Echoes of Picasso, a throwback to Dali, a bizarre touch of Magritte, the imprint of Warhol… these are among the impressions that come across at an unusual art exhibition that was declared open on Thursday (21) at the J.D.A. Perera Gallery, Horton Place, Colombo.
But a closer scrutiny of the exhibits would show that actually it is an ironic play on the works of renowned artists that is depicted in them. The viewer may also observe how Caribbean and Sri Lankan culture have blended as sources of inspiration in these pieces, reflecting the eclecticism of their authors as much as their rootedness in the here-and-now. There are symbols of Sri Lanka to be seen in many of the pictures.
“El Reflejo” (‘The Reflection’ in Spanish) is the combined effort of the best of Cuban and Sri Lankan plastic artists who first came together in 2011 in Havana to give artistic expression to the friendly relationship between the two countries, and what it meant to them. The occasion was the anniversary of 52 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries. That display was the result of months of introspection, discussion and mutual exchange of views among the artists, and with the Sri Lankan Embassy in Havana, on the meaning of friendship and collaboration between the people of ‘Dos Islas’ (the two islands). Three local artists Vajira Gunewardena, Prageeth Rathnayake and Dumith Kulasekera travelled from Sri Lanka to participate in the project. The exhibition also features the work of 20 of Cuba’s top internationally acclaimed artists, making it a visual and intellectual treat not to be missed by Sri Lankan art lovers. Three of the Cuban artists are in Sri Lanka to grace the event.
Aristides Hernandez Guerrero (Ares) is a self-taught painter and cartoonist whose work is syndicated internationally and published across the world. Ares is a psychiatrist who gave up his hospital job to be a full time cartoonist. He has won 143 international awards, published 22 books, illustrated 70 and collaborated in several animation films.
Eduardo Miguel Abela Torras comes from an artist family, both his father and grandfather were accomplished artists. Interpreting for Abela, Ares says his (Abela’s) work often uses the work of other artists and ‘makes jokes with them.’ Abela takes universal things and makes them Cuban (and vice versa), he explained.
Juan Carlos Balseiro, is another renowned artist who collaborated to create Cuba’s first underwater art gallery which was declared open in 2014. From 2004 onwards he did a series using the sea as its theme. One of his most extraordinary works includes an entire palm tree and a cottage submerged in the ocean. It was inspired by the re-location of a community in Cuba as a result of their town being submerged with the construction of a dam. All three artists have exhibited their work worldwide.
“There is a custom in Cuba to apply humour and irony in art” said Ares, talking to the Daily Mirror. “People imagine art as something ‘serious’ or ‘pretty,’ but in Cuba after the 1980’s artists included humour and irony to talk about Cuban issues.”
The degree of excellence achieved in Cuban art cannot be isolated from the context in which it emerged – the creative energy generated in the post-revolution period and the support to artists extended by the state. “Artists are highly respected” said Vajira Gunewardena recalling his experience in Havana, where he said the state met artists’ studio and other costs. If the US trade embargo imposed in 1960 strangled the Cuban economy, it would seem that decades of resistance have had the opposite effect on the island’s art and culture, which have flourished in defiance of it.
We could well believe Steve Certilman, a US collector of Cuban art when he comments on a 2014 exhibition of Cuban art held in Connecticut, that “The unique political, social and economic conditions in Cuba have combined to catalyse what may be the world’s highest concentration of artistic talent.” Cuba’s artists are among the most cosmopolitan, their work would seem to show, even while it is fired by a spirit that is uniquely Cuban.
El Reflejo, which uses art as a medium to forge a closer relationship between the two countries and people, was the brainchild of Tamara Kunanayakam, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Cuba from 2009 to 2011. “People knew very little about Cuba,” she said. “This was a different concept of relationship based on reciprocity and friendship, not competition.” This is not just an exhibition of Cuban artists’ work – it’s about paintings they did FOR Sri Lanka, of their understanding of the connection, and through it their understanding of themselves, to take the bond to a step further, she explained.
The event is a celebration of Cuba-Sri Lanka relations as well as a commemoration of Cuba’s National Day, January 1. It was on New Year’s Day in 1959 that Fidel Castro’s revolutionary forces led by Che Guevara overthrew the Batista regime.
The exhibition will be the first event in a programme of partnership between the University of Visual and Performing Arts, Sri Lanka, and the Arts University of Havana. A series of art workshops and seminars for students will also be held. The initiative has generated much enthusiasm in the UVPA, whose Vice Chancellor Prof. Ariyarathne Kaluarachchi told Cuban Ambassador Florentino Batista that he, as Vice Chancellor, was ‘very lucky’ to have an MoU signed during his period with his motherland.
In 2012 Reflejos, as it was then titled, was taken to the Gallery of the United Nations in Geneva, where it was described by co-organisers in the UN Cultural Department as ‘the best exhibition they ever had.’ The event at the J.D.A. Perera Gallery is the third edition of this travelling exhibit. It is open to the public till January 31and entrance is free.