When art meets politics

SaltFineArt in Laguna specializes in Latin American Art, but gallerist Carla Arzente probably never imagined that she'd be traveling to Cuba to curate a show about dissident artists.

The idea arose when the gallery was part of the L.A. Art Show and happened to be stationed across from a Cuban gallery.

"I became friends with two artists at the booth," she said. "It was their first time in the U.S. and the first time Cuban work was at the L.A. Art Fair. So I decided to do a full Cuban show."

The ambitious nature of the show is clear, as her website touts the exhibition as "its most daring and intense show to date, featuring 11 artists living and working within a culture that has been shut off from the rest of the world. More than just an exhibition of art, ¡CUBA! is a rare view past the sociopolitical show and into the hearts and minds of its people."

Cuba is now open to U.S. tourists, but it is still very difficult for Cubans to travel outside their country. The country still clamps down on political dissenters, but for some reason artists have been somewhat immune from this treatment, according to Arzente.

She began to put the show together by talking to artists and writers in Cuba via Skype. From a selection of more than 100 artists, she winnowed the group down to 11, including some very well-known artists and some who are just beginning to be known. Three of the artists are planning to come to the U.S. for the Jan. 5 opening, and as of last week they were still waiting for their visas, Arzente says.

The gallerist then made her own journey to Cuba, and was shocked by what she found when she visited the artists in their homes. While tourists are kept to the parts of Havana that are relatively new and clean, many parts of the country are so dilapidated that they are literally falling down.

"A huge apartment complex fell to the ground while we were there," Arzente said. "They said it was from age. Only four buildings have been built in the last 40 years." The cities are charming but, from photos Arzente took while in Cuba, seem lost in a time capsule. The cars are all from the 1950s, and clothing is similarly dated.

Because the Cuban government takes 50% of everything the artists make, Arzente had to take pains to convince authorities that she, not the artists, was paying for their travel expenses, so the artists would not be accused of having too much income. In Cuba, $25 a month is considered a rich salary, Arzente said. There is little money to buy food, or to make home repairs.

"When the artists go back to their homes, it looks like they've been bombed," she said.

The psychological toll on the Cuban people from nearly 50 years of Castroism is great, and this is reflected in the art produced on the island country.

Castro keeps a tight leash on his populace, who are unable to leave the island, Arzente said. The elite — artists and performers, for instance — can travel, but must always return to Cuba.

"The artists can leave [Cuba] and come back, but they cannot bring their families with them," she said. "There is a palpable fear."

While artwork in Cuba is strictly censored, work that makes it out of the country can be very critical of the country and its culture.

One artist, Esterio Segura, was banned in Cuba but his art has been collected by prestigious museums outside the country, Arzente said. The subject matter of one of his major works: Forty-eight panels, each depicting a man and woman in different sexual positions to show the many ways that Castro has "screwed" Cuba.

Another work by Segura, "Goodbye My Love," depicts airplanes carrying huge hearts, showing the yearning of the Cuban people to reunite with those who have left due to the Communist regime. That work could not be shown because of logistical problems, Arzente said.

One Segura work that will be shown is titled "Story of an Old Fisherman," and poignantly shows a man under a birdcage, with a fishing line outside it. He has caught a fish but of course he cannot retrieve it because he is caged.

Many other works show deep longing and isolation.

Arzente sees her show as "a peak behind the Iron Curtain" of Cuban Communism.

"All this work is shaped by the realities of Cuba," she said.

Even the route taken by the artwork was dictated by the rift between Cuba and its nearest neighbor, the U.S., which has imposed an embargo on Cuba since 1960. While Cuba is only 90 miles from Key West, Fla., the artwork had to be shipped to Canada and then to the U.S. in order to appear in Laguna Beach.

cindy.frazier@latimes.com

Twitter: @CindyFrazier1

If You Go

What: ¡CUBA!

Where: Salt Fine Art, 1492 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach

Opening: 6 to 9 p.m. Jan. 5

Closing: Feb. 29

Information: Call (949) 715-5554; or visit saltfineart.com

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