Consider these drawings as visual diary entries. Eloquence often lies within harsh brevity.
They are dispatches from the restive mind of a Black performance artist bereft of his prime platform, the Cuban streets. They witness grief and trauma. They witness relentless rebellion, the tenacious grip of his pencil moving across pages from a spiral-bound notebook to limn these dispatches from brutal incarceration.
Imprisoned Cuban dissident artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara created these sixty some drawings, now on view in his solo show in Miami, “Alcántara” at “The ArtSpace @ I’ve Been Framed” —a small gallery connected to a frame shop in the heart of the city’s Little Havana. There’s also a smattering of photography and video. Most of the work is dated 2021 and 2020.
WHEN: April 22—May 8
WHERE: The ArtSpace @ I’ve Been Framed, 733 SW 8th St, Miami, Florida, 33130
Alcántara is a celebrated figure in Cuba’s San Isidro Movement. The movement, formed in 2018 to protest Cuba’s authoritarian regime, has galvanized the island in 2021 with massive, unprecedented demonstrations. His performance art is widely circulated on social media challenging the Cuban government’s repressive tactics and suppression of creative freedoms. In “Drapeau,” he wore a Cuban flag covering his shoulders for thirty days, protesting laws limiting how the flag could be used.
The artist has been detained in a Havana prison since July 2021.
In September 2021, Alcántara was cited as one of TIME magazine‘s 100 most influential people of the year, lauded by fellow activist artist Ai Weiwei that even in prison, “his life, behavior, and expression as a whole are so powerful that they can resist the aesthetic and ethical degeneration of authoritarianism.”
From inside a Cuban prison, his harsh eloquence continues to reverberate outside the island. On May 4 in Washington D.C., the non-profit Freedom House, primarily funded by the U.S. government, presented its annual Freedom Award to Alcántara and fellow imprisoned Cuban activist Maykel Castillo Perez for their leadership in the San Isidro Movement.
In March in New York City, a blog post from the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation reported that Alcántara was one of the twenty-two artists represented in “Umbral: A Collective Exhibition on Contemporary Cuban Art,” organized by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and Montserrat Contemporary Art gallery. It was curated by Anamely Ramos and Claudia Genlui.
Genlui, a Cuban-born curator who relocated to Miami in November 2021, has put together his current gallery show in Miami. She’s also a founding member of the San Isidro Movement; her curatorial projects are supported by a residency at Miami’s El Espacio 23, established by collector and philanthropist Jorge M. Pérez.
According to an email in Spanish from Genlui, translated by the gallery’s art consultant, since November 2020, the artist has been unable to perform in public spaces due to extreme surveillance by the Cuban government. Many drawings were created while he’s been imprisoned, a few when detained during a hunger strike at Havana’s Calixto Garcia Hospital.
Alcántara’s international reputation rests primarily on his audacious public performances. Unfortunately, even in this volatile moment in the U.S., when legal rights like voting and pro-choice legislation are under assault, an exhibit can’t match the explosive effect of his performance art. Meanwhile, the drawings introduce a more intimate and reflective side of his creativity.
They reveal how this performance artist, working under severe duress, has cultivated a gift for visual expression in a provocative if modest format. Moreover, the drawings shed additional light on his aesthetic of questioning the state’s authority to curtail creativity and public protest, even when working behind bars as a sequestered studio artist.
No longer performing protest statements in the streets with his physical presence, he has gone inward to depict his body in torturous conditions of resistance. Drawings of doors from his series “Puertas” similarly show doors battered and violated- these doors can no longer serve their function in service to the state’s control of individual behavior.
Doors become a metaphor for how the Cuban government closes down individual expression; Alcántara renders the doors non-functional for the government’s uses, just as renderings of his own body continue to defy the government.
This work displays strong draftsmanship. Although Alcántara is regularly described as lacking formal art training, he appears as an observant visual artist self-taught in his own right.
Flashes of dark humor sometimes spike his drawings. For example, a series devoted to the Cuban government’s constant surveillance features a camera branded UB694 drawn in deft, grim compositions. One shows it looming over a modest vegetable garden. This intrusive camera also appears on the face of a bare-bones quotation from an iconic Vermeer painting, “Girl with a Pearl Earring.”
Another shows the camera’s “face” wearing a Covid-19 mask as it dangles uneven scales of justice. These uneven scales amplify an underlying theme, evident in many of Alcántara’s works, of authoritarian governments’ enablement of gross social, racial, and gendered inequities. And the series, titled “Payasos,” shows graphite and crayon portraits of an anguished and cross-dressing clown.
Stark and chilling black and white photographs show the artist as if he has been hung, fatally poisoned, or pushed to his death, documenting the artist’s performances exposing the state’s likely ability to murder him as a dissident and make his death appear to be a suicide.
Alcántara appears to place himself within a robust tradition of Cuban American artists. The staged photograph of the artist falling from a window to his death recalls how Ana Mendieta fell, or more likely was pushed, to her untimely death from an apartment window in New York City, leaving an imprint of her body that eerily brought to mind her influential art. Likewise, his self-portraits occasionally resemble self-portraits by Luis Cruz Azaceta, whose art mirrors moral indignities waged by the AIDS epidemic, terrorism, and other crises.
Nobel Prize laureate and novelist Mario Vargas Llosa has written a harshly eloquent response to the violence of World War I that shaped George Grosz, another artist whose work decries corruption in his native country. Posted on the Tate Museum’s website, excerpts could describe Alcántara. Llosa writes, “Most of my work is related to the kind of violence that is daily life in Latin America….You nourish yourself with everything that you hate.”