The first thing that strikes one about this noteworthy show is the scope of the exhibition. The array of artists — both emerging and internationally recognized — is amazing. The diversity of their art reflects the history of the island: there is myriad of influences in the visual vocabulary. Artistic legacies come from Spain and Africa, as well as deep-seated religious traditions, whether from the Catholic Church or Santeria. A meld of African mythologies and Christianity, Santeria is an integral cultural ethos of the Cuban art scene.

Coupled with the powerful Afro-Cuban inheritance is another significant component: classical training. Art education is sponsored by the government and many artists spend 5-7 years studying. These integral inspirations – rational knowledge and a spiritual heritage – can be discerned in the work of artists such as the internationally renowned Manuel Mendive and Rigoberto Mena.

Abstract expressionist Mena explores colours and textures with a subtle sense of contrasts and proportion in his mixed-media luminous work. Technically assured, they reflect the vital spirit of his native Havana. Another respected master of contemporary Cuban art, Manual Mendive symbolizes the synthesis of Cuba’s cultural elements. Born of a Santeria-practising family and a graduate of the prestigious Academia de Artes Plasticas San Alejandro in Havana, his fanciful universe is full of fabulist forms in a sense of transformation; animals becoming humans and vice versa.

In contrast to this dream-like approach is the natural realism of young artist Frank Mujica who uses only pencil and graphite. At a distance the black and white works resemble photographs, but on looking closely at his extraordinarily detailed landscapes one notes the artist’s marks. Another artist deftly using line is Ruben Rodriguez. His graphite and watercolour work, while recalling Egon Schiele’s seductive shapes, is almost an abstraction. The minimalistic nude figures with their elegant eroticism hide invisible interpretations. Skillfully drawn, their economy of line conceals layers of the artist’s personal iconography linked to his country’s mystical traditions.

Younger Cuban artists are varied in their artistic approach. Emerging artist Adrian Fernandez’ work is intriguing. The perfect balance in his photographs could have been arranged by a stylist, but in fact each piece in the picture is found in a person’s home. There he often finds realistic-looking fake flowers that are strangely beautiful. Along with the flowers, in the same home Fernandez seeks out a matching vase and fabric –a tablecloth or a curtain. The resulting pattern-on-pattern colour photos with their subtle textures are mesmerizing. The poetic dialogue of the three elements becomes a quiet social commentary. His images reveal how people subconsciously surround themselves with their own social codes.

Another contemporary approach is the installation by conceptual artist Alfredo Sarabia. His Entramado (Framework) is an obvious social and political commentary with its Cuban and Russian flags entwined – or perhaps entrapped? – in wires. Indeed, the entire piece is ‘wired’. Around the frame are electrical outlets, so that smart phones, laptops, light bulbs etc. can be attached to the piece, which is itself plugged into an outlet.

The work of young sculptor Pedro Luis Cuéllar is nuts and bolts, literally. He creates poetry in motion with iron bits fused into graceful shapes. And yet, the elegant elongated bodies communicate a message. Mi Patria (My Homeland) has a wooden cage carried by the figure; his body is stuck inside. Record mundial (World Record), inspired by the Olympics, features a figure pointing ahead (to the future?), but his cohorts seem to be about to spring free. His stylized figures with their amusing anatomies tell a tale.

And, of course, surrounding Cuba is the sea – representing freedom as well as death. This dominant presence is both muse and maelstrom. Working with negatives, conceptual photography couple Liudmila & Nelson’s Absolut Revolution portrays Havana’s iconic Revolution Square invaded by waves. Their moving El Viaje (The Voyage) shows a sensual body curled up (escaping or dead?) in a suitcase. The metaphorical image is washed with a transparent layer of blue. This sense of escape by water is symbolized in the expressive work by the world-famous Kcho, who had a solo show at the Vatican in 2014. His tall painting is of a simple oar: the handle is a bone.

The nuances native to the island, coupled with turbulent times, have driven a vital artistic heritage. World renown was jumpstarted in 1944 with a show on Cuban painters at MoMA. Now many of these artists are shown in museums and galleries around the world. Aura’s eclectic mix of Cuban art requires time not only to admire, but to appreciate. The dialogues are dense with cultural and political issues: the pictorial language is unequalled anywhere in the world. 

Galerie Aura, Montreal
October 15—December 15, 2015