Contemporary Cuban Printmaking Is Celebrating at the Art School

A major exhibition of representative works of contemporary Cuban printmaking is on display at the Higher Institute of the Arts (ISA).

Yanelis Abreu
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2012-04-24

Cuban printmakers prepare to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the Higher Institute of the Arts (ISA). For the first time, a large number of works signed by ISA graduates in the specialty of printmaking are gathered together. Two hundred works collected for the exhibition Grabado en la memoria (Engraved in memory) attracted the attention of critics, as well as curators, artists, collectors and students. At the Cuban Institute printmaking continues to make history. This discipline — backed by a strong tradition in Cuba — shows that printmaking is an expressive medium as contemporary and valid as others.

A conversation with Aliosky García Sosa (Cienfuegos, 1978), young artist and curator of the exhibition, reveals the exhibit’s particularities to Cubanow.

Cubanow: The 35th anniversary of the foundation of the Higher Institute of the Arts is a good time to do this kind of exhibition, of looking back at history. What is the main objective of bringing together so many artists in one show? Beyond the commemoration?

Aliosky García: The idea of exhibiting works of artists who have graduated from ISA since 1981, the first students who graduated in the specialty, came out of the need to recover the discipline’s memory within the school. Over the years, the archives of the printmaking department at the Higher Institute of the Arts began to disappear; I mean part of the pieces that were made during those 35 years are gone or have deteriorated. What’s more, many of today’s students at the school don’t know this recent past that preceded them.

Cubanow: Then it was necessary to show it to them...

AG: Over the years, students at the ISA have seen printmaking as something old, something stagnant and difficult to work in because it entails having an extensive knowledge of the various techniques and materials used in the medium. In addition to this, we have to take into account the determination and physical effort involved in making a woodcut, an engraving or a lithograph. Faced with these techniques requiring more preparation, today’s students are seduced by the new technologies, digital art, video art, performance, among others. But the idea is not to begin a discussion on whether a medium is more effective than another. The prime objective, one way or another, is to show the quality of works made over these 35 years at the University of the Arts of Cuba.

Cubanow: The pieces hang on the walls without distinguishing between the most successful authors or not, between the most well-known authors or not. It seems the results of a workshop-studio over many years...

A.G.: You got that right. The selection of artists was as comprehensive as possible; making no distinction between the most distinguished artists and those who have been less fortunate. The main challenge was to organize this project, which many believed would not be possible due to its magnitude. It was only about including the most artists with works produced during their days as students, as a result of their thesis or shortly after graduation. Priority was given to the quality of the piece, both from a formal and conceptual point of view. The intention is to show the public the work that marked the artists in their beginnings. In addition, they can see the wide range of possibilities that printmaking offers.

That’s why the exhibition goes beyond commemoration of the anniversary, showing an extensive selection of nearly every student graduated in this specialty, and other artists who graduated in painting and sculpture and yet made incursions into printmaking at some point in their degree courses.

Cubanow: As this has been the work of generations who have taught others that followed, the exhibition also brings out differences and similarities from one generation to another...

A.G.: There’s been continuity, breaks, thematic similarities and differences, but most of all, a lot of experimentation that has placed Cuba’s printmaking at the forefront of Latin American art, as one of the strongest and richest in the Caribbean region. There are artists with a long professional career like Roberto Fabelo, Zaida del Río, Ángel Ramírez, Humberto Castro, René Francisco, Agustín Bejarano, Belkis Ayón, Ibrahim Miranda, Sandra Ramos and Abel Barroso, up to new ones like Octavio Irving, Jesús Hernández, Osmeivy Ortega, and others. One way or another all of them have used printmaking with first-class technical and ideo-thematic quality. Some career painters and printmakers who also ventured into engraving were included in the selection. Among them, I would like to mention Adigio Benítez, Nelson Domínguez, Flavio Garciandia, José Bedia, Eduardo Ponjuán, Carlos García de la Nuez, Nelson Villalobos, Moisés Finalé, Tomás Esso, Lázaro Saavedra, Rubén Alpízar, José Ángel Toirac, Reynerio Tamayo, Jose Ángel Vincench, Duvier del Dago, Gustavo del Valle and many more.

Cubanow: In addition to what you’re telling us, the spectrum of techniques used by the artists is very extensive, another element that speaks of the diversity within the discipline and its teaching in Cuba ...

A.G.: If we make a summary of printmaking techniques at hand in the exhibit Grabado en la memoria, we will find woodcuts, intaglio, lithography, silk screen printing, etching, monotype ... The exhibition includes the first samples of digital printing made in the country, and even the combination of these techniques. In short, we can see all printmaking techniques from its invention to the present day.

Cubanow: How would you judge the development of printmaking in Cuba over the past 10 years?

A.G.: Printmaking in Cuba has a long and rich tradition, ranging from the tobacco seals of the 19th century to books like Viaje pintoresco por la Isla de Cuba by Eduardo Laplante and the views of Havana taken by the English, all done in lithography. Then, with the creation of the Printmakers Association of Cuba in the mid-20th century, Cuban printmaking played a greater role in the development of the plastic arts in the country. These artists, under the leadership of Carmelo Gonzáles, put the recognition of printmaking on a par with other artistic expressions. The creation in 1962 of the Experimental Graphic Workshop, together with the National School of Arts (ENA), and the Higher Institute of the Arts (ISA) a few years later, contributed from different angles to the development of a strong technical and conceptual tradition in Cuban printmaking; an artistic discipline that was inserted into many biennials and the most important events dedicated to printmaking in the world. Many first prizes have been won in these competitions. We, the younger printmakers, will continue to write this history and many students who have graduated from ISA are already emerging with high-quality works, which deserve the attention of Cuban art critics and more exhibition spaces.

Cubanow: What are the challenges ahead for printmakers in Cuba?

A.G.: The challenges ahead for printmakers in Cuba are similar to those of any artist anywhere in the world. In these early years of the 21st century, many Cuban artists continue to choose printmaking as a medium to create their work. However, we might want to ask ourselves what challenges the 21st century offers this ancient technique, which in its beginnings was one of the most advanced throughout the Western Hemisphere. What would Gutenberg have thought if he had seen a computer, a scanner or a photocopier? Obstacles and changes are necessary, as they encourage the artist to find solutions, create new and better techniques, combine them and master them.

Translated by Xelcis A. Presno

Revised by CF Ray

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