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
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On Dec. 1, students and professional artists from California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) and Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes San Alejandro united in Miami to continue exploring the history and future possibilities of relations between the United States and Cuba via their own forms of artistic diplomacy.

Gathering at the Centro Cultural Espanol de Cooperacion as part of their four-year, transnational exhibition titled “El Acercamiento/The Approach” – a three-part exhibition series.

Before Miami, the artists previously partnered to hold similar shows in Havana on March 23 and Los Angeles on May 7.

The series of displays permits the students to continuously develop and grow their artwork to fit the different cultures, countries and communities.

“It’s interesting to see how much their work continues to morph and grow,” said Evelyn Serrano, a faculty member in the CalArts School of Theater who first created the idea for El Acercamiento/The Approach.

Miami trip, Castro’s death

Before their trip to Miami, the world heard the news of Fidel Castro’s death at 90 years old.  The Cuban revolutionary and politician went on to rule the country for more than five decades.

In stark juxtaposition Castro’s death launched nine days of mourning in Cuba, and celebrations in the streets in Miami.

The contrast and cultural impact was the setting of the exhibition for CalArts students, Serrano and Aissa Santiso and Agustin Hernandez, art professors at Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes San Alejandro.

“In Miami there would be spontaneous gatherings of Cubans and Cuban Americans celebrating the death of Fidel,” Serrano said.

The groups from Cuba and the United States compared the newspapers in each country with how they represented Castro’s life and death.

In Miami, the Miami Herald displayed the headline of “Muerto” (dead) with a full-page photo of an elderly Castro; while in Havana, the newspapers showed photos of the young Castro and included messages of his legacy.

“The visuals were very intentional with how they were representing Fidel,” Serrano said.  “That’s something that we were experiencing, how the narratives were very choreographed and very intentional, and so that was the context in which our work was happening.”

Serrano, Santiso and Hernandez said one of their students’ pieces had to be changed because of Castro’s death.

Carmina Escobar’s “Horas Communes/Common Hours,” a performance piece presented simultaneously by artists in Cuba and the United States, was altered in its Cuban presentation because of the nine days of mourning.

Instead of using a Wi-Fi enabled beach in Havana to walk toward the ocean while singing, the artist opted to complete the performance “within himself” in silence and in the dark.

“The performance changed dramatically for him to do the performance within himself, which is so much what happens in Cuba.  You’re free only in your mind,” Serrano said.  “He is silent but he is performing.  It seemed like such an amazing symbol of these two different countries.”

The change actually made the performance more profound, Hernandez said, to represent the cultural differences between the two countries.

“We were able to find a solution to an obstacle,” Hernandez said.  “The piece wasn’t overtly controversial or provocative in a political sense; we ended up doing what the government had asked, which was to remain in silence.”

Santiso said the solution was one of the strategies the Cuban artists use often to combat difficulties and obstacles.

“Sometimes the way we resolve that is more interesting,” Santiso said.  “It becomes more profound and more meaningful.”

Public response

According to Hernandez, the Miami exhibit was an enriching experience that allowed the individuals involved with “El Acercamiento/The Approach” to further develop their transnational friendships and artistic collaborations.

Serrano said the audience at the Centro Cultural Espanol de Cooperacion was more diverse than previous audiences in Los Angeles and Cuba.

“We planned for people to come in and out, but we noticed that most people stayed for hours and just hung out with us after the performances,” Serrano said.  “We had an environment where people felt they could engage the artists.”

Audience members included art critics, people from the streets, family members and first-time museum goers.

“We felt like the audience was very diverse… but I felt that they were able to share on the essence of our work,” Hernandez said.  “We felt that, as artists and individuals, we felt realized.”

Cultural impact

With the four-year project, those involved hope the art created can be used as a way of communication that goes beyond politics.

“I believe that this project that began this year… is important to bring all nations, all people together through the culture that this one, universal language,” Santiso said.  “It’s about the human being and that our necessities in the end are the same.”

With Castro’s death and the November U.S. election, the artists see the project as a way to “define what’s next” in terms of the countries’ relations.

“I believe that this project will be hope and inspiration to people in both nations,” Santiso said.  “Even people who don’t know about art, they feel something special and some kind of communication of the collaborations between people.”

Throughout the next three years of their transnational exhibitions, they hope the connections formed and dialogues started from “El Acercamiento/The Approach” continue for years to come.

“We know that there is no hate between our people and that we need to move beyond the political narrative,” Hernandez said.  “We’re hoping that through the arts we can create a bridge for mutual understanding.”

ccox@signalscv.com
661-287-5575
On Twitter as @_ChristinaCox_

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Christina Cox
Christina Cox is a multimedia journalist covering education, community and breaking news in the Santa Clarita Valley. She joined The Signal as a staff writer in August 2016.
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