Soy Cuba, Soy Arte Cubano: Understanding Roger Toledo Bueno’s Practice Within Cuba’s Greater Artistic Heritage

Luiza Repsold França (undergraduate student, History of Art)

            Created for Roger Toledo Bueno’s first international solo exhibition, the Soy Cuba series marks an important milestone in this emerging artist’s career as a painter living and working in Havana, Cuba. The series of five large landscape paintings explores locations of historical and political relevance in Cuba to which the artist feels personally connected from disparate altitudes and physical orientations. Inspired by his travels during his time as a student at the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA), Toledo set out to create a path for an imagined one-day journey[1] across the island nation through his paintings. The first painting, Aterrizando (Landing), begins above the clouds with an aerial perspective (Fig. 1). It is followed by a view at dawn from the highest point in Cuba in Amanecer en el Pico Turquino (Fig. 2). Next in the series are a view of the swampland of Ciénaga de Zapata (Fig. 3) and the Caribbean sea by sunset in Al Anochecer (At Dusk), (Fig. 4). The day’s journey concludes with an underwater view: Hacia el Canto del Beril (Toward’s Beril’s Edge) (Fig. 5).[2] The choice of both named locations and ambiguous settings allow the contemporary viewer to draw not only upon a historical and political memory or Cuba, but also to develop intimate personal connections with the landscape by immersing themselves within it. The large scale of the works and the deliberate placement of the horizon line at eye level draw the viewer into these landscapes, creating a sensation of being de facto confronted by them.

Fig. 1: Roger Toledo Bueno,  Aterrizando  (Landing), 2018, Acrylic on canvas, 78 3/4 x 118 inches (200 x 300 cm); Comprised by six panels of 39 3/8 x 39 3/8 inches (100 x 100 cm).

Fig. 1: Roger Toledo Bueno, Aterrizando (Landing), 2018, Acrylic on canvas, 78 3/4 x 118 inches (200 x 300 cm); Comprised by six panels of 39 3/8 x 39 3/8 inches (100 x 100 cm).

            Each painting in the series is comprised of six adjacent square canvases, elaborated through a detailed process of layering acrylic paint mixed with modelling paste in a geometric arrangement that results in an intricate textured surface (Fig. 6). Highly methodical in his process, Toledo utilizes patterned metal sheets (Fig. 7) to create a mathematical separation of the canvas into small sections that guide color distribution.[3] The resulting compositions are simultaneously rigid and fragmented, and also tender, almost ethereal imaginings of tangible landscape settings. With a background in history of art and heavily influenced by color theory[4], Toledo has been developing his exploration of color and mathematical arrangement since his time at the Vincentina de La Torre art academy in his hometown of Camagüey, where he developed a series of three-dimensional installations inspired by sequences in mathematics.

Fig. 2: Roger Toledo Bueno,  Amanecer en el Pico Turquino  ( Sunrise at Pico Turquino ), 2018, Acrylic on canvas, 78 3/4 x 118 inches (200 x 300 cm); Comprised by six panels of 39 3/8 x 39 3/8 inches (100 x 100 cm).

Fig. 2: Roger Toledo Bueno, Amanecer en el Pico Turquino (Sunrise at Pico Turquino), 2018, Acrylic on canvas, 78 3/4 x 118 inches (200 x 300 cm); Comprised by six panels of 39 3/8 x 39 3/8 inches (100 x 100 cm).

            The son of two professors of art and art history, Toledo grew up in Camagüey, Cuba, where he began developing his skills by working in a carpentry shop that his father managed. He then received nine years of formal art training, at Vincentina before being accepted into the elite program at the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA), where he conceived and executed his color-focused thesis project Days at the Museum. Following graduation, Toledo taught a painting workshop at ISA for two years before transitioning into a career as an independent artist. Over the intervening decade, Toledo participated in multiple group exhibitions abroad, such as Art(xiomas) at the Arts Museum of the Americas in Washington, DC, and held residencies at Yaddo Artists Retreat in Saratoga Springs and Studio 1606[5] in Minneapolis, where he first began to develop his landscape techniques (Fig. 8).

With the Soy Cuba series, Toledo’s artistic practice has arrived at a stage in which it has begun to generate a complex visual category on its own. It is an investigation of one’s connection to Cuban history and the island’s natural environment that transcends time but is nonetheless grounded in art historical consciousness and representative of the artist’s personal experience. The environmentally- and politically-significant locations chosen for the Soy Cuba paintings are not only inspired by Toledo’s trajectory as an artist and as a Cuban, but also demand a contextual framework rooted in the history of artistic production in Cuba. Having studied, lived and worked in Cuba all his life and having exhibited and completed in artistic residencies abroad, Toledo recognizes that in general, it is helpful to provide foreign audiences with additional information to complement their understanding of not only Cuban art history, but also the reality of life in Cuba.[6] This acknowledgement seems particularly pertinent when applied to Soy Cuba, a series that is imbued with a fundamentally historical and personal narrative, and that seeks to extend the experience of such narrative to its viewer, regardless of their cultural background.

