Roberta C. Nelson—The Bradenton Herald

In its most ambitious undertaking yet to exhibit visual art within a cultural framework, Ringling Museum of Art presents live dance and musical performances, films, lectures, photographs and seminars during the first week of “Cuba Avant-Garde: Contemporary Art from the Farber Collection.”

The exhibit of 58 works, organized by the Samuel P. Harn Museum in Gainesville this year, runs through Dec. 30 in the Ulla R. and Arthur F. Searing Wing at the museum. The Ringling exhibition is the first since the show left the Harn Museum last month. “Cuban Avant-Garde” is expected to travel for the next three years.

The related Ringling events are scheduled and ticketed individually, so patrons may choose their level of participation.

“People are fascinated by Cuba,” said Noel Smith, curator of Latin American & Caribbean Art and curator of education at the Institute for Research and Art Graphicstudio at University of South Florida Tampa.

“This exhibit lifts a corner of the curtain for people and addresses some very serious humanitarian issues and approaches in a way that is very interesting and eye-opening for people,” she said.

Smith and Susan Fernandez, associate professor of history at USF St. Petersburg, are presenters at a two-day Florida State University Cultural Institute program Oct. 11-12 at the Ringling. The institute includes university-level seminars, plus performances, a cocktail hour, lunch, field trips and in-depth study of the “Cuba Avant-Garde” exhibit.

The works in the exhibit were collected by Howard and Patricia Farber of New York City and Miami, who first visited the artists’ studios during a 2001 visit to Cuba.

“I think they saw this was a collection of work that needed to be saved and collected, and shown in the United States,” Smith said. “It represents a particular era in Cuban history, the late 1980s until now, when there were a lot of changes and challenges for the artists.”

The economic climate in Cuba was enormously affected by the withdrawal of support of the Communist government in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, she said.

“Overnight, the Cuban economy collapsed,” she said. “We are talking about a period of time when there was almost an involuntary ‘greening’ of Cuba. There was no gasoline. Electricity was rationed. People had to ride bicycles everywhere. Food and art materials were extremely scarce. It was a very dramatic time for Cuba.”

The gasoline shortage could be one interpretation of Armando Marino’s 2002 picture “The Raft,” a pink-and-white American car from the 1950s with no wheels. The car is being powered by many pairs of bare feet which show beneath the chassis. Marino was born in Cuba but lives in Spain, as do about half the artists represented in the show.

“All the artists are able to convey a sense of their place in this nation, whether they remained there or have left,” said Stephen D. Borys, Ulla R. Searing Curator of Collection at the Ringling. “When you walk through the show, you will consistently see very powerful images—some representative, some abstract—that for that particular artist reflect a kind of life experience.”

The artists responded to experiences in daily life, but were also affected as artists.

“Cuban art was really a place for public discourse, a place where civic dialogue could take place,” Smith said. “Because, of course, they don’t have a free press. They don’t have elections, and no right of free association. So this art was expressing cultural, historical tensions that people were undergoing.”