of sequel to "Breaking Barriers," in the same way The Godfather: Part II is a follow-up to The Godfather — the second production both encompasses and expands upon the concerns of its predecessor. For this incarnation of the exhibition, which had its debut last year at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, California, and is anticipated to travel to other venues, Santis has supplemented the original with another two dozen or so works from the MOA/FL collection.
The curator has structured "Unbroken Ties" to resemble a Greek tragedy in three acts, so that a loose narrative is set up. Act one, "Paradise Lost," capitalizes on the Cuban penchant for nostalgia and longing with images of an idealized past. One of the first things you encounter at the top of the stairs, at the exhibition's entrance, is Tomás Sánchez's monumental Orilla (River-bank) (1995), a 79-by-121-inch acrylic painting of a lush jungle landscape that might well be a glimpse of paradise before it was lost. Nearby is a grouping of three works by Ibrahim Miranda, Sandra Ramos, and Ricardo Viera that all use the idea of a map of the Cuban island as an emblem, a common denominator that links those who leave and those who remain behind.
This section of the show is hardly uncritical of Cuba under Castro. In 1, 2, 3 Se acabó tu conteo (1, 2, 3, Your Countdown Is Over) (2006), the dictator is portrayed by Carlos Luna — the museum's current artist in residence — as a sort of human punching bag for a muscular, robust opponent. Imagery suggestive of coercion and torture is provided, in very different ways, by Antonio Eiriz and Raúl Cordero, the latter drawing on the British film Drowning by Numbers to allude to life-threatening repression. Photographer Tony Mendoza weighs in with a pair of black-and-white photos contrasting an immaculate government building with the crumbling home of an ordinary citizen.
But the most volatile iconography is reserved for Che Guevara, whose ambiguous treatment in José A. Toirac's video installation Réquiem (2004) seems almost bound to rattle some viewers. As the artist's camera travels lingeringly over the bullet-riddled, blank-eyed corpse of the revolutionary, the body inevitably suggests that of Christ after the Crucifixion. But the piece, which is installed in a darkened, roped-off space reminiscent of a mausoleum, could also be seen as sober evidence that Guevara, ultimately, was just a mortal man like any other.
Act two, "Risking Life and Limb," is the show's transitional segment, emphasizing the tentativeness of the exiles' journey to the new world of the United States. The imagery speaks of boats and boat people, refugees and their means of escape. Controversy lurks here as well, however. The mere presence of a work by an artist who calls himself Kcho prompted two other Miami-based artists, Arturo Rodriguez and wife Demi, to pull out of a media preview of the exhibition not because of Kcho's subject matter — a simple rowboat and oars — but because he not only remains on the island but also publicly supports the Castro regime.
The final chapter of the story is "Unbroken Ties: A New Reality," in which the artists explore their new lives even as they maintain connections with the old. It is in some ways the richest, most diverse section of the show. Some of the works touch on such things as the religious heritage of Cubans, which incorporates Catholicism but also Santería and other Afro-Cuban traditions. A bit of wall text comments on the oddity of a Cuban communist state that has never succeeded in rooting out and eliminating the fiercely held religious beliefs of its citizenry.
There's an especially poignant black-and-white photo by Marta María Pérez Bravo, La embarcación de su vida no se hunde (The Vessel of Her Life Does Not Sink) (1995), that shows a woman who seems to float on a sea of white bedsheet. Although she may have achieved buoyancy in her new life, she also remains bound to her past, as symbolized by her submissively bowed head and the four oars strapped to her outstretched arms.
A pair of photographs near the exhibition's end neatly — too neatly? — encapsulates the Cuban experience. In Kattia García Fayat's black-and-white Playing Dominoes (Jugando domino) (2001), several people sit around a table in Cuba, engaged in the title activity. Not far away, in Mario Algaze's Cibachrome Dominoes on 8th Street (Domino en la calle 8) (1983-87), five men do the same in Miami. So much has changed, these shots seem to confirm, even as so much stays the same.
What makes "Unbroken Ties" compelling, finally, is its struggle to make sense of a cultural phenomenon that remains unparalleled in modern history. A few days after the show's opening, Santis told me that, out of the dozens and dozens of exhibitions he has curated in his more than 30-year career, this is the one he expects he might be remembered by. I think he sells himself short. "Unbroken Ties" fulfills the promises posited by "Breaking Barriers" so that together they form a resonant continuum in which one is incomplete without the other.