This essay will explore the development of artistic production in Cuba as a means for contextualizing Toledo’s current practice, while simultaneously attempting to provide insight into the complexity of visual culture in Cuba as it now stands, in the first decades of the twenty-first century. By arguing that Cuban visual culture is in a continuous process of transculturation, it will draw upon a selection of scholarly texts on the cultural history of Cuba and other relevant, more theoretical criticism, interviews with Toledo, and visual references. It will begin by introducing Cuba as a bourgeoning artistic nucleus, in which the crucial element has been the state’s consistent investment in art education and training. It will then address artistic production on the island and its prospects in the later part of the twentieth century, with the emergence of a “new art” movement, the creation of the Havana Biennial and a turn to promoting Cuba on a global level, and the fundamental emergence of alternative exhibition spaces in Havana. It will evaluate the influence of the post-Soviet “Special Period” on artistic production in the 90s, considering how it affected Toledo’s artistic formation and current practice.

            Having addressed the history of art education in Cuba, this essay will explore the current international consumption of Cuban art, briefly exploring how tourism, the Biennial, and initiatives catering to collectors have created a market for foreign buyers. It will examine the possibilities and limitations of building a career as an artist in Cuba today, addressing more recent events such as the alternative biennial Bienal#00, and the censorship implications of the governmental Decree 349. Having provided an overview of the past and current state of artistic production in Cuba, and acknowledging that the island’s transcultural nature allows for specific possibilities of relationships with producing, selling and consuming art, it will return to Toledo’s Soy Cuba series as a visual and conceptual synthesis of this reality, one rendered by the hand of an artist who is intrinsically embedded within its matrix. 

            Today, Cuba is known for its tumultuous history of colonization, revolution, involvement in international affairs, and its dedication to socialism. Although the island’s connection to the global economy commenced like that of many other Latin American nations, as part of the Spanish conquest of the “New World”, it’s trajectory since then has granted it an exceptional status. From the time of Columbus’s arrival in 1492 and its centuries under Spanish rule, and briefly under British control  (1762-1764), the island has been exposed to myriad foreign influences. Important historical markers such as Cuba’s first fight for independence during the Ten Years War with Spain (1868-1878), and its status as a major producer and exporter of tobacco and sugar, not only established the island as a strategic location in international affairs, but also marked the beginning of its modern political history.[7] The Spanish-American-Cuban war of 1898-99  resulted in US-imposed military control over the island and long-lasting, active intervention in Cuban international affairs.

            “The political and cultural histories of Cuba have unfolded at different paces,”[8] and the existence of a dichotomy between simultaneous global exposure and geographic inaccessibility produced a political and social incubator for assimilating cultural practices in very particular ways. When approaching the complex reality of Cuba today, one must look at the interstices at which its different cultural and historical influences have overlapped. It is crucial to think beyond narratives of origin and initial biases to focus on the moments produced in the articulation of cultural differences,[9] or, as anthropologist Fernando Ortiz puts it: transculturation.

            In his 1947 book Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar, Ortiz explores Cuban history and the development of its culture as an appropriate case-study for this neologism. He defines transculturation as the creation of a hybrid culture that absorbs multiple influences and intermeshes them, resulting in a complex matrix of cultures. He explains that this phenomenon is applicable to Cuba because “the cultures that have influenced the formation of its folk have been so many and so diverse in their spatial position and their structural composition that this vast blend of races and cultures overshadows in importance every other historical phenomenon.”[10] Ortiz argues that the island has been historically exposed to highly varied phenomena, ranging from the influx of early migrants following the Neolithic era, to Spaniards and enslaved Africans coming during the colonial era; and later, a variety of immigrants including as Jews, Portuguese, Northern Europeans and Asians,  coming of their own free will or by force, transplanted from their places of origin, all in the span of less than four centuries.[11]

            Transculturation describes the process of the creation of new cultural phenomena as a result of the transition from one culture to another, which consists of not only acquiring another culture but also necessarily uprooting a previous one.[12] Highly varied phenomena have emerged in Cuba as a result of complex transmutations of culture, without a knowledge of which it is impossible to trace the evolution of Cuban culture, either in economic, institutional, religious, artistic, or other aspects of life.[13] The country’s trajectory since independence from Spain in 1899, from foster child of the United States under the Platt Amendment, to the dictatorships of Gerardo Machado and Fulgencio Batista, and then the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro, has been tumultuous. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, with which Castro had eventually allied Cuba, the island nation became isolated from a global trade perspective, yet it’s culture has persistently transmuted itself. As Ortiz puts it, the “real history of Cuba is the history of intermeshed transculturations”[14] and at its center lies Cuban visual culture: the aesthetic manifestation of the complexity and singularity of the island’s past.

            Most elements of Cuban identity have always been in flux, creating an artistic production that is essentially permeated by an ever evolving “Cubanness” or cubanía.[15] Art critic Iván de la Nuez described the ingredients of cubanía as including “religious syncretism, Marxism, pop art, surrealism, the counterculture, the Soviet manuals, the 1950s tradition of the U.S., marginality and, among others, a tropical Stalinism always lying in wait.”[16]

