At the official level, the United States has politically and economically ostracized Cuba for the past 60 years, since communist dictator Fidel Castro took power and helped precipitate the Cuban Missile Crisis. But after the Cold War ended, mutual cultural exploration expanded; recall, for instance, the stateside success of Ry Cooder’s 1997 album Buena Vista Social Club, a collaboration with Cuban musicians and Wim Wenders’ 1999 film that documented it. Castro’s power also declined: he stepped down as president in 2008 and died in 2016. Although the Trump administration has slowed the momentum of political conciliation, having withdrawn most U.S. diplomatic personnel following the unexplained illnesses of several of them, many Americans have stopped seeing the Caribbean island as a threat or even as unfriendly. Some, including artists like Katarina Wong, have family ties in Cuba and visit the island regularly. As she began traveling to Cuba more frequently after restrictions eased in 2015, Wong contemplated a project that would establish and encourage collaboration among artists in the two countries. The result is “Hecho en Tránsito / Made in Transit: A U.S.-Cuban Art Exchange & Intercultural Dialogue,” an exhibition curated by Wong on view at the downtown Brooklyn campus of Long Island University. Intrigued, Two Coats of Paint asked Wong about the project and the process of organizing an exhibition across borders.
How the project worked (from the press release):
The project is inspired by the Surrealist “exquisite corpse” game in which artists work on a single artwork. A mixture of emerging and mid-career artists, four U.S. and four Cuban artists were selected based on the strength of their overall body of work as well as a willingness to engage in a long-term collaborative project and sustained dialogue with other artists. Their work represents a variety of formal and conceptual interests. The curator has paired them off and collected a piece of art from each of the artists. Over the course of 12-18 months, the artist pairs will work on each other’s work, with the curator transporting the artworks to and from the artists. The pieces are swapped four times over the course of the project, approximately every 4-5 months.
Two Coats of Paint: What possessed you to do such a challenging project? Were you inspired by past collaborative projects?
Katarina Wong: I started this project in 2015, right when relationships were opening up between the US and Cuba. Although I had traveled to Cuba regularly since I was a child to see family, I started traveling to Cuba much more frequently that year with the idea to get to know the Cuban arts landscape better. While meeting Cuban artists, I realized how little US artists get to see contemporary art from Cuba and that most Cuban artists never experience US artwork in person at all. I wanted to do something that would connect these groups. I was inspired by the surrealist “exquisite corpse” game as well as the “Wild Noise” exhibition, a joint project between the Bronx Museum of Art and the National Museum of Art in Havana. For that show, the Bronx Museum lent pieces from their permanent collection to the National Museum of Art – the first time in 50 years that artwork from a US museum had been on exhibited in Cuba.
TCOP: Exploring artists’ studios in Cuba must have been fascinating. How did you decide which artists to invite?
KW: I wanted to choose artists who were at different points in their careers, who came from a wide range of artistic practices and view points. All of the Cuban artists were connected with the Instituto Superior del Arte, Cuba’s premier art school, which is a kind of hub for contemporary Cuban art across disciplines. Rigoberto Díaz Martínez, a conceptual artist, and Lisbet Roldán, a photographer and performance artists, both recently graduated from there. Aylén Russinyol, a painter, and Lizandra Rodríguez, an artist with a theatre design background, both teach there. From the US, Doug Beube, as a sculptor who manipulates books and texts, and Christopher K. Ho, a conceptual artist, are both immigrants with strong exhibitions records. Laurel Farrin is an abstract painter with a strong practice, while Travis LeRoy Southworth is a younger artist who works digitally.
TCOP: What has it been like coordinating the project? Were there any problems you didn’t anticipate? Amazing results that you didn’t anticipate?
KW: I transported the artwork between the artists every 4-5 months, so I like to joke that my role was more as the art “mule” than curator. My only direction for the artists was that the artwork needed to fit in my luggage – I wasn’t going to get involved with the nightmare of shipping artwork back and forth.
The biggest problem I didn’t anticipate was the change in policy, once the Trump administration took over. By gutting the US Embassy in Havana of personnel, there simply wasn’t anyone there to process visa applications. As a result, the only way Cubans could get a visa to come to the US, was to fly to a third country like Mexico or Colombia, go to the US Embassy there, and wait for the visa to come through. This financially wasn’t an option for the project, and sadly, as a result, three of the Cuban artists were not able to come to the US openings. Fortunately, Rigoberto was already visiting Miami on a year-long visa, so I was able to bring him to NYC for the Macy Gallery opening.
There was so many amazing aspects to this project. None of this would have been possible if the artists weren’t engaged with the collaborative nature of the project. That said, I was so touched to see their willingness to fully embrace this crazy idea and show such creative vulnerability and trust. Since I conceived of the project as an experiment, I wanted the artists to feel comfortable making pieces that weren’t may aesthetically “fail” but would be important in other ways. From the start, the artists were allowed to set up their own rules of engagement, and they all decided that they would allow each other the freedom to do anything to the work – manipulate, erase, negate, or destroy. Though none of artists in the the pairs spoke each other’s language also, it was interesting to see that they all eschewed any written or spoken communication. I wasn’t called on to translate or to carry messages between the artists. I think that earnest desire to really engage with one another through artmaking shines through in each of the pieces. For me, these collaborations are powerful examples of how disparate groups can gain understanding by allowing themselves to be open to the other. Given the current political climate, I want to support and create projects that envision a world in which we are still able to engage with one another, not out of fear, but out of hope and trust.
“Hecho en Tránsito / Made in Transit: A U.S.-Cuban Art Exchange & Intercultural Dialogue,” curated by Katarina Wong. Artists include Doug Beube, Laurel Farrin, Christopher K. Ho, Travis LeRoy Southworth (US artists) and Rigoberto Díaz Martínez, Lizandra Rodríguez, Aylén Russinyol, Lisbet Roldán (Cuban artists). Salena Gallery, Long Island University, located on the first floor of Library Learning Center, Brooklyn campus, at the intersection of DeKalb and Flatbush Avenues in Downtown Brooklyn. Through April 27, 2018. The exhibition was also on view at Macy Gallery at Teachers College, Columbia University.