Edited by Jorge Duany. University of Florida Press, 2019. 320 p, ill. ISBN 9781683400905 (h/c), $80.00.
Reviewed March 2020
Gilda Santana, Head, Architecture Research Center, University of Miami, firstname.lastname@example.org
The fundamental question of what made/makes and defines artistic production as Cuban, whether generated on the island or abroad, is a running thread throughout Jorge Duany’s Picturing Cuba: Art, Culture, and Identity on the Island and in the Diaspora. This volume, which traces the origins, influences and diasporic reaches of Cubans on the island and in exile communities, is an insightfully curated and richly illustrated compilation of fourteen essays by leading Cuban studies scholars. The authors explore the evolution and construction of Cuba’s national identity, and the notion of Cubanidad, or Cuban-ness, as lensed through varying perspectives of Cuba’s visual arts from the colonial era to the present day. Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute and professor of anthropology at Florida International University, introduces the premise of the book and closes it with an essay on the shifting cultural relations between the United States and Cuba.
Individual chapters regard themes such as transnational influences and visual representations and interpretations both foreign and domestic, of history, gender, race, culture, and society. Focusing on the impact of political disruptions on the inhabitants of a “moveable nation”, Angela O’Reilly Herrera, in her chapter, “Cuban Art in the Diaspora: The ‘Chaos of Difference and Repetition’,” explores themes of nationhood and displacement. Emilio Cueto, an expert on graphic materials analyzes images in a series of prints that reflect the colonial gaze of European conquerors and settlers. Alison Fraunhar examines gender, race and sexuality through the vehicle of the mulata.
Ordered chronologically, the chapters articulate the defining periods of artistic production concentrating on the Colonial, Republican, and Post-Revolutionary periods as well as the present diaspora. With the exception of Iliana Cepero who provides context for the journalistic and artistic evolution of photography in her chapter, “Cuban Photography after 1959: Shifting Paradigms,” the Revolutionary period is notably absent from the general chronology. Duany provides no explanation for by-passing it, but does offer a description of it as “the worst period of bureaucratic control over the visual arts in Cuba”. While that statement is inarguably true, the exclusion of a period that for several decades and for better or worse conjured many more layers of artistic interpretation and production, albeit propagandist, in Cuba is problematic. The omission is particularly noticeable in light of the volume’s focus on “Cubanness” and themes of identity as experienced through the visual arts. Nevertheless, it is a very good read, and, while it is primarily targeted to an academic audience, it stands as a veritable primer for anyone who is interested in Cuba’s artistic production and the development of her identity as it unfolded in all other periods. It is hardbound, with good reproductions and illustrations and it includes an index.