Cuba as a Bourgeoning Artistic Nucleus

            “Cuba’s history deviated somewhat from the rest of Latin America because of its prolonged colonial status [until independence in 1902], a condition that colored every step in the process of achieving a functional educational system.”[17] The establishment of academic art institutions under Spanish rule beginning in the nineteenth century can be considered the most significant incitement for spearheading artistic production on the island and establishing a basis for what would become a network of artistic transculturation. Havana’s first academy was inaugurated in 1818 in the convent of St. Augustine by the Royal Economic Society of Friends of the Country under the direction of Intendent Alejandro Ramírez, becoming known as the Academy of Drawing and Painting of San Alejandro after 1832[18] (Fig. 9). Influenced by the desire of Havana’s elite to improve the arts in the city, the academy nominated French expatriate Jean-Baptiste Vermay, trained under European masters such as Jacques-Louis David, as its first director.[19] The rigorous training of San Alejandro and the conservative European view of paining it taught in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries helped construct the technical foundations of modern Cuban art instruction.[20] However, it is crucial to emphasize that artistic production outside the academy blossomed around the same time, and, in some ways, to a greater extent. People of African descent, mainly free people of color, dominated the artistic trades in Havana as muralists, portraitists, landscape and ecclesiastical painters, working for Spanish officials, religious institutions, elite clergy, and private patrons like Spanish-born merchants and Creole planters.[21] These “non-academic” artists, such as Spanish-Cuban costumbrismo[22] painter Victor Patricio de Landaluze (Figs. 10 and 11), played an indispensable role in the proliferation of transcultural forms of art in colonial Havana. Consequently, guilds for various artistic trades were established in Havana, helping Cuban-born artists attain visibility and in many cases earn social advancement in a Creole elite-dominated colonial society. Scholars such as Sibylle Fischer have argued that the academy as an elite institution was founded as a reaction to the perceived dominance of visual arts in Cuba by people of African descent,[23] and became part of the reform culture regime that viewed academic practice and classicism as a pragmatic form of artistic expression.[24] However, the academy also served as the basis for a routine of displacement and cultural renovation based on local conditions,[25] which gave rise to a culture of diversified artistic taste in late colonial Cuba.

            In the decades that followed, Cuba’s new status as a republic led to the foundation of educational and cultural institutions such as the National Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Museum of Art. The latter however was underfunded and had but a small impact in supporting Cuban artists.[26] Much more consequential was the 1916 funding of the Association of Painters and Sculptors and its Círculo de Bellas Artes, which sponsored collective and solo exhibitions, as well as concerts, conferences, and the release of public statements on the theme of art and culture.[27] 1927 marked the year of the first exhibitions of avant-garde Cuban art in Havana, as new modernist approaches to painting and representation from Europe found rich and varied expression in Cuba.[28] While advocates for a freer, more modern Cuban style during this period often criticized the rigid training at San Alejandro, the academy’s role was indispensable in establishing respect for Cuban visual culture as a serious symbol of European influence.

            Before World War I, little was known about the art of Cuba outside the Hispanic world and few Cuban painters had an international reputation.[29] Teachers at San Alejandro, like Armando Menocal (1861-1942) and Leopoldo Romañach (1862-1951), continued to extol conservative academic approaches to art, but also allowed students to study the works of Monet, Renoir, Pisarro, and Cézanne in reproduction. Together with the implementation of study abroad scholarships, this approach helped to develop a vocabulary of international modernism for the new generation of artists.[30] Romañach was one of the few artists to maintain a practice of landscape painting, one that was rooted in conservative academic tradition, into the mid-twentieth century. Nonetheless, his paintings of the northern keys of Cuba (Fig. 12) can be considered pioneering in their acknowledgement of the insular nature of the island, capturing light and atmosphere through relaxed, deliberately visible brushwork that displays a delicate synthesis of nature when compared to the more “documentational” aesthetic of academic landscape. This heart-felt relationship to the land and its heritage can certainly be perceived in Toledo’s contemporary landscapes, especially with the delicate portrayal of lighting in Amanecer en el Pico Turquino (Fig. 2) and Al Anochecer (Fig. 4).

            The anti-academic drive of the first half of the twentieth century culminated in the creation of the tuition-free Estudio Libre (Free Studio) by Eduardo Abela (1891-1965) in 1936, in parallel with the governmental establishment of the General Association for Culture.[31] The Estudio’s aim was to “promote a national art in the context of the utmost creative freedom”, functioning more like an open studio than a structured program.[32] Due to lack of funding the program ran for only a year, but was liberal enough in its approach that San Alejandro professors were prohibited to engage in its activities. Prominent Cuban artists working with non-academic methods remained absent from teaching and exerting influence on the newer generations, until the post-revolution period, when attitudes towards artistic learning changed and curricular matters became more important. The Escuela Nacional de Arte (ENA) was created in 1962 and attempted to introduce a Marxist-Leninist frame of reference, with courses on muralism and monuments.[33]

            “Within the Revolution, everything: Against the Revolution, nothing,” Fidel Castro’s statement in the 1961 ‘Words to the Intellectuals’ attempted to set the terms for an expansive cultural mandate[34] concerned with how to define its borders based on determining who was “inside” and “against” the Revolution. The Cuban Revolution affected (and has continued to affect) art enormously. For the first time in its history, there existed a distinct possibility of achieving Utopia[35]- a subject that dealt extensively with visual representation and criticism and called for an increased production of art as a “weapon of the Revolution.”[36] The National Constitution was finalized in 1976 and specified a severe division between form and content, “Artistic creation is free, always when its content is not contrary to the Revolution,”[37] mirroring a split between political and cultural advances thus far and emphasizing an increasingly contentious relationship between them.

            The “post-Revolutionary” period also saw the creation of a system of free art education epitomized by the state-established Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA) in 1976 (Fig. 13). ISA provides training in visual art, theatre and music, and remains the leading higher education institute for artistic instruction to this day. Art students like Toledo, who attended the Vincentina Academy, prepare for entrance exams well in advance at the elementary and middle academies.[38] ISA considers its college-age students working professionals who want to perfect their education[39] by giving access to exhibition spaces, the greater Cuban art scene, and opportunities for ensuring employment upon graduation.

