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Cultural Connection: Two American Art Curators Make History in Havana

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The face in the mirror slowly transforms from the artist's medium brown complexion to an image resembling a Congolese mask and finally, a coal-black reflection with open eyes and white teeth. American artist Maren Hassinger's Daily Mask (2004) is a video portrayal of cultural stereotyping and breaking barriers presented to citizens of Havana, Cuba and art lovers from around the world.

"There is a certain universality to our stories and our histories as the women living in these black bodies. To be able to bring those stories to Cuba is really extraordinary," said Valerie Cassel Oliver, senior curator of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. 

"The other reason that it is really important is because their work is central to international dialogue about visual art and visual culture," said Brownlee. "When we think about this being the very first time this has happened, we can't underscore enough how important it is to be included in the official capacity in that global dialogue."

The global conversation at the 2012 Havana Biennial centered around the theme of artistic practices and social imaginaries, which the organizer, Wilfredo Lam Center for Contemporary Art, describes as "...the way people imagine their social space and express themselves through cultural and historical references, and to the symbolic dimension they acquire through art."

Nearly 200 artists from some 45 countries participated in the Biennial held May 11-June11. Since the first Havana Biennial in 1984, the event has continually gained recognition for showcasing art from Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and Asia. A few American artists have exhibited works, but without the official invitation Oliver and Brownlee received from Jorge Fernández, the Biennial director. They consider it an honor for them and the institutions they represent.

"Valerie and I are very, very clear that this is about cultural exchange and about dialogue, " explained Brownlee. "We're also very clear that his Biennial is extraordinarily important in terms of Biennials as well as the opportunity for artists to present their work in an international exhibition."

On a trip to Cuba sponsored by Spelman College last year, Brownlee strengthened her connections to recognized Cuban artist Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons and got the opportunity to meet Fernández. She and Oliver later decided a new Cinema Remixed would fit perfectly with the Biennial concept of examining social and cultural bonds through visual arts.

The show mounted in Cuba's capital city is a retooled version of the groundbreaking 2008 Cinema Remixed & Reloaded exhibition curated by Brownlee and Oliver. The original show included 48 works by 44 black women visual media artists. The exhibit presented at the Spelman Museum of Fine Art and the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston received a nomination for digital media and video from the Association of International Art Critics.

The two curators had to raise money outside their institutional budgets to mount the revised exhibition in Havana. They decided to include works by artists that would retain the multicultural and multigenerational aspects of the original exhibit that showcased pioneering, midcareer and emerging artists. Six of the artists have never presented in Cuba.

Oliver described the eight artists selected, primarily from the U.S. and southern Africa, as those who had stories and narratives inherent in their works that would be more universally understood and embraced.

Video artists began to emerge in the 1960s when portable video cameras went on store shelves in the U.S. Respect for the moving image as a contemporary art form gradually grew in acceptance. Black women were major contributors to the field from the start.

An article in the online arts newspaper, artdaily.org, states that black women have explored humorous, confrontational and thought-provoking topics through film, video, projections and multichannel installations. Their works over the past 30 years have tackled such topics as  "...the subjugation and liberation of the black body, family, the male gaze, memory, loss, alienation, gender inequities, sexuality, racism and the pursuit of power."

Brownlee looks at visual arts the same way she does traditional paintings and sculptures. In her view, digital media and video art draw people in and often get them to linger, think and remember.

Thousands of art lovers, including hundreds of Americans, joined tourists and Cuban citizens in the experience of viewing art, not just in museums and galleries, but on buildings, in theaters and along the streets of Havana. Sculptures graced the spaces along the Malecón, a curving sea wall, and giant installations throughout the city captured the attention of passersby.

"They are addressing a number of concerns that affect all of us, ranging from nationalism and globalism to issues of infrastructure, war, trauma, gender and race," said Brownlee.

Therein lies the beauty of artists from all over the world, including the U.S., exhibiting their works at the Biennial. Whether looking at the moving images of South African artist Berni Searle's own body in A Matter of Time (2003) or African American artist Carrie Mae Weems short video, Italian Dreams (2006), the stories told and dialogues sparked demonstrate the diversity and commonality of the experience of living in a black woman's body.

"People have a certain expectation of what blackness looks like, and you have to undercut that and say no, it looks multifaceted and as multifaceted as the many experiences individuals and communities have had," added Oliver.

The two curators are hopeful international exposure to Cinema Remixed will launch new opportunities for art lovers to experience the depth and diversity of works by black artists. They also would like their official participation in the Biennial to invigorate the     too-often neglected conversation about women of color in the art world.

"We need representation in all facets. We need curators who are people of color. We need board members who are people of color," said Oliver. "We need administrators who are people of color that will stand up and say it is important for us to reflect the diversity of the voices that are in our communities and bring those stories."

The eight black women artists featured in Cinema Remixed & Reloaded 2.0 are Maren Hassinger, the collaborative artist team Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry, Tracey Rose, Berni Searle, Lorna Simpson, Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum, Kara Walker and Carrie Mae Weems.


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