10 Cuban Artists Who Are Shaping Contemporary Art
documenta fifteen: Instituto de Artivismo Hannah Arendt (INSTAR), INSTAR archive, List of censored Artists, 2022, installation view (detail), documenta Halle, Kassel, June 12, 2022, photo: Nicolas Wefers.
In 2021, an influential group of Cuban artists called for a boycott of the 14th Havana Biennale. The Cuban authorities had jailed many of their colleagues for exercising their right to free speech, and these artists wanted to fight back. Protests against the unjust and repressive government have persisted. At this year’s Documenta 15, Cuban artist Tania Bruguera and the Cuban collective Instituto de Artivismo Hannah Arendt (Instar) highlighted the plight of Cuban artists in a moving series of presentations. On Friday, June 24th, numerous artists and human rights organizations condemned the Cuban regime when it sentenced performance artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara to five years in prison for “contempt, defamation, and public disorder.”
documenta fifiteen: Instituto de Artivismo Hannah Arendt (INSTAR), Operational Factography, presentation, on stage from left to right: Reychel Carrión, Hemlet Lavastida, Tania Bruguera, Ernesto Oroza, documenta Halle, Kassel, June 18, 2022, Photo: Frank Sperling.
It would be inaccurate to say that all Cuban contemporary art is an act of protest—many of the artists in this list steer away from the subject. Yet it would also be careless to ignore that, for decades, Cuban artists have made art under impossible circumstances. The country faces dire social and economic conditions, and artists and intellectuals are subject to constant harassment and arbitrary detainment at the hands of a government that wants them to remain silent. Though these tribulations have led many Cuban artists to exile, many have also stayed and held their ground.
The following is not an exhaustive list of praiseworthy Cuban artists, but rather a primer on the diversity, beauty, resilience, and depth of Cuban contemporary art.
B. 1977, Havana, Cuba. Lives and works in Havana.
Havana-based artist and Guggenheim fellow Yoan Capote works across sculpture, painting, photography, installation, and video to explore subjects of migration and geopolitics. His layered works also examine human psychology and its relationship to the past.
For example, Capote’s immense painting Requiem (Plegaria) (2019–21), shown this year at the 23rd Biennale of Sydney, at first looks like a melancholic seascape drenched in mesmerizing gold. A closer glimpse, however, reveals that the waves are made from thousands of hand-wrought fish hooks. The unconventional material turns the sea into an ominous symbol of political and geographic imprisonment. In Isla (in memoriam) (2007), Capote similarly used hand-wrought fish hooks to depict a dramatic seascape. He also painted the plywood support with his own blood, evoking the pain, brutality, and isolation that Cuban nationals often experience.
“Requiem” and “Purification,” two new series that expand on Capote’s celebrated seascapes, will be on view at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York from June 30th to August 5th.
B. 1926, Havana, Cuba. Lives and works in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Zilia Sánchez is known for making suggestive abstract paintings on shaped canvases that stretch across handmade wooden frames. They often feature peaks and valleys that evoke the female body. For example, in her most famous series, “Topologías eróticas” (1970), Sánchez painted sensual, biomorphic forms in soft, acrylic, skin-like hues. Works such as Antígona [Antigone] (1970) draw the viewer’s focus to seductive curves and a sense of the erotic.
Based in San Juan, Puerto Rico, since 1972, the Cuban artist spent most of her decades-long career with limited recognition beyond the Caribbean. This began to change in 2013, after Artists Space in New York City mounted a long-overdue survey of her work. In 2019, the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., unveiled Sánchez’s first museum retrospective.
Sánchez, who turns 96 this year, continues to innovate. In 2019, at “Eros,” her second solo exhibition with Galerie Lelong & Co., the artist debuted a stunning series of new sculptures in milky white marble, a material she had never worked with before.
B. 1977, Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. Lives and works in Coamo, Puerto Rico.
Dalton Gata’s background in fashion design inspires his surrealistic paintings, which often depict stylish figures wearing dramatic garments and accessories. His 2020 painting Collage, for instance, features a glamorous female model wearing a chic white jumpsuit, sky-high black boots, and edgy black gloves. She casually sits beside a golden tiger. In Man with a sphere on his head (2019), Gata painted a fierce Black character adorned in what appears to be a blazer made of half fur, half patent leather, and a dazzling, snake-shaped gold choker embellished with diamonds.