            The impact of ISA as an incubator for artistic growth is seen in the trajectory of Toledo’s career. The artist emphasizes his experience there, in the shared studio environment, and how his professors framed an ISA education as an opportunity to fully dedicate one’s time and energy to one’s art without any financial burdens or parallel responsibilities,[40] which is indispensable for developing an intimate connection to one’s work. Toledo was required to study art historical and theoretical texts, and to look closely at the work of modern and contemporary artists from the United States like Mark Rothko, Sol Lewitt, and Barnet Newman,[41] which have been exceptionally influential in informing his geometric and color-based painting practice. Following graduation, his experience as a teacher at ISA was also a demanding intellectual exercise that involved continuous research and re-evaluation of his own knowledge while guiding his students toward the completion of their projects.[42]


Establishing an Essentially Cuban Contemporary Art Scene: The Havana Biennial, The Special Period and Alternative Exhibition Spaces

             Although the Revolutionary period brought about significant changes in cultural policy and arts education, the 1970s experienced a fluctuating process of silencing often referred to as Quinquenio Gris (Five Grey Years) during which the initial revolutionary charisma and enthusiasm alternated with darker periods[43] of corrosion and calcification of Cuban cultural life. This pattern can be attributed to intrinsically Cuban factors and to external forces that affected the island, such as relentless hostility and aggression from the US and the quasi-imperial impositions of USSR[44] after Cuba allied itself with the Soviet Block. This period preserved Cuba’s status as a hybrid of cultural transmutations in which there was never a hegemonic institutional landscape or sole artistic proposal. The instability of the period gave way to a “new Cuban art” movement that emerged marked by the 1981 exhibition Volume Uno (Volume One)[45] (Figs. 14 and 15).

            New Cuban art was not a manifestoed movement, but more of an unprompted phenomenon that consolidated on multiple levels before becoming recognized as an entity of artists, many of whom were trained during the revolutionary period, and set out to free art from bureaucratic and ideologically-based governmental impositions.[46] These new forms of art squeezed through the spaces in between various previous positions and factions, offering its own desires, intentions and approaches, such as that of acting against “the institutionalized forgetting of inconvenient traditions and legacies that plagues all cultural processes, and especially those of a small, perennially beset island.”[47] This was the first moment since 1959 when cultural discourse became separate from “official discourse” and was able to cultivate its own plot (to the extent possible within an authoritarian regime), defining a new status quo, while platforms such as schooling and the media remained under strict control.[48] Hence, “new art” was able to generate mobility not only around explicitly political situations but also around more ordinary scenes of daily life, turning toward themes of the lived experience in Cuba.

            The first Havana Biennale emerged in 1984 “from the ideological engine room of the Cuban Revolution”[49] (Fig. 16). It was evident that Castro and his ministers recognized potential in Cuba’s buzzing visual arts for establishing international connections, exporting revolutionary ideals and importing dollars.[50] Nonetheless, the establishment of the institution of the Biennale in Havana was a milestone for securing Cuba a seat in the international art market and art fair arena without jeopardizing its authentic transcultural identity. The organization was carried out in the “Cuban manner” by a curatorial collective, out of which the only remaining active member is Nelson Herrera Ysla, curator at the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo Wilfredo Lam in Havana.[51] First and foremost, the biennale was designed to promote the insertion of local and regional Cuban art into the growing international art circuit, while welcoming art that focused on peripheral practices and that was suspicious of the globalizing tendencies of the customary Euro-American circuit.[52] This resulted in a matrix of cultures from the Global South that established their connections laterally into a “tercomundismo” or “third-worldism” of those with the most direct experience of decolonization.[53]

            At the same time, the rise of governmental censorship in the 1980s and the humanitarian impact of the  tightening of the US economic embargo after the fall of the Soviet Union caused Cuban artists who had already established foreign connections to emigrate in mass at the beginning of the 1990s. A new generation of young artists quickly stepped up to fill the void but were faced by the harsh reality of the “Special Period” that came with the end of the Soviet economic support. Social configurations shifted, educational structures contracted and the privileges of some were drastically accentuated over that of others.[54] Not only was this an economic crisis, but essentially a division of society into two separate economies and possibilities of existence in Cuba. Those with degrees and skilled training were able to work with US dollars within the tourism industries or international affairs, and in some cases could rely on remittances sent by relatives living abroad. Meanwhile, most could no longer subsist on the income from their principal, state-affiliated occupation, but relied on a secondary “unofficial”, sometimes illegal side “hustle” in order to live day-by-day. It became illegal for artists to receive payment in US dollars, and older generations of artists who had subsisted on their government salaries found themselves unable to make ends meet. If it weren’t for parallel occupations and emerging artists investing in the production of more affordable, compact, tourist-oriented marketable pieces (sometimes referred to “airport art”[55]), the Cuban visual art sector would have almost completely collapsed.[56]

            Growing up during the Special Period, Toledo recognizes how it affected his family dynamic as his parents found it increasingly difficult to provide for their children.[57] They left their occupations as professors at the Art Academy of Camagüey to become artisans, devoting time to making items that they could sell. Toledo recalls a childhood in which he was always involved in miscellaneous projects proposed by his parents to help sustain their family, including the making of decorative leather belts, that began in the mid-1990s, when he was about ten years old. The traditional leatherwork and pattern-rendering skills acquired at an early age through this family enterprise may be seen in the patterns and textures of the Soy Cuba series (Figs. 17 and 18).

