The most immediately striking element of Caf II: The Journeys of Cuban Artists, an exhibit by Cuban expatriates opening Friday at the Gallery of Contemporary Art, is the large number of unstretched canvases and unframed prints -- some of which the GCA has since decided to frame or mount for the protection of the pieces.
While coffee is the cultural link between all of the artists (as well the subject matter that unifies many of the works in this show), this absence of frames and a continual allusion to maps emphasize the physical and cultural exile of hundreds of thousands of Cubans still cut off from their homeland and lie at the heart of the show's power.
Laura Luna's piece, "365 Nights Drinking Caf," brings the nonstop longing of exile into a deceptively simple and understated perspective. Using a coffee-stained burlap sack as her canvas, Luna mounted 12 clay discs with coffee cups in a circle that corresponds to the months, four directions and four elements. At the center of the piece is another larger ceramic disc with a many-limbed coffee goddess showing off her large coffee-bean vagina. While the piece at first seems to be quaint, primitive and "crafty," the inscription around the outer discs that reads "el caf gaurda un misterioso comercio con el alma" (coffee guards a mysterious commerce with its soul) cuts straight to centrality of coffee to the exile's soul. To put it more bluntly: "Home is where the coffee is."
Luna's piece is made even more poignant by the excruciatingly difficult circumstances she faced as an aspiring artist in Cuba. Luna's father was sentenced to nine years in prison for conspiracy against the ruling regime soon after Luna was born and Castro came to power. Many years later, as a young adult, Luna was denied admission to Cuba's Center for the Arts because her father was a former political prisoner. Desperate for creative freedom, Luna fled Cuba along with 125,000 others in what is now known as the General Exodus from Mariel, a flotilla that brought many Cuban artists, political dissidents and convicts (think Tony Montana) to the United States in 1980, including Reinaldo Arenas (the writer and subject of Julien Schnabel's Before Night Falls). In the U.S., Luna was finally able to live as an artist though she, like many others from the exodus, was forced to deal with the contradictions inherent in having freedom outside her homeland and culture.
Leandro Soto's canvases exude the same geographical longings: maps of cobbled, brightly painted forms that seem to be gleaned from childhood dreams and nostalgia in a state of precariously teetering cohesion.
The show is also heavy on the politics. Pedro Viscaino blurs the line between percolators and guns, coffee and blood in frantically scribbled drawings. Jorge Arango's "Lift Cuba Ban" is a map of Cuba in red, white and blue rope with small, faceless sand-cast figures scattered inside and around the map.
In her deceptively cheery canvases rendered in a coral and blue Miami palette, Ana Albertino Delgado presents a triptych allegory of the expatriate's conundrum. Featuring a cruelly stylized figure of a young blond woman, Delgado shows us a trinity of guiding symbols for the exile's life: girl with bird (freedom), girl with turtle (perseverance), and girl with dog (loyalty). In the background of the third canvas, behind the dog and overlooking the ocean, sits a reminder of the price all Cubans have had to pay for their loyalty: a tiny cup of coffee, steam wafting off toward the one thing they couldn't bring with them -- home.
Organized by UCCS Professor Andrea Herrera and Cuban artist Leandro Soto, Caf II features 20 artists, some of whom participated in Caf, a similar show organized by Soto last year in Amherst, Mass.
In addition to the show, the ethnic studies department will host a two-day symposium featuring six of the artists in the exhibition. There will also be a poetry reading by Ricardo Pau-Llosa in the gallery between 6 and 7 p.m. the night of the reception.