Anyone who has had the opportunity to visit Havana, or La Habana as it is known in Cuba, will automatically feel a twinge of nostalgia on viewing “Cuba Va!,” the installation by Los Carpinteros at The Phillips Collection through January 12, 2020.
The three-dimensional, backlit portraits that greet viewers as they enter the lower galleries evoke the portraits of heroes of the Cuban Revolution, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, whose monumental paintings are emblazoned in a similar style at the Plaza de la Revolucion as one enters the city. The Plaza is the capital city’s largest square and the seat of the Cuban government.
That was the intention of Marcos Castillo and Dagoberto Rodriguez, the two remaining members of Los Carpinteros, an artists’ collective formed in the early 1990s in Cuba. They use architectural and sculptural sensibilities, along with design and drawing techniques to render the portraits of aged Cuban citizens identified by names—Cachita, René, Isabel, Eusebia, Simón, Felicia, and Alfonso.
Created from photos of real people, these are the entities that bore the brunt of the Cuban Revolution, a historical event with a mixed outcome according to the artists’ purview.
“We put the actual names of the people together with the idea that it is not Che Guevara,” Castillo said at the opening of the exhibit, which featured the two artists in conversation. “These are not heroes. These are real people.”
Made from aluminum and backlit, they demonstrate elements of social realism, as each wrinkle and expressive gesture are captured through a material which is usually difficult to manipulate to capture such subtleties. They also contain elements of pop art indicative of the time frame being referenced and the origins of the artists’ style.
“When we started to make these portraits in 2013, we also were exploring to do Cuban aged people, and we also did some people in Europe—the thinkers—who had a predominant role in the leftist movement. We took advantage of those ways to present the pieces. It was a fantastic way to connect the concept for the audiences.” Rodriguez added.
According to Los Carpinteros, “both strove to achieve populism and mass appeal either through socialist ideals or consumerist culture.”
Ironically, both Los Carpinteros blend the two diametrically opposed notions to undergird their belief in Cuba’s “failed promises to society: a new ideology on one hand and comfort and prosperity on the other.”
The artwork, according to the duo, is about monumentality and how it relates to the real people who moved the Cuban Revolution into the annals of history.
“Cuba Va!” takes its title from a song by Experimental Sound Collective from the 1970s that sounded the clarion call for revolutionary action and faith in Cuba’s socialist future.
For the artists, the exhibit, which also includes two film installations, Comodato (2018) and Retrảcil (2018), offers a critical reflection of the social transformation of post-Revolutionary Cuba.
“Comodato is a way you can earn a house in Cuba,” Castillo added. “In Cuba, we have some very strange ways you can legally have a house. Comodato is one of these. It means basically a loan contract with the government, so you can use the house for a certain time.”
The video, shot in HD, takes the viewers through various levels of housing in Cuba, from the affluent to the most impoverished, through interior shots accompanied by sound effects of the accommodations.
Marking the first museum reunion since the artists split in 2018– a third member, Alexandre Arrechea left the collective in 2003–“Cuba Va!” is the 28th installation of the INTERSECTIONS program at The Phillips Collection.
“We are thrilled to host Los Carpinteros’ “Cuba Va!” as our 28th INTERSECTIONS exhibition,” said Dorothy Kosinski, Vradenburg Director and CEO of The Phillips Collection, as she introduced the duo at their artists’ talk. “Their decades-long collaborative work, characterized by formal and conceptual ambiguity and implicitly political narratives, plays into Duncan Phillips’ vision of bringing together artists from all corners of the world.”
The Phillips Collection is located at 1600 21st Street, NW, in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of the District. Visit www.phillipscollection.org for gallery hours and further information.