Emerging Cuban Artists Today: Art Tourism, Consumption, Possibilities and Limitations

             The end of the Special Period allowed for a new influx of foreign investment in Cuba, re-directing and redeveloping certain areas of the city of Havana and other locations to tourism and commerce, with the aim of recycling pre-revolutionary glamour.[58] As a result, the capital has witnessed a significant rise in art tourism, especially after December 17, 2014 when presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba. Private art consulting companies, international galleries and dealers promote concierge-style travel itineraries tailored to buying contemporary art. Commonly catering to upper-class clients from the United States, Europe and Canada, multiple tourism initiatives are currently geared toward promoting artistic consumption alongside more traditional entertainment, dining and sight-seeing activities.  The guidebook Cutting Edge Art in Havana: 100 Cuban Artists, produced by the non-profit consulting company Artempo Cuba,[59] is an example of the types of materials being generated to introduce contemporary Cuban art to foreign consumers. The book is organized like a traditional travel guide but focuses almost solely on cataloguing emerging Havana-based artists. It features detailed maps and information on the location and contact details of studios around Havana (Figs. 22 and 23), as well as a step-by-step section entitled “How to Buy and Export Fine Art in Cuba.”[60]

            Although the Cuban government currently places no restrictions on the purchase and export of contemporary art,[61] the greater scenario of the Cuban economy still presents certain difficulties to buyers such as the lack of a fully-established credit and debit card infrastructure. Nevertheless, many artists have developed their own mechanisms for receiving sales payments from around the world. It is also common for artists to regularly produce smaller-scale and lower cost pieces that can be readily purchased in cash and personally transported by the buyer. These nonetheless still require permits including the Certificate of Authenticity and the Export Permit issued by the Registro Nacional de Bienes Culturales (Cuban National Registry of Cultural Assets).[62] Toledo produces small-scale pieces such as his current small landscape series (Figs. 24, 25, 26), which he developed as studies for Soy Cuba, not only as a way to take breaks from the arduous process of producing large-scale, physically-demanding works, but also to have pieces readily available in the studio to showcase and sell while he works on long-term, more expansive projects.[63]

            The now common practice of home-based studios and exhibition spaces as social and commercial milieus for artists and those engaged in the contemporary art scene in Havana, has a longer-standing function as site of survival under the Revolution.[64] Creative measures to overcome the hardships of the Special Period in many instances resulted in “makeshift responses to real estate shortages as well as the critical condition of urban infrastructure, [that] have helped make residential urban interiors the physical centers of this new market economy.”[65] The opening of Espacio Aglutinador in 1994 in the home of artists Ezequiel Suárez and Sandra Ceballos marked the beginning of private space use in the Cuban art market.[66] After having his politically-charged exhibit Frente Bauhaus (Fig. 19) cancelled by authorities, Suárez reopened the show at his home, starting what is now a permanent art space with a long-withstanding tradition of inclusive curatorial practice for young and established artists alike.

            Home-based art scenes now belong to a broader, more informal set of live/work artistic communities that provide spaces for exhibition and production beyond educational programs, galleries and museum spaces. They emphasize notions of private vs. public space and indicate survival strategies in the face of the rise of new art markets, gentrification and real estate speculation[67] in a “post-Revolutionary” environment. Starting in 2011, many of these practices were formally legalized as a result of economic reforms, but the limited self-employment categories permitted by the government continue to require informal markets of cultural and economic production.[68] Privately-owned galleries, for example, are illegal, but a venue in an accepted category such as a café, can be doubled as a gallery-café.[69] Participants in the Eleventh Havana Biennial, such as Ceballos, began to encourage visitors to circulate outside of governmentally-prescribed programs by creating parallel maps to that of the official fair, outlining the location of these alternative art spaces (Figs. 20 and 21). Nonetheless, when it comes to communal art spaces such as Aglutinador, the concepts of “official” and “non-official” do not mean single-party state control or official bases for the sale of artworks; they are spaces for networking, collaboration and experimentation between professionals and non-professionals.[70]

Other types of market-oriented initiatives found in the contemporary Cuban art scene include non-profit organizations such as the Ludwig Foundation of Cuba.[71] Founded in 1995 by German art collectors Peter and Irene Ludwig with the intent of promoting and assisting Cuban artists, both locally and internationally. Toledo’s first significant experience in marketing his work began at the Ludwig Foundation after he left ISA. Participating in the organization’s model of guiding artists on how to publically promote their work, he began to regularly attend private dinners held for groups of American buyers and collectors at the foundation’s Havana penthouse headquarters. Toledo recognizes that these experiences taught him the importance of creating a public image and presenting himself as a singular individual within the Cuban market in order to sell his art.[72]

            Independent art enterprises such as the Ludwig Foundation have had a two-fold impact on the launching of artists’ careers in Cuba. On one hand, they serve as important catalysts for social and geographical mobility for both international art enthusiasts and local Cuban artists, introducing emerging artists to the greater sphere of global art trade. On the other hand, they promote the development of interpersonal relationships between artists and clients- a particularly relevant tool for artists who primarily work in private or domestic studio settings throughout their careers. Similarly, private studios/galleries allow for flexibility in entertaining clients, generating more intimate introductions to the artists’ work. It is not uncommon for visitors to be received at private studios/galleries with refreshments like rum or coffee, followed by laid-back conversation with the artist about their life and work. Although socializing and studio visits are conflated for extraneous social and political reasons, they have become an important aspect of the Cuban art market. Foreign curiosity about “Cuban reality” is an important part of why collectors want to come to the island and engage with the buying process first-hand instead of through a gallery or dealer.       

