Ramon Carulla was sitting in class as a law student at the National University in Havana, Cuba, when the instructor, who was French, decided she would provide the class with a cross-cultural encounter they'd likely remember. She had just received a food ration of four chickens, so she demonstrated how to wring the neck and drain the blood into a galvanized pail, the French way.
Carulla did not care much for the chickens, but he wanted the blood. Even though he was an employed translator of English and French, and even though he was well on his way to earning a law degree, he had, at the age of 24, recently discovered a natural ability and a fierce desire to paint. But he was out of red paint, which along with the other primary colors, was hard to find in Cuba. That's why he wanted the chicken's blood. He diluted it with vinegar, which made enough red for two paintings, his bloody paintings, the first he'd ever sold and the beginning of his art career in 1964.
Carulla now lives in his home in Miami with his wife, where he has plenty of red paint and supplies for his studio, and where he paints his keen observations with a sure and poetic brush. He works in series: people in "places," people with "masks," people with "dreams," people as "hostage," people on "sofas," people on "journeys" — all people playing "the Game of Life," yet another series. He works appreciatively because, he says, "I live in a free country and paint as I wish."
And as others wish, if you judge by the fact that Carulla's paintings hang in fine-art establishments in more than 30 cities around the world, including Corbino Galleries in Longboat Key, where he happens to share space with seven other Cuban-American artists, all of whom left Cuba at some point after Fidel Castro assumed power. All but two live in Miami. In age, they range between 30 and 65. They have impressive resumes, stories to tell and artistic visions to convey. And nearby, they have company from Cuba.
Namely, Cuban artists who work in Cuba and have recently been able to show in the Tampa Bay area. Their presence provides an opportunity to view the art of Cubans and the art of Cuban-Americans, as if they were engaged in a kind of roundtable conversation that replaces the usual political virulence between the two countries with an artistic and creative language that is not necessarily apolitical but that informs the political with the deeply personal.
Visions of Escape and ExileLeonel Matheu is Corbino Galleries' youngest Cuban-American artist, who happens to be the nephew of Cuban jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval. Matheu has recently become a citizen. "He's really proud of that," says Max Moore, the gallery's manager. Matheu's cartoon-like characters convey two modes of existing in a machine-cyber-technological world. His subjects are either stuck holding up what they can, like a brick in a wall or a bit in a code, or they're engaged in the death-defying lunacy of chasing a dream, an occupation that in Matheu's vision, means being on the run as much as in pursuit.
There's little pining for nature or nostalgia for Eden in these paintings, even though they contain memories of lost homeland, for example, in the texture of Matheu's burlap-like painting surface or in the drip of a farewell tear. In cool, Caribbean color, dice and dominoes shaped like buildings, sneakers and childhood toys figure big in Matheu's paintings. "From Where I Come from to Where I'm Going" is one title that encapsulates Matheu's choice of abandoning the defunct utopia that is Cuba and going to the U.S., where dreams are still alive but where fate still amounts to a roll of a dice.
The specter of the 90-nautical-mile journey separating Cuba from Florida paradoxically unites, like an Odyssean archetype, the Cuban people who live on either side of it. Traditionally, there has been some animosity in Cuba toward those who have left. But in the wake of the most recent large exodus, during the so-called "special period" of extreme material deprivation due to the collapse of the former Soviet Union's support of Cuba and the U.S. trade embargo, a turn from anger to sadness seems to have occurred.
It's a change that registered in the exhibition Contemporary Art from Cuba: Irony and Survival on the Utopian Island, which was shown at the University of South Florida's Contemporary Art Museum last year. In that exhibition, the artist Kcho in the piece "Para Olvidar" (in order to forget) sets a well-crafted kayak of primitive materials (there are few industrial grade materials in Cuba) atop a sea of standing, empty bottles. The imagery evokes what curator Marilyn Zeitlin calls the theme of "escape" and the thousands of balseros who fled the extreme poverty of their home. Osvaldo Yero's assembly of 750 ceramic, aquamarine, teardrop-shaped hands conveys a "Sea of Tears," for Cuba's historical loss at the hands of the slavers and colonizers and for the considerable dimming of the light of the socialist dream. Tears fall for those who've left, and hands reach out to touch them.