CalArts students and Cuban artists partner for transnational exhibitions

Cuban artist Aissa Santizo’s “Wet Steps” performance piece to represent those who have lost their lives in the journey from Cuba to the United States as part of “El Acercamiento/The Approach.” Courtesy of CalArts

Students and professional artists from California Institute of the Arts and Academia Nacional de Artes San Alejandro in Habana are exploring the history and future possibilities of the two countries through a four-year, transnational exhibition named after the Cuban phrase.

A three-part exhibition series, titled El Acercamiento/The Approach, allows students to host artistic exhibitions in Havana, Los Angeles and Miami as they create their own forms of diplomacy and continuously develop their artwork.

Inspiration for the project was formed by Evelyn Serrano, CalArts School of Theater faculty member, and Yamile Pardo, dean of School of Sculpture at Academia Nacional de Bella Artes San Alejandro in Cuba and operator of Galeria Cubana.

Serrano, who was born and raised in Cuba, met Pardo during Havana’s Biennial Art Exhibition in 2015.

“She runs one of the very few independent galleries in Cuba,” Serrano said.  “In Cuba most of the cultural institutions are government [run], so to have an artist run their own space that is doing very well and showing innovative work, perhaps at some point controversial… I was very impressed by that.”

The two bonded immediately over their shared love of education and collaborative artwork.

“It felt like we were in that way kind of kindred spirits,” Serrano said.  “She’s also really excited about pedagogy in general as I am.”

After meeting, the two decided to create an exchange project between their classes and through partnerships at Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes San Alejandro, the oldest art school in Latin America, the Instituto Superior de Arte, a college like CalArts, and individuals in Miami.

“Once we made those partnerships we felt that was a solid foundation for a transnational collaboration for a progressive pedagogical experiment,” Serrano said.

Artistic process

In September and October 2015, the first group of students at CalArts and in Cuba began what Serrano calls “sense making” to understand the history, politics, challenges and opportunities facing the two nations.

“A lot of it is the information gathering and understanding the complexity of the issue of relations between the two countries,” Serrano said.

A month later, the students started creating “idea seeds” for projects that can be contextualized and relevant in all three locations.

Serrano asked her students to suspend their preconceived notions and to think of what their role was as artists to be culture-makers and change-makers.

“Then the teachers in each of the locations are kind of like matchmakers and look at things our students have in common across cities to partner them,” she said.

For the first three months of the year students refined their project ideas and determined what form it will take place in each of the cities.  Students created pieces within the fields of performance art, visual art, voice work and sculpture that tied into social and political issues.

“There was complete freedom in terms of how they wanted to attack the challenge,” Serrano said.

Transnational travel

This March, the first group of CalArts students traveled to Cuba to host their first exhibition in streets and galleries.

“The idea of why I’m so committed to so many students going through the yearlong process… is that it is very different when we travel to Cuba,” Serrano said.

Many of the performances in Cuba were urban interventions, where students would share their art with people in the streets.

“We were accessing people on the streets or on the beach where performances were happening,” she said.  “We were getting a very diverse audience in Cuba…We had hundreds of people just around these performance events we had.”

Students on the trip became aware of issues of privilege and resources as they saw artists using their homes as galleries or items in the street as materials, according to Serrano.

“For all of them it was not only a really rich artistic opportunity and experience, but also an incredible learning experience in many ways,” she said.  “I think it broadened their horizons and sense of responsibility in terms of their art.”

Because they experienced the country’s culture on a personal level, students’ work and lens as artists continued to evolve.

“When it’s re-contextualized into another city or exhibition, the meaning behind the work might actually shift or be enriched or be translated in different ways,” Serrano said.  “This is not a traveling exhibition, because the works are growing as their knowledge is growing and as their encounters are happening.”

Future plans

In two weeks, students from CalArts will travel to Miami for an evening of performances at Miami’s Centro Cultural Español coinciding with Art Basel Miami.

Cuban students will join them as well, thanks to CalArts donors supporting individual trips from Havana to Miami.

“I’m really curious for what that’s going to be because that is a very polarized place for this conversation,” Serrano said.

The project also faces the uncertainty of the future relations between the two countries following the U.S. election.

In the meantime, Serrano said the project will continue as planned with artists sharing skills of communication, reaching out and bridging the divide.

“I love that it is artistic and pedagogical,” Serrano said.  “We’re always learning.”

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On Twitter as @_ChristinaCox_

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