Art Activism Forum

02/06/17

Professors share clips, stories from “Activismo: Art & Dissidence in Cuba”

Half of a century after the Cuban revolution, diplomatic relations have been restored between The United States and Cuba; commercial airlines are once again operating on the tiny island and tourists are flocking to the country just 100 miles south of Key West. Some of the most recognizable images that tourists bring back to the United States are of the classic, restored, rebuilt cars driven on the streets of Havana for decades.

As artist Juan Si Gonzales explains, the idyllic image is deceiving as the classic cars and crumbling facades are really “souvenirs of their miseries.” Gonzales is one of six prominent Cuban artists featured in “Activismo: Art and Dissidence in Cuba.”

A teaser for the documentary was shared during the Jan. 24 Forum at Bluffton University. Written, directed and produced by Phil Sugden, assistant professor of art at Bluffton University, and Carole Elchert, assistant professor of communication at the University of Findlay, the documentary explores the role of art as a form of activism.

“Art is a vehicle that has the ability to produce change, to raise the hand of protest, to move the feet of action, to overcome failures in human thought and actions,” said Elchert.

In December 2015, the couple, along with two videographers, spent eight days in Cuba interviewing dissident artists in their studios and filming the people, streets and everyday scenes in Cuba. They came back to the United States with 15 hours of taped interviews and street scenes and are now editing the footage to submit to film festivals and distributors. The goal is to finish the film by the summer of 2017.

Elchert, Sugden and the videographers stayed in a private home and traveled to areas most tourists will never see. While the Havana that is on display to tourists is vibrant and full of life, “Cuba has one of the poorest human rights records in the world,” said Sugden. “There are big problems that tourists will not see like the fact that Cuba has a lot of prisoners of conscience.”

Elchert and Sugden spent six months organizing the trip and stayed in contact with the artists through email communication. However, “we were very careful with words. We could not say dissident or activist to the dissidents and activists of Cuba in our emails,” said Elchert.

Elchert, Sugden and the videographers had to be careful while in Cuba as well. The police wear plain clothes, and the government watches artists in particular. Several of the artists they interviewed have been jailed because of their political artwork, including performance artist Tania Bruguera. However, the crew did not encounter problems during their time with her.

“We walked up and down the street in front of her performance studio and we didn’t see anybody following us or any cameras set up. We knocked on the door and she let us in right away,” said Sugden.  “We weren’t followed, but we also didn’t talk to anybody outside of the art community about what we were doing.”

Sugden says art students in Cuba are taught critical thinking skills in the classroom, but when they move outside the classroom, they are limited on what they can say. The Cuban constitution forbids work or content that questions the government.

“Here, we don’t think twice about being critical of the policies and activities of our leaders,” said Sugden.

Elchert used the words of Cuban rock musician Gorki Aguila during Forum to highlight the oppression, “The truth is that for many young people, no matter what they say, their only hope is to leave. I’ve left and I’ve come back because I want Cubans to have the same opportunity to express themselves here as kids do in other countries.”

This sentiment is why many of the artists featured in the documentary remain in or have returned to Cuba.

Work from three of the artists in the documentary will be on display during the show “Art As Activism” which opens in the Grace Albrecht Gallery of Bluffton’s Sauder Visual Arts Center on Feb. 6 and runs through Feb. 24.

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