            Writing in 1994, the Uruguayan-born artist and art historian Luiz Camnitzer predicted that the government’s decision to encourage tourism for rebuilding the economy would be disconcerting for Cuban artists, confident that it would have repercussions on the market and on the work being produced.[73] Tourism did in fact have an intense impact on the Cuban art market, but one that seems to have been positive in terms of structure and accessibility to the foreign and local public. Nevertheless, the continued foreign interest in contemporary Cuban art raises significant questions pertaining to historically-based perceptions of the island’s post-colonial reality and what constitutes the Global South.

            Cuban-American artist and critic Coco Fusco connects European and American aesthetic fascination with foreign cultures to a historical tradition of exhibiting non-white and indigenous bodies that coincided with colonialism and expansionism in the nineteenth century.[74] Cuba’s transcultural nature and complicated history have often been used by marketers to stoke tourists’ fascination with an ethnic “otherness”. In her book The Other History of Cultural Performance Fusco highlights how the “contemporary tourist industries and cultural ministries of several countries around the world still perpetrate the illusion of authenticity to cater to the Western fascination with Otherness. So do many artists.”[75]

            There is, of course, an explicit curiosity and attraction to, especially for American art collectors following the island’s “opening up” in 2014. In Cuba, some of the works of greatest critical impact have been created in moments of political contention, and, in many cases they have been suppressed by the same government that inspired them. It is evident that both the choice of subject matter and the imposition of censorship have in many instances become stereotyped as attractive traits for the works’ exportation. From internationally celebrated dissident artists/activists like Tania Bruguera who have designed public interventions that question governmental censorship and proscription in order to attain attention from the international press, to internally marginalized artists such as Pedro Pablo Oliva whose dystopic portraits of revolutionary icons like Fidel Castro (Fig. 29) have caused his work to all but disappear from the official narrative, it is clear that many artists have benefitted from the external art world’s fetishizing of politic content in Cuban art. “Political criticism has become a selling point for foreign galleries and collectors,” states Mosquera. “The resulting pitfall is the creation of art about politics rather than political art.”[76]

            Recent events, such as the cancellation of the 2018 Havana Biennial has turned attention back to Cuba and the fantasy of socialist art. The official explanation, or at least the general consensus for the cancelling of the biennial, was the need to relieve the state while trying to recover from the impact of Hurricane Irma.[77] However, given the magnitude of the impact on the cultural institutions and infrastructure of the island, this change seems to bear evidence of increased political tensions and a potential exhaustion of national cultural organizational structure.[78] A transfer of mandates outside the Castro family for the first time in almost sixty years, seems inconvenient in light of the complex structures of organization and surveillance needed to ensure ideological order during the country’s major large-scale event. The postponement of the thirteenth iteration of the biennial fostered a wave of repercussions and protests from artists such as Bruguera, who is well-known for her performance Tatlin’s Whisper [79] (Fig. 30) in the Plaza de la Revolución, originally performed as part of the 2009 biennial.

            An alternative event entitled the #00Bienal, organized by artist Luis Manuel Otero and art historian Yanelys Núñez Levya, sprung from heated debates on the possible ways to react to the suspension of the traditional biennial. The event occurred in multiple alternative spaces around Havana and was succinct in its publicizing (Fig. 31), but still sparked a reaction from those who denounced its supposed attempt to discredit the institutional system of the biennale. Its motto “In Every Studio, a Biennial,” is an ironic reflection on the Cuban revolutionary song that mentions “In Every Block, a Committee.”[80] Perhaps due to its somewhat secretive organization, the event did not manage to engage a particularly significant group of artists and did not gain much traction within the global art world, despite being financially supported by dissident artists including Bruguera and having a Miami-based fund-raising campaign. Nonetheless, it raised important questions about the state of governmental control and international intervention over contemporary art production in Cuba- a step further toward cultural de-centralization on the island.

            Another point of tension in the Cuban contemporary scene since July 2018 has been the announcement of Decreto número 349.[81] “The decree, signed by newly instated President Miguel Díaz-Canel in April and published in the Gaceta Oficial de la República de Cuba on July 10, essentially grants the Cuban Republic complete control over independent artistic production in the private sector.”[82] Since its announcement, artists and activists have organized public acts of opposition to the vague parameters of the decree, which regulates artistic and cultural activity in Cuba, leaving them subject to government censorship.[83] Bruguera, Otero, Levya are amongst the many artists who have been detained for protesting the decree. Nonetheless, meetings between artists and high-ranking government officials have helped to highlight the Cuban government’s failure to properly explain the motivations and aims of the new law, supposedly designed in response to complaints about the misuse of patriotic symbols and vulgarity in Cuban popular culture.[84] The law formally went into effect in early December, but its complimentary regulations have not yet been announced. With the biennial set to open on April 12, 2019, artists continue to protest the decree, asking for the solidarity of artists participating in the official biennial to collaborate and share their exhibition space with those affected by the decree.[85]


Soy Cuba: Synthesizing History, Innovation and the Cuban Reality

            “Every single Cuban has a different view of the country, says Toledo, “It’s not like watching the news and then knowing what is going on in Cuba. People will talk from their experiences or their family’s experiences”[86] By contextualizing Toledo’s practice within the historical, political and social matrix of Cuban artistic production, a better understanding of his individual personal experience within the very distinct reality of Cuba emerges. Unlike other artists who have chosen to leave the island, Toledo is very connected to his homeland and sees his relationship to Cuba as indispensable to his artistic practice. After a decade of working both as a government-employed instructor and as an independent artist, he appreciates the possibility of making a living from his passion in the country where he was born. While many Cuban artists today are represented by galleries abroad, constantly travelling in and out of the country, but maintaining a residence in Cuba, Toledo remains firmly entrenched within his country. Being part of both the emerging private sector in Cuba and not having to invest personal funds on aspects such as health-care has allowed him to allocate more time to long-term projects and to develop a closer connection to his practice, being able to sustain himself with a few monthly sales instead of having to mass produce more “commercially aesthetic” pieces.

