“There’s a freedom in terms of ideas and also the materiality,” said Louise Weinberg, co-curator of Arte Cubano, the current exhibition hosted by the Godwin-Ternbach Museum at Queens College.
The exhibit, which opened in mid-October, comprises 43 works by 25 different artists, most of whom choose to remain living in Cuba today.
Arte Cubano’s collection is part of a tour produced by Mid-America Arts Alliance, with assistance from the Center for Cuban Studies in New York.
Contributions to the exhibition also come from curator Corina Matamoros at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana, alongside private collectors Kathy and Marc Le Baron, as well as Karen and Robert Duncan.
All of the artists in the exhibition were raised in socialist Cuba and graduated from a number of prestigious art schools all over the island.
“There’s this kind of license that these artists take in bringing in different elements,” said Weinberg. “These works contain coded symbols, which allow them to say more than what is obvious.
“Cubans have dealt with repression, and they still do,” she continued. “So in order for artists to exist today, they have found a way to make their passions and thoughts known.”
A popular folk saying on the island, also displayed on a wall of the gallery to compliment the collection, is: “Every Cuban is a mechanic.”
It is a statement that, in part, refers to the physical ingenuity of Cubans, who lovingly repair the old American cars the country is known for with Russian tractor parts leftover from the Soviet Union’s historical influence.
On the other hand, the saying also calls on the ability of Cubans to facilitate a cultural identity out of a blend of African, European and Latin/Caribbean influences.
When put in the context of economic, social and political struggle caused by the 1959 Cuban Revolution, contemporary art coming from the island provides audiences a variety of entry points through which to engage.
“One of the things we tell our students, whether it’s a kindergarten group that’s coming to visit or our college students, is a lot of these works of art are like peeling an onion,” said Maria Rhor, who directed Arte Cubano along with Weinberg. “You’re going to get different layers.
“In many of these works you encounter the identity of what it means to be Cuban,” she continued. “A lot of these artists are wrestling with where they fit in conjunction with the whole world. I really like that because that’s something that, now of course, New Yorkers, and especially people in Queens, are dealing with. We are thinking about our own identity: what does it mean to be American? Or what does it mean to perhaps be an immigrant to this country?”
Until the exhibition’s close on February 20, the Godwin-Ternbach Museum will open its doors to the public for a variety of lectures and workshops centered around the underlying theme of Cuban art.
On November 16 - the 500-year anniversary of the founding of Havana - the gallery will host visitors for a “Family Day,” during which they can explore Arte Cubano and participate in art-making of their own.
Other upcoming events include an artist talk with Queens College social practice alumna Nicole Mouriño on November 19 and a December 4th gallery talk focused on the origins of cultural diversity in Cuba.
Gallery Hours: Monday–Thursday, 10 am–5 pm, and Saturday, 11 am–5 pm.
Location: 405 Klapper Hall at Queens College, 65-30 Kissena Boulevard in Flushing,