Throughout such otherworldly works, the Puerto Rico–based artist undermines conventions of gender and identity as he juxtaposes elements of queer and popular culture with mythical imagery. Many of Gata’s compositions contain explicit autobiographical elements and echo his personal experience as a Cuban migrant. He once said of his paintings, “Sometimes I have the feeling that, in a way, they are all me. All my alter egos. All self-portraits.” Sometimes he chooses titles, such as Vampiro Tropical (self-portrait) (2020), to directly signal the personal nature of his work.
In 2021, Gata mounted his first solo museum exhibition, “Dalton Gata: The Way We’ll Be,” at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami.
B. 1963, Pinar del Río, Cuba. Lives and works in Miami, Florida.
Juana Valdés migrated to the United States in 1971, at age seven, and the experience greatly informs her prints, photographs, videos, and ceramics. The artist views her oeuvre as an archive that explores her Afro-Caribbean heritage and considers issues of representation, migration, and “othering” in the Americas.
In Rest Ashore (2020), the artist’s first substantial foray into video work, Valdés created a moving, multi-channel video that connects the experience of Cuban and Haitian migration to today’s global refugee crisis. In one particularly sorrowful scene, a drenched teddy bear floats on the ocean surface under a cloudy sky. In her installation Colored Bone China Rags (2017–22), Valdés altered bone china—a variety of porcelain known for its whiteness and transparency—by tinting the material with varied flesh tones and sculpting it into rags that she hung side by side on a wall. With this series of delicate pieces, the Miami-based artist considers economic inequalities related to gender, class, and racial discrimination in America.
In 2020, Valdés received the prestigious Anonymous Was A Woman award. She also won the 2022 Latinx Artist Fellowship, sponsored by the Ford and Mellon Foundations.
Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara
B. 1987, Havana, Cuba.
Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, Untitled. Photo by Samuel Riera and Derbis Campos. Courtesy of Riera Studio.
Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, Untitled. Photo by Samuel Riera and Derbis Campos. Courtesy of Riera Studio.
Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, a self-taught performance artist and sculptor, was named one of Time magazine’s most influential people in 2021 for his “unignorable fight for freedom of expression and his uncompromising stance against autocracy.” Otero Alcántara is a co-founder and outspoken leader of Cuba’s San Isidro Movement, a collective of intellectuals and artists who have mounted widespread anti-government protests in Cuba. For these activities, he has been locked in a maximum-security prison in Guanajay since summer 2021. On Friday, June 24th, the authorities sentenced the artist to five years in prison.
During his latest arrest, Otero Alcántara was in the midst of performing Drapeau, a piece in which he wore the Cuban flag for 30 days, defying local laws that prohibit such use of the national symbol. The performance and arrest illuminated the threats to freedom of expression under a dictatorship.
Though he was offered freedom in exchange for exile, Otero Alcántara refused to leave his country. In an impassioned public statement, he wrote, “Even if they stick me in the most hidden dungeon of Guantánamo or under a stone, I will look for a way for my art to reach you and continue staking my bet on freedom.”
B. 1976, Havana, Cuba. Lives and works in Madrid, Spain.
Conceptual artist Glenda León takes inspiration from her training in classical ballet. In many of her works, music emerges as an essential theme. Concrete Music (Piano) (2015–19), for example, is a sculptural cube of piano keys that she has showcased atop a grand keyless piano. Metamorphosis (series II, n.1) (2018) features two grand piano covers joined to resemble the wings of a butterfly.
Working across video, photography, sculpture, and installation, León also explores themes such as nature, spirituality, and time, especially in relation to sound and silence. “Time is a sound we don’t hear…silence and sound are like materials that I am constantly transforming. Sometimes I use sound to sculpt an image; at others, I use an image to draw the silence,” she has said.
In 2013, León participated in the 55th Venice Biennale. In 2021, she mounted a solo exhibition at the Museo de Arte Contemporánea de Vigo in Pontevedra, Spain. Later this year, she will participate in the 2022 Aichi Triennale in Japan.
B. 1963, Havana, Cuba. Lives and works in Mérida, México.
Jorge Pardo, installation view, “All bets are off,” Petzel Gallery, New York. 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Petzel Gallery.
A recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, Jorge Pardo creates vibrant sculptures, buildings, furnishings, installations, and paintings that beautifully blur the boundaries between fine art, contemporary architecture, and design.