            Over the past year, Toledo has relocated from a rented studio/gallery in a trendy part of Old Havana to a private studio he set up in the apartment he owns. While he recognizes that his former studio space was advantageous for its size and separate rooms for working in the back with a public-facing gallery in the front, Toledo values the privacy of his domestic studio and the option to redirect funds to travel and research. Relocating has also allowed him to be closer to his family (his sister now works as a one of his two studio assistants) and be fully immersed in his creative process instead of focusing primarily on marketing his work to international art tourists. From the beginning of his career, Toledo has been faithful to the idea that business cannot be at the forefront of his artistic production,[87] guiding him to find a balance between making a living and having to “be true to what I want to be as an artist, what I would like to say.”[88]

            This mentality has allowed Toledo to dedicate himself to developing a highly specialized style of painting. His use of the grid and color distribution method allows him to acknowledge his years of study in the application of color theory and mathematical concepts to art, while evoking visual references found in Cuban culture that extend much beyond their primary categories of meaning. Toledo’s intimate connection with the locations selected for the Soy
series allows him to invite the viewer to develop their own connections, regardless of their nationality. Toledo elevates the well-known category of landscape painting into a category of its own, resulting in a hybridity of meaning in line with the highly transcultural reality of places off which they are based. The “seed” pattern of the grid, for example, evokes an aesthetic connection to Cuban architectural fan lights, floor tiles, and other common decorative motifs found all over the island (Figs. 32 and 33) ,[89] while the color distribution that it requires brings out different details with each new look, providing the viewer with a distinct experience of a landscape that may never be experienced in person.  The consistent placement of the horizon line in each of the paintings works in tandem with the grid and the texture-free framing element to create the illusion of a looking through a window out onto a greater, expansive scene.

By keeping his landscapes devoid of human subjects, Toledo allows viewers to insert themselves into the image not only physically, through the large scale of the canvases and preservation of the line of sight, but into its possible significations. The texture acts as a semi-permeable barrier between viewer and land, metaphorically implying a filtering of significations of this land through the viewer’ personal perspective and identity. In the same way that the image of the landscape is never “fully formed” due to its deconstruction, there is never only one possible meaning. The viewing experience of the Soy Cuba series also manifests in the space between the myriad Cuban realities and a projection of what the landscapes can come to signify based on personal experiences. In Aterrizando and Hacia el Canto Del Beril, for example, Toledo summons ideas surrounding mobility, which superficially seem tied to the political and economic means to leave and return to the island. However, they also recall private moments of uncertainty, the solitude and meditation of the “self” grounded in a connection to nature.

            The landscapes of Soy Cuba welcome the viewer to exist in the liminality between the physical world and fantasy, reality and dream, past and present. These in-between spaces provide the terrain for developing emotional connections to nature, time, belonging, and self-hood that are as multivalent as Cuba’s transcultural heritage.

[1] Online conversation with Roger Toledo Bueno (December 9, 2018).

[2] See Island Time: Temporality and History in Roger Toledo’s Soy Cuba/I am Cuba Series, essay by Isabella Lynch.

[3] See essay by Marie McFalls.

[4] See ‘Color Visions in the Landscapes of Roger Toledo Bueno’, by Francesca Bolfo.

[5] For more information on the project visit:

[6] In-studio conversation with Roger Toledo Bueno, Havana, Cuba (October 8, 2018).

[7] Edward Rubin, ‘La Vida Loca; Life and Art in Cuba, Part One,’ The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education, vol. 10 (August 11, 2000), p.1.

[8] Juan A. Mártinez, ‘Cuban Painting in the Republican Period, 1902-1959’ in Cuba: A History in Art, University of Florida Press, 2015, p. 22.

[9] Homi K. Bhaba, The Location of Culture. Routledge Classics, 2004. p. 2.

[10] Fernando Ortiz, “On the Social Phenomenon of “Transculturation” and Its Importance in Cuba,” Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar. Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1947, p. 99.

[11] Ortiz, p. 100.

[12] Ibid., pp. 102-103.

[13] Ibid., p. 98.

[14] Ibid., p. 101.

[15] Rachel Weiss, To and from Utopia in the New Cuban Art. University of Minnesota Press, 2011, p. 3.

[16] Rachel Weiss, quoting Iván de la Nuez p.3.

[17] Luiz Camnitzer, ‘Art Education in Cuba’, New Art of Cuba, University of Texas Press, 2003, p.144.

[18] Paul Niell, “Founding the Academy of San Alejandro and the Politics of Taste in Late Colonial Havana.” Colonial Latin America Review, vol. 21, no 2, 2012, p. 292.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Gary R. Libby, “The Rise of a Cuban Style”, Cuba: A History in Art. University of Florida Press, 2015, p. 10.

