In the midst of celebrating Hanukkah, a time when Jews around the world commemorate perseverance, it's perhaps fitting for the Mizel Museum of Judaica to hang a show of contemporary artwork culled from a tiny community of religious survivors. When Cuban Jewish Art Today! opens Thursday evening, the exhibition of more than eighty pieces will represent the culmination of a two-year struggle to uncover treasures created by a depleted colony of only about 1,200 members (at one time, there had been as many as 25,000). And in the difficult process of bringing the show to its fruition, museum curator Molly Dubin and boardmembers Anne Tennant and Emilio Lobato journeyed to Cuba, discovering along the way an isolated tropical world both darkly disturbing and joyously encouraging.
"I never expected to end up in Cuba," Dubin says of their eight-day voyage to the island last March. "None of us knew what to expect, because we're so sheltered in the United States from what's really going on there."
Just getting to Cuba was an adventure through governmental red tape. "Our project fell well within guidelines of the very narrow window that makes visas available, so at the last minute, we did get our visas and papers to go," says Tennant, an adjunct curator of the Denver Art Museum's New World Department who originally proposed an exhibition of Cuban-Jewish art to the Mizel board. Unable to fly there directly from this country, Tennant and cohorts had to book a flight to Havana by way of Mexico, using a Canadian travel agent.
But once there, the group found itself in friendly environs. Welcomed by members of the Fundación Ludwig de Havana, an organization formed by German arts patron Peter Ludwig to showcase work created in difficult artistic environments, Dubin, Tennant and Lobato were introduced not only to Jewish artists working in Cuba, but to an entire spectrum of active fine artists, poets, dancers and writers working in an environment limited by political barricades.
All were struck by the intense poverty and decay evident in Havana's streets. Essentials such as food and gasoline are severely rationed, and medical supplies are nearly non-existent. "You walk down the crumbling city streets and you'll actually see people longingly looking out," Dubin says. "They know there's something that's holding them in; they're aware of that, yet they have such a love for life.
"Emilio and I would walk out and look at the buildings in such a state of disarray, crumbling and held up by wooden pillars. But while all that is going on, people still manage to maintain a sense of moving forward.
"For me, it was a life-altering experience. The people are absolutely passionate about their lives--it's wonderful to see. In the midst of oppression and hardship, they really have a lust for life unparalleled by anything we experience here."
Lobato, a local artist whose black-and-white photographs of Cuba will also be exhibited, expresses great admiration for Cuban resourcefulness. In particular, he was fascinated by repairs--involving everything from tractor engines to bicycle parts--made on the preponderance of vintage automobiles still rolling down Cuban roadways. "It's sort of a time warp--a modern society stuck in a universe that harks back to thirty years ago."
In much the same way Cubans maintain their vehicles, artists rely heavily on recycled materials. "Some printmakers use brown wrapping paper for their prints and wooden cartons for plates," Lobato says. "Cubans are notorious for their ingenuity and industry. They keep their cars going and their lives and careers going without the advantages that we have here."
"There's no art store like Meininger's or Guiry's around the corner," Dubin adds, also noting that something as simple as a color slide for publicity is virtually impossible to make because the technology doesn't exist on the island.
In particular, the Jewish community, a small but resurgent group decimated by mass emigration in the wake of the 1959 revolution, has to deal with special problems related to inventory restrictions. Obtaining matzohs and other foods necessary for the annual Passover observance, for example, is a major undertaking that requires arrangements made through a Canadian organization. And until recently, all Cuban citizens, regardless of denomination, were denied religious freedom--a source of conflict for a community already limited by size.
Some, but not all, of the pieces in the exhibit reflect themes of Judaism. Tennant generally describes the works, an eclectic mix of styles and motifs, as carefully composed, vividly colorful and infused by underlying thoughtfulness. "It's never casual and never trivial," she explains, adding that most Cuban artists they met were "extremely well-informed and enjoy discussions on important topics--art, politics, life, the future.
"They're not given to frivolous pursuits," she continues. "But the counterpoint to my impression of the Cuban character and its general seriousness is the pervasiveness of the music and rhythm, of the joie de vivre that you feel in the tropical sun in spite of daily struggle. They find such joy in a cup of delicious Cuban coffee or a good cigar or a sunset over old Havana.
"In times of stress," Tennant notes, "sometimes the muse is the strongest."
For the Cuban-Jewish contingent of artists, that attitude has special meaning. "They're finding their roots and trying to revitalize the community by leading groups, studying history, taking classes in Yiddish, initiating social activities and taking part in services," Tennant attests. "To do that, you have to be optimistic about the future."
Cuban Jewish Art Today! December 17-February 25, Mizel Museum of Judaica, BMH/BJ Synagogue, 560 South Monaco Parkway, 303-333-4156. Opening reception, 7 p.m. December 17. Additional works at Museo de las Americas, 861 Santa Fe Drive, 303-571-4401.