How to disassemble a Nation

Blog Art Spy > Art Spy report

I am aware of the impossibility to successfully summarize almost sixty years of the development of Cuban Art History in two pages. But nevertheless I think it is necessary to state at least point some fundamental aspects to better understand Cuban contemporary art.


Many of the artistic practices that emerged in Cuba, nowadays are considered overly self-referential. This is due, in part, to the interest of a big group of our artists to reflect (reflection in its double meaning: to mirror and to think over) in their works the complexity of Cuba as a socio-political framework. As a consequence, and especially for a foreign audience, these works require of a previous knowledge not only of the genuine circumstances in which the artist live, but rather of a series of very specific codes and keys in order to eviscerate all the layers of possible meanings. This fact, although it can be seen as a lack or a deficiency, is what in many occasions makes Cuban art different and calls the attention of the international art critics, curators and collectors.

Juan Francisco Elso, Por América, 1986.

After all, Cuba is sold as the last free and democratic country of the world, with a government of the people and for the people, where social emancipation reaches every aspect of live; thus any sign that tries to unveil the opposite, is obviously seen with mistrust by the Cuban authorities and for the same reasons is simultaneously celebrated by a sector of the art world[1].


Since the triumph of the Revolution, in 1959, Cuban art was more than ever related to its context, trapped in the changing hurricane invigorated by the project of social renovation, beautiful in its core, but at the end failed in its mise en scène. Cultural policies were irrevocably established after Fidel Castro’s “speech to the intellectuality” in 1961 where he stated “within the Revolution everything, against the Revolution not any rights”[2] .

Within these grounds began to raise the ethical conflict around the role of the artist in the new society that was linked to the concept of the New Man. Dark years arrived, between complaisance, segregation and censorship. It was not until the decade of the eighties (especially the second half) when Cuban art would openly defy the power structures by taking more radical positions, changing their artistic praxis and adopting new aesthetical expressions and topics. The artists of this period, commonly known in the History of Art as the Cuban Renascence, spread of a kind of work that strongly criticized the socio-political landscape and dynamited the oppressive boundaries of the officialdom (including the cultural institutions).

But while the Communist network collapsed in Europe by the end of the eighties, so did the frenetic young spirit of Cuban art. The economic crisis of the nineties drowned the country and its inhabitants, many of them trying to cross the ocean looking for a better future. A new era began that spans till today and where the need to be included in the international art market (which meant not only recognition but also a safe way to improve one’s own lifestyle), corrupted a part of the subsequent production. But fortunately the Cuban art scene was able to reinvent itself and from the Cátedra de Arte Conducta (Behavior Art School), created by the artist Tania Bruguera in 2003, emerged simoultaneously an avant-garde of artists that were truly committed with their reality, but united with exposing the fracture in the system.


In conclusion, many art critics recognize (in general lines) two main tendencies in Cuban contemporary art: one with an introspective root, focused on the artists as individuals with their subjective interests and intimacies, and the other more linked to the sociological, anthropological and political inquiries, inheritor of the practice of the Eighties. The first line (mostly painters and sculptors) would be more interested the artistic object (in a traditional sense) and centered in aesthetics ; the second line would try to untangle the social fabric through the experimentation: processes and relational artworks, video-creation, recovering (or re-creating) historical documents, etc.

The following four blog entries, under the title “How to disassemble a Nation: some proposals”, will try to bring more lights upon this last group of artists.



[1] These lead us to pose an inevitable question: “when the bubble explodes and the circumstances change, what will happen to Cuban art? Will Cuban artist be in disadvantage, seeing themselves lagged in reference to the rest of the world?"

[2] Fidel Castro: “Palabras a los intelectuales”, in Pensamiento y política cultural cubanos. Antología, tomo II. Pueblo y Educación, 1987, p. 29.


Artecubano Magazine No.1, 2013, pp. 6 - 25.
Cuba Siglo XX. Modernidad y Sincretismo. Ed. Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, 1995.
How to disassemble a Nation 2 Identification as Reappropriation

We are using cookies to give you the best experience on our site. Cookies are files stored in your browser and are used by most websites to help personalise your web experience.
By continuing to use our website without changing the settings, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. More Information (Spanish)