[21] Niell, pp. 295 and 299.

[22] Landaluze’s work traditionally reflects the everyday life of non-elite and non-white peoples in nineteenth-century Havana through illustrations in artistic publications such as Los Cubanos Pintados Por Sí Mismos: Colecíon de Tipos Cubanos (1852) and paintings of Afro-Cuban street festivals in Día de Reyes En La Habana

[23] Niell, p. 295.

[24] Ibid., p. 296.

[25] Ibid., p. 295.

[26] Juan A. Mártinez, “Cuban Painting in the Republican Period, 1902-1959.” Cuba: A History in Art, University of Florida Press, 2015, pp. 22.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Libby, p. 18.

[29] Ibid., p. 10.

[30] Ibid., p. 18.

[31] Camnitzer, pp. 154-155.

[32] Ibid., 155.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Weiss, p. xiii.

[35] Rubin, p. 4.

[36] Weiss, p. xiii.

[37] Cuban National Constitution (Chapter 4, Article 38 [2d]), retrieved from appendix reference (7) in Weiss, p. xiii.

[38] Camnitzer, p. 159.

[39] Ibid., p. 160.

[40] In-studio conversation with Roger Toledo Bueno, Havana, Cuba (October 9, 2018), approx. 29min.

[41] Online conversation with Roger Toledo Bueno (December 9, 2018).

[42] In-studio conversation with Roger Toledo Bueno, Havana, Cuba (October 8, 2018), approx. 30min.

[43] Weiss, p. xiii.

[44] Ibid., p. xvi.

[45] Mosquera p. 13, and Weiss, p. xiii.

[46] Mosquera, p. 13.

[47] Weiss, p. xiv.

[48] Mosquera, p. 13.

[49] Terry Smith, “The Post-Colonial Turn”, What is Contemporary Art?, The University of Chicago Press, 2009, p. 154.

[50] Smith, p. 154.

[51] Conversation with curator Nelson Herera Ysla, Centro Wilfredo Lam, Havana, Cuba (October 9, 2018).

[52] Smith, p. 154, 157.

[53] Ibid., 154.

[54] Holly Block, Art Cuba: The New Generation. Harry N. Abrams Inc., 2001., p.  14.

[55] Block, p. 15.

[56] Mosquera, p. 14.

[57] Online conversation with Roger Toledo Bueno (December 9, 2018).

[58] Block, p. 8.

[59] More information on Artempo Cuba website:

[60] Anthony Rubenstein et al., Cutting Edge Art in Havana: 100 Cuban Artists. Artempo Cuba: Contemporary Art Connections. ATLA Group, LTD, 2015., p. 23.

[61] Ibid., p. 23.

[62] Ibid., p. 24.

[63] In-studio conversation with Toledo Bueno, Havana, Cuba (October 9, 2018), approx. 35min.

[64] Paloma Duong, “Homebound: The Art of Public Space in Contemporary Cuba.” ARTMarginsvol. 6, no 2, June 2017, p. 27.

[65] Ibid., p. 34.

[66] Ibid., p. 28.

[67] Ibid., p. 30.

[68] Ibid., p. 34.

[69] Ibid.

[70] Ibid., p. 36.

[71] More information on Ludwig Foundation Website:

[72] In-studio conversation with Toledo Bueno, Havana, Cuba (October 9, 2018), approx. 40min.

[73] Camnitzer, p. 170.

[74] Coco, Fusco, “The Other History of Intercultural Performance,” English is Broken Here: Notes on Cultural Fusion in the Americas, New York, 1995, p. 40.

[75] Fusco, p. 43.

[76] Mosquera, p. 13.

[77] Conversation with curator Nelson Herera Ysla, Centro Wilfredo Lam, Havana, Cuba (October 9, 2018).

[78] Aldeide Delgado, “Between the Official and Alternative: What Happened with the Havana Biennial?” Contemporary And Magazine (C&), May 24, 2018.

[79] Conducted within the framework of the 10th Havana Biennial, the work consisted of standard issue AV equipment, including a stage, a podium, a microphone, two loudspeakers, and what the artist termed “1 minute free of censorship per speaker.” Bruguera called the work Tatlin’s Whisper #6 (Havana Version), in homage to Vladimir Tatlin’s unrealized utopian monument to the Third International.

[80] Svitlana Bierdarieva, “The Importance of Havana’s First Alternative Biennial for the Cuban Art Scene.” Hypperallergic, May 25, 2018.

[81] Link to full decree: Contavenciones de Las Regulaciones en Materia de Política Cultural Y Sobre La Prestación de Servicios Artísticos. Julio 2018:

[82] Jasmine Weber, “Artist Arrested in Cuba for Protesting Decree Censoring the Arts”, Hyperallergic, December 5, 2018.

[83] Andrea Rodriguez, “Associated Press Exclusive: Cuba Softens New Law on Artistic Expression”. ABC News Havana, December 5, 2018.

[84] Ibid.

[85] Read more about Decree 349 in the official report by Artists at Risk Connection: ‘Art Under Pressure: Decree 349 Restricts Creative Freedom in Cuba’:

[86] In-studio conversation with Toledo Bueno, Havana, Cuba (October 9, 2018), approx. 33min.

[87] In-studio conversation with Toledo Bueno, Havana, Cuba (October 9, 2018), approx. 36min

[88] Ibid., approx. 45 min

[89] See ‘Landing and Tile: Structuring to the Essence of Cuba’, essay by Kaylee Slusser.