By Jessica Dawson | Special to The Washington Post
The artworks Clyde Hensley adores can’t be bought in the famous art galleries of New York, Los Angeles or London. Instead, he has had to travel to tiny, far-flung towns in eastern Cuba.
These days, though, that’s a problem.
Hensley, whose collection is on display at Washington’s Meridian International Center, has been importing Cuban artworks during sanctioned trips to the island for nearly 10 years. His license to do so has expired. And now, because of Bush administration crackdowns on cultural travel to Cuba, he may well be turned down when he reapplies.
Earlier this year, the Treasury Department announced the elimination of one of the most popular instruments of legal travel to Cuba, a license that Hensley and thousands of others have traveled on. That change, coupled with stepped-up enforcement of travel restrictions, means there will be less new art from Cuba at shows in the United States.
During the past decade, the 51-year-old collector has amassed 500 pieces of art from the semi-isolated, easternmost region of Oriente.
“The license issue has put us at a standstill for the moment,” Hensley says.
Though a lifelong traveler, he didn’t visit Cuba until the mid-1990s. Hensley’s stepfather, a Marine, moved the family often, which Hensley says may have contributed to his own peripatetic tendencies. “My attention span is usually about five years,” he says. Though born in Norfolk, he spent a good chunk of his childhood in western North Carolina, where he acquired a warm drawl and a penchant for punctuating his sentences with “daggone.” At age 17, while living with his family in Japan, Hensley joined the merchant marine. Though much of the rest of his life has been spent near the sea—as a guesthouse proprietor and diver in Key West, as a yacht builder in Italy—there have been exceptions. One was a time, in the 1980s, when he developed a spring in North Carolina into a successful water company. He eventually sold it for a considerable profit.
That transaction brought Hensley and his wife the financial security to indulge an interest in art that was awakened by Hensley’s first trip to Oriente. Upon his arrival there, he found the local artists hemmed in by shortages of art supplies and spurred to elaborate improvisation. “When I met them,” Hensley recalls, “they were painting on sugar and flour bags.” Though art schools existed, their facilities were spare. Access to studios and materials was severely limited. Yet the artists persisted. They painted landscapes as traditional as any 19th-century European academic’s. They depicted quotidian scenes of fishmongers or cane threshers. Stylistically, most were 80 to 100 years behind the times.
Such “backwardness” is partly because of the region’s isolation. More than 500 miles east of Havana, Oriente encompasses some of the island’s toughest terrain. In the 16th century, the area housed two of Cuba’s capitals, Baracoa and Santiago de Cuba. More recent times found those towns increasingly isolated. It wasn’t until the 1960s that a road was built to connect Baracoa to Guantanamo, now famously the home of the U.S. naval base. Today, Santiago de Cuba is a mining center and port.
Soon after discovering the art of eastern Cuba, Hensley and his wife, Brigid, began making regular visits to the area, delivering art supplies—canvas, paint, art books, brushes—and acquiring a collection of artworks, 63 of which are on view in “Cuba Oriente: Contemporary Painting From Eastern Cuba” at the Meridian International Center.
The 10 artists on view in “Cuba Oriente” aren’t part of the avant-garde—not one of them participated in this fall’s Havana Biennial, despite the show’s emphasis on residents of the island nation. Instead, they are naive, folkloric and academic.
“They’re still looking at European artists—surrealism, impressionism, expressionism,” explains Philip Linhares, chief curator of art at the Oakland Museum of California, which, as Santiago de Cuba’s sister city, exhibits many east Cuban artists. “They’re devoid of the strategies of more up-to-date art. It’s as if they’ve missed out on the ‘80s, ‘90s and the art hucksterism.” On these canvases, the last sixty-odd years—which have seen abstract expressionism, minimalism, conceptual and identity-based art—seem never to have happened.
From the looks of things, the textbooks Oriente artists studied end at surrealism. Joherms Quiala Brooks specializes in the genre, turning out canvases such as “Save Me,” in which a rope dangles from a clear blue sky. Others, including Roel Caboverde Llacer, make neo-Cubist paintings of local scenes. There’s a brooding, expressionist bent to the bug-eyed fellow in Reinaldo Pagan Avila’s striking “The Nest.” Most heavily represented here, though, are landscapes of a clean, academic style. There are able works by Alfredo Rodriguez Cedeno, which include surrealist touches. Ruben Manuel Beltran Guerra turns out dynamic panoramas of small towns.
“They’re working in an isolation that no longer exists in Havana, with its state-of-the-art art school,” Linhares says.
Such lack of insider credentials suits Hensley just fine.
“They’re painting for themselves and about their social issues,” Hensley says. “The truth in their painting is what drove me.”
Through a nonprofit organization he set up, Hensley has begun heavy promotion of Oriente artists. He’s sent American artists to study in Cuba. He has built ties with curators such as Linhares in Oakland. And he’s shot a documentary film, now in its final stages of production.
He has also moved many artworks out of the country. Taking advantage of a 1991 lawsuit that allowed Americans to spend money in Cuba to buy art there, Hensley found that he could import the works so long as he traveled with them to the United States. But if travel is further curtailed, Hensley, and others like him, will be unable to use that avenue.
Linhares, too, is worried about the restrictions. As the organizer of a show featuring Oakland artists that is scheduled at Oriente’s Bacardi Museum next fall, he frets that the Americans will be denied legal travel to the island—and that the show may not go on.
State Department officials insist that legitimate noncommercial artistic exchange will remain permissible.
“I understand their concerns,” Hensley says of the administration. “Some people have been abusing the licenses.” Still, he says, Bush officials are “making a horrible mistake.”
Since spring, the ping-pong match between the Bush administration and Congress over Cuban travel issues has left arts enthusiasts with a sore neck. Eisenhower-era laws prohibited spending U.S. dollars in Cuba. Only a select group of journalists, scholars, diplomats and humanitarians were eligible for Treasury Department-issued licenses allowing such spending. During the Clinton era, a provision allowing educationally based “people to people” travel added a new category of license. And it’s that provision that’s currently under fire from the Bush administration.
State Department officials explain that recent moves by the administration are meant to “take a hard look at groups who have been arranging trips that aren’t in keeping with what licenses allow—offering tourism in the guise of cultural exchange.” Officials at State argue that tourist dollars spent in Cuba help support the current repressive regime.
After months of back-and-forth between the administration and Congress, the House and Senate backed down on their proposals to end the travel ban entirely. For now, the Bush administration has scored a victory.
How does Hensley see the future of Cuban-American exchange?
“It looks like Johnny Cash’s closet—dark,” he says.
The collector hopes that, with time, the administration will reconsider and see the value of exchange. And he promises to try to continue his work supporting artists in eastern Cuba and collecting their art.
“I have a strong belief that things work themselves out,” he says.
Cuba Oriente: Contemporary Painting From Eastern Cuba, at the White-Meyer Galleries, Meridian International Center, 1624 Crescent Place NW, Wednesday-Sunday, 2-5 p.m., 202-667-6670, to Jan. 18.