Posted on Saturday, 05.26.12
Havana sees US invasion at key art festival
By PETER ORSI
HAVANA -- Ruben Alpizar never met the American collector who fell in
love with his painting of a plummeting Icarus against a starry
background, hanging on the wall of a Spanish colonial-era fortress
across the bay from Havana. Nor did he get a name or a hometown, or even
learn whether the buyer was a man or a woman.
It all happened quickly, starting with a phone call from a broker. "How
much for the painting? Look, I think somebody wants it. I'll call you
right back." Soon after, the phone rang again: "Sold."
"We need more people coming from Gringoland," Alpizar said with a smile,
not a hint of derision in his voice as he employed a term that can be
either affectionate or pejorative depending on the context. "They pay
the price you ask."
The streets of the Cuban capital are, in fact, awash with American art
pilgrims during the monthlong Biennial, a showcase connecting local
contemporary artists with well-heeled foreign collectors - key clients
in a country whose citizens have little real purchasing power.
Alpizar, for one, would not say how much his painting sold for, but
offered that his work normally goes for between $3,000 and $15,000, a
windfall in a country where most people earn the equivalent of $20 a month.
The Americans are arriving in larger numbers because of the Obama
administration's relaxation of U.S. embargo travel rules. They say they
see a chance to explore the unknown and look for the ultimate
conversation piece to hang on the living room wall.
"I think there is a mystique and the association with the 'time-capsule
island' and all that's inaccessible," said Rachel Weingeist, an adviser
to Shelley and Donald Rubin on their Cuban art collection. The couple's
New York-based Rubin Foundation promotes the arts and humanitarian causes.
"Frankly we haven't had much access until recently," Weingeist said.
The Americans say they're impressed by the island's sophisticated fine
arts scene compared to those in other countries in the Caribbean and
elsewhere. Auctions by Christie's and Sotheby's have firmly cemented
Cuban art in the U.S. consciousness, such as this week's sale of a
painting by the late surrealist Wilfredo Lam for $4.56 million.
"There's so much heart. It's very intense. It's about a sense of place,"
said Jennifer Jacobs of Portland, Oregon, who led a private group of 15
collectors from Seattle to the Biennial. "It really spoke to me personally."
Terry Hall, an art collector and accountant from Gurnee, Illinois, just
south of the Wisconsin border, said she was surprised by the variety she
Cuban art embraces diverse themes and styles, and even ventures into the
political. One piece on display at the Biennial, shaped like a mailbox,
has a slot with large, sharp bloody fangs and an invitation for
"Complaints and Suggestions."
"I came down here expecting art that was more colorful, more Caribbean
in flavor and what I found is more international, more cutting-edge,
more ambitious art," said Hall. "I've really been very excited about it.
I think it rivals anything I've seen anywhere else as far as the
execution, the expertise and the ambitious ideas."
More than 1,300 American artists, curators, collectors and fans have
been accredited for the Biennial, organizers say, an unusually large
delegation from what some say is the most important market for Cuban
art. Unlike with other island goods, it's perfectly legal for Americans
to buy Cuban art, which is covered under an exemption to the 50-year-old
U.S. embargo allowing the purchase of "informational materials."
"They're coming by the busload," said Alpizar, who just two weeks into
the Biennial had sold a half-dozen works including the piece featuring
Icarus, entitled "Home." Another painting that was snapped up by an
American collector, "My Ark," was a whimsical cross between a stern of a
boat and a religious tableau, with famous historical figures peeking out
from the windows: Ernest Hemingway, Karl Marx, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo
and Pope John Paul II.
While Cuban emigrant artists living in Miami sometimes struggle to be
noticed, artists who remain on the island enjoy the cachet of providing
a kind of forbidden fruit for U.S. collectors. People on both sides of
the exchange say the mutual affinity exists not despite but because of
the five decades of geographical proximity and political animosity.
Many collectors are Cuban-Americans, perhaps eager to acquire a link to
their lost homeland. Others are patrons from big cities such as New
York, San Francisco and Seattle that are more open to detente.
"There's a very easy connection between us. The American public ... has
a very special sensitivity to Cuban art," said Carlos Rene Aguilera, who
exhibited a dozen paintings inspired by black holes, string theory and
other scientific mysteries, hauled all the way from the eastern city of
Santiago. "Maybe it's because of curiosity about each other's history.
Maybe it's because we are neighbors and there is a messy relationship
between our countries, so this creates interest."
So great is that interest that Americans are often willing to shell out
the asking price with little background research, and with a little
luck, even junior artists can command eye-popping prices. Tales abound
about fourth-year university students selling pieces for $15,000, equal
to the prices commanded by Alpizar, an established artist whose work has
been shown in dozens of individual and collective exhibitions over a
"It's what the market will bear, and why not shoot for the moon?"
Weingeist said. "All it takes is somebody feeling giddy who's got the
money for something they like."
The transactions are usually handshake agreements to wire money to bank
accounts holding international currencies that many artists prefer to
keep in Spain, the Netherlands or Canada, rather than the local bank
accounts for Cuban pesos used only on the island. The seller then ships
carefully wrapped paintings to overseas addresses.
Galleries are cut out of their traditional middleman role, giving
collectors the sense that they're getting a better deal. The arrangement
also brings buyers in direct contact with the artists as they go
knocking on the doors of home studios.
Artists say the Biennial is a crucial time to build their names and
establish those contacts.
"I've collected a ton of business cards," said artist Tamara Campo,
whose ode to the world financial crisis is installed in a bunker of La
Cabana fortress. It features a wave of some 650 banknotes fashioned from
fragrant cedar cascading from the ceiling into a jumbled pile on the floor.
"A lot of people want to talk to me," Campo said. "I have to check my
email, because it's been days."
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