Intricate pieces such as Untitled (2017), Standard Lamp ‘Shape 4’ (2016), and Gisela (2021) are at once functional lamps and breathtaking sculptural forms. Sleep Feed (2020), the centerpiece of Pardo’s 2021 exhibition “All bets are off” at Petzel Gallery in New York, features sculptural couches fabricated from parota wood, fabric, and acrylic paint. The Mexico-based artist, who was born in Havana and grew up in Chicago, has also produced unique paintings with textured surfaces and vivacious color schemes. Untitled (2022), for example, is a kaleidoscopic acrylic composition that extends across a beaded plane.
In 1998, Pardo transformed a Los Angeles home into a museum for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Called 4166 Sea View Lane, the museum eventually became the artist’s own home. “I make buildings because I like exhibitions. I’m ‘showing’ architecture, I’m not making architecture. It’s a funny little switch, but it’s important,” he once explained.
B. 1960, New York. Lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.
Cuban American interdisciplinary artist Coco Fusco is a renowned feminist theorist and writer who surveys themes of race, gender, politics, and war. She has worked across multimedia productions, video, photography, and interactive performance.
Many of Fusco’s works focus on the plight of Cuban nationals. Her video piece The Empty Plaza/ La Plaza Vacia (2012), created after the Arab Spring in 2011, reflects on communal spaces either used for protest or left empty. The Plaza de la Revolución in Havana, Cuba, falls into the latter category. Fusco has also spoken out against the Cuban government’s injustices toward artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara.
Fusco is renowned for The Year of the White Bear and Two Amerindians Visit the West (1992–94), a two-year performance piece she created with Mexican artist Guillermo Gomez-Peña, in which the duo stood in a cage and played the part of Latin American islanders for a white audience. This year she participated in the Whitney Biennial, “Quiet As It’s Kept,” with her video work Your Eyes Will Be an Empty Word (2021). The piece meditates on the wreckage of the coronavirus pandemic. It includes footage of Fusco on a boat in Hart Island, New York—the location of New York City’s public cemetery, which was managed by the city’s Department of Corrections until 2021. Fusco alludes to the millions of New Yorkers buried in mass graves by prison laborers since 1869.
B. 1948, Aguada de Pasajeros, Cienfuegos, Cuba. Lives and works in Miami and Costa Rica.
© Tomas Sanchez: Orilla: espejo de las nubes, 1988, acrylic on linen, 57 1⁄2 x 77 1⁄2 in.
Tomás Sánchez paints serene, imaginary landscapes in lush, gorgeous tones. In one of his earlier pieces, Orilla: Espejo de las Nubes (1988), an immaculate body of water reflects plump white clouds on a seemingly perfect day. In a mesmerizing recent work, El río va (2020), a pristine river undulates amid an endless tropical forest.
Sánchez takes inspiration from his lifelong meditation practice and from South American and Caribbean landscapes. Speaking of the Cuban artist’s talents, Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez once wrote, “No one escapes the spell cast by Tomás Sánchez: the more we know his work, the more we love it, and the more certain we are that if the world in fact deserves to be made again, it is because, as much as it can, it resembles his painting.”
Yet not all of Sánchez’s works are utopian. Some paintings, such as Con la puerta abierta (2015), depict infinite fields of trash, suggesting looming ecological catastrophe.
B. 1968, Havana, Cuba. Lives and works in New York City.
In 2021, performance artist Tania Bruguera made headlines after agreeing to leave Cuba if the government released a group of 25 activists and artists imprisoned amid protests calling for human rights in the country. Though some of the prisoners included in Bruguera’s petition, such as artist Hamlet Lavastida, were released at the time of her exile, others, such as rapper Maykel Castillo Pérez (also known as El Osorbo), are still detained to this day. That same year, Bruguera also spoke out against the Havana Biennial, calling for a boycott. In 2022, the artist, who is now fully based in the U.S., is presenting at Documenta 15 and once again championing the rights of Cuban citizens.
Political and social justice have always been integral to Bruguera’s work. During her renowned series of performances known as The Burden of Guilt (El Peso de la Culpa) (1997–99), Bruguera stood nude for 45 minutes while eating a mix of soil and salt water as a large lamb carcass hung gruesomely from her neck. The striking performance denounced the subjugation of Cuban citizens forced to endure adversity. It echoed an Indigenous ritual said to be performed by Cuban natives during the country’s Spanish colonization.
Bruguera has participated in the São Paulo Bienal, the Venice Biennale, and the Gwangju Biennial. In the aughts, she began performing on a larger scale and incorporating interactive elements into her practice. For Tatlin Whisper #6 (2009), which appeared in the Havana Biennial, the artist created a transient stage where the public could speak uncensored for one minute, practicing their right to free speech in a manner that is usually unthinkable in Cuba.