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Posted June 19, 2009 by publisher in Cuban Art

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Rob Sequin | Havana Journal

Sculpture by Cuban ceramic artist Osmany Betancourt

At the Fuller Craft Museum on Oak Street in Brockton Massachusetts, you can see a Cuban ceramic art exhibition called “Beyond the Embargo: Cuban and American Ceramics” until October 18.

Curated by Catherine Merrill, this exhibition highlights works in clay from a group of prominent Cuban and American artists who, in spite of the continued U.S. Embargo against Cuba, have continued to work and exhibit together in both Cuba and the United States. This collaborative cultural exchange brings together artists from different aesthetic, cultural and technical backgrounds. She says that Cuban ceramic art is as intriguing for its story as it is for its art.

If “Beyond the Embargo” is any indication, Cuban ceramicists are thriving, despite dramatic economic disadvantages. They stage regular encuentras (Spanish for encounters), where clay artists from around the world gather, share technical expertise, and collectively stoke the creative flame.

“Foreign artists will bring brushes and glazes and chemicals,’’ Merrill explained. But they still work on Cuban potters wheels jiggered from auto parts, and use local glazes mixed from pulverized stones, ground up television tubes, car batteries, and eggshells.

The US trade embargo hasn’t helped the situation. Travel restrictions tightened during the Bush administration have made it tough for Americans to attend the encuentras. But there are loopholes. Merrill, for instance, has been granted visas for research projects.

Likewise, it’s not easy for Cuban artists to visit the United States. Merrill invited Cuban Antonio Lewis to speak on a panel in California in 2003, and he was declined on the grounds that he was “a specialist in ceramic technology in all its applications,’’ according to Merrill. The Obama administration has eased some economic and travel restrictions on Cuba. In this show, all the Cuban work is smallish, because it was carried here in suitcases.

Merrill and several other American and Cuban ceramicists formed Proyecto Arte del Fuego to promote cultural exchange between the two countries. “Beyond the Embargo’’ is the fruit of that organization. The group runs the gamut from young artists still finding their way to established artists, and includes Cuban heavy hitters Osmany Betancourt, Nelson Dominguez, and Alberto Lescay.

Dominguez, a jack-of-all-mediums, is a painter and printmaker as well as a ceramicist. Here, he offers one of his favorite motifs in “Untitled (Clothespin),’’ an oversize terra cotta pin with a person etched into either side. The two tensile figures are caught in an awkward embrace. With the curling force of the pin’s fastener, it’s deliciously unclear whether they’re trapped together, nose to nose, or lovingly ensconced.

Lescay is likewise multitalented, recognized as a sculptor, public artist, and painter. His terrific “Creo en la Tierra Diptych’’ features two rugged stoneware spheres, crackling with a reddish glaze. They look like giant balls of soil. One has a puckering seam; the other tears open to reveal a nest with porcelain eggs inside, perfect, white, and hopeful within these weathered looking orbs.

A ceramic artist on the rise, Betancourt has crafted a satirical bust “Rostro de mi Ciudad (The Face of My City - seen above),’’ which began as a rough self-portrait in terra cotta. He stretched it sideways, twisting the ears into corkscrews. Eyes and mouth squeeze defiantly shut. The base is coal-gray, the head highlighted with a ghostly pale white. It’s a picture of fatuous resistance, reminiscent of the darkly comic social commentary of artists such as George Grosz and William Kentridge.

“Beyond the Embargo’’ spotlights nine Cuban artists and six Americans. By and large, the Cuban work has more edge and more pathos. Jose Vasquez Xene’s fearsome “Las Mujeres’’ is made up of five rectangular stoneware plates. The central one is really a box, housing a clay heart that appears bloodied. The others frame it, each a grid containing female figures, some bound, one sliced open.

There’s a strong surrealist tone in Cuban art, indeed in much Caribbean art. It likely has its roots in the region’s Santeria religion, which melds elements of Yoruba, Roman Catholicism, and indigenous beliefs. Raul Miranda’s fantastical earthenware “Intercambio’’ has a nightmarish quality: An elongated torso on three plump, truncated legs appears to open and reveal a chaos of figures and structures - people, animals, wheels, ladders. A roof tops off the head.

“Beyond the Embargo’’ stretches hands across the political chasm between the two countries. While the leaders partake in a political dance, pushing away and then taking small steps toward each other, the artists come together and party.

(excerpts from Boston Globe)

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