Una Raza: One Race
An International Exchange
La Habana — Key West
Konk Life had the great good fortune to hang out last week with two of the greatest artists in Cuban history, if not two of the greats working in the world today.
This experience comes on the heels of the Obama administration relaxing restrictions on travel to Cuba by reinstating cultural exchange licenses. As Konk Life readers will recall, two months ago this reporter flew on the first commercial passenger flight from Key West to Havana in over 50 years. Now, for the first time in more than half century, cultural locales in Cuba and the U. S. are collaborating in an artistic exchange.
“One Race, the Human Race” began Jan. 17 when Havana’s Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes opened an exhibition of intaglios by the late, great Key West artist Mario Sanchez. A second-generation American whose grandparents fled Cuba during the 10 Years’ War in the 1860s, Sanchez mastered the technique of carving lively and sometimes gently satirical scenes of life in Key West.
And now, his month, a number of venues here at home are hosting exhibitions and residencies by contemporary Cuban artists.
The Mario Sanchez exhibition in Havana was curated by Nance Frank of Gallery on Greene and Hortensia Montero of the Museo Nacional. Frank is fluent in Spanish because she attended elementary school at the San Carlos in Key West so she translated for us in our interviews with Manuel Mendive, today’s elder statesman of modern Cuban art, and the equally famed Roberto Fabelo. Both get-togethers occurred at the Key West homes where the two artists are guests.
Mendive, born in Havana in 1944, stunned a Key West audience with his awesome show at The Studios of Key West in which he painted the skin and clothes of his Cuban dance friends to the accompaniment of Bill Lorraine on piano. An amazing introduction to this major artist.
Mendive works in sculpture, painting, performance and other mediums. His dramatic imagery (you have to see it to believe it) has its roots in the Santería religion and, interestingly, he became a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres in France back in 1994.
With a stare fixed from beneath white eyebrows as bushy as his mustache, Mendive gently insisted we understand there may be differences between Cuba and the United States but so there are between societies all over the world. “And everyone has a different way of looking at art. The most beautiful thing is hard to find, always, everywhere. That is how life is.” There are unforgettable moments, “blue and gray and others that are bright” everywhere. He called himself “very spiritual,” taking things as they are dictated by God. “Some die suddenly. Some do not. That again is life. Nothing is perfect in any land.”
He told us how he began as an artist. He was 10 years old at school in Havana when he took part in an art competition, “a worldwide event.” He was picked to go to Japan with five other children short-listed, from Mexico, Brazil and elsewhere. His painting, of his mother cooking, won the prize and his future was set. He’s been busy with various artistic endeavors ever since. But he has never had children himself, admitting that may account for the volume and variety of art he’s accomplished over the 60 years since.
In Key West, Mendive is accompanied by several Cuban colleagues, including the dramatically tall, indigo-skinned dancer Lowert Elliot Clumbie, plus other dancers from Guantanamo. “I have many details to work on,” he explained, “so that spectators here “will fully understand my work.”
Roberto Fabelo, who like Mendive is better known by his last name alone, is also revered in Cuba and recognized worldwide as a prolific painter, sculptor and illustrator (particularly of the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez). His terrifying, oversized cockroaches were one of the hits of the 2009 Havana Biennial.
In Key West, he is accompanied by his wife Suyu and two sons and with a family friend. Born in Camagüey in 1950, Fabelo said that Cuba today is experiencing a “most important cultural situation” in which “artists are venerated.” And not only painters but also musicians and poets. Cuba may not have much material prosperity but it is rich in spirit and soul — the “life vitalé.”
Painters, writers and sportsmen (mainly baseball) are all friends in Cuba, says Fabelo, beloved by the people and supported by the state. “We have recognition and we work in good conditions.” He spoke highly, too, of Nance Frank for her endeavors, her patience and perseverance over two years to make “One Race” happen. “She is, how you say, an angel!”
Mendive and Fabelo have been joined in Key West by several other Cuban greats, including Sandra Ramos, Rocio Garcia, Reynerio Tamayo, Ruben Alpizar, The Merger and Stainless. Exhibits continue at the Gato Building and the Mel Fisher Museum. Call Gallery on Greene for more information at 294-1699.
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