Despite my lack of firsthand Cuban familiarity, the Alabama Contemporary Art Center’s new “Sister Shores” exhibit met expectations. When you share ocean currents and storms with the island state just south of Miami, you earn a roundabout acquaintance.
I was unsurprised when ACAC Board Chair Mike Dow told me a year ago the show was in the works. I remembered the relationship he struck up with Havana back during his four terms as Mobile mayor.
The timing is apropos, following the United States’ rapprochement with its once-avowed enemy. Fidel Castro is dead and his brother’s reign will pass soon.
A May 15 Miami Herald article made clear poverty still reigns in Cuba. Food, water and resources remain scarce. The state cracked down on dissidents and communications in fear of an oncoming political transition.
So as I wandered into ACAC on a lazy Saturday a couple of weeks after the show’s opening, I sought illumination. What insights awaited?
Visitors are immediately surrounded by large portraits of Cuban residents underscored by conversational excerpts with Eastern Shore writer Lynn Oldshue. Of course, the printed quotations are in both English and Spanish.
Two of the portraits were credited to photographer Michele Stancil. I had to assume the rest of the dozen or so photos were hers as well, since I never found another attribution.
The writer and photographer work together on Oldshue’s glossy magazine “The Southern Rambler” and other projects. A glance through Oldshue’s earlier pieces in that publication point to her previous relationship with Cuba and an understanding of its people and tales.
Many of the quotes revolve around economic fragility. There are also stories of struggle for artistic voice.
“We are all human beings with personal histories and implications … Art helps us understand each other,” one artist told her. Near the portraits, a small black-box theater shows a loop of waves breaking on an urban shoreline.
On the other side of the front entrance, paper tags hang on a forest of draped strings while a stand with pencils beckons visitors to scrawl their questions on the tags. They’re to be implemented in public programming for the “Back to Havana” exhibit in September 2017.
Inquiries such as “Do you feel free?” and “What did you think of Castro?” and “How are the cigars?” swayed and circled on the tendrils.
Varied paintings lead down the east wall. The playfulness of Osmel Herrera’s “Estampida” stood out, its mixture of images from the Altamira cave paintings with the Red Bull logo.
Also entertaining was Ramon Deanda’s “El Burro,” wherein a man pulls a donkey in a cart while glued to his handheld device. It embodies the artist’s bewilderment with our technological fixation and our ignorance of nature.
Mobilian Amanda Youngblood’s woodcuts “Born to Fly, Born to Die” and “Guts and Glory” were captivating. Another local artist, Susan Peele, rendered four large paintings at the back of the room, archetypal vignettes of cigars, an old car and a guitarist.
The back half of the building holds more gallery space and a large room for presentations, but was closed. It would be a shame for it to go unutilized.
An intriguing film was projected onto the east wall complete with ambient musical tracks, but unfortunately the view was faded by the sunlight streaming through the windows above it. Personally, I would have preferred it placed in the small black-box theater near the front.
I found no placard or information telling me precisely what its footage reveals. Where was the theatrical production it documents? Who were the players? Who designed and wrote the stage work? What does it mean? How long did it take to make the film? Who shot it?
I presumed the cameraman was Kris Skoda, since the woman at the front desk told me he shot the wave footage and video on the ACAC website. If so, his work was underserved by the presentation.
Another wall is filled with an array of street scene photos — a smattering of brightly hued cars, laundry lines flapping on balconies, an abstract in the worn and deteriorating paint on a wall, fruit stands — but again I found no placard or artist’s statement. Once again Artifice relied on the front desk. The woman there was under the impression ACAC Director of Operations Allison Schaub shot the photos.
Promotional literature indicated more is on the way. Additional Cuban artwork will be imported in September and a film series surveying Cuban directors is in the works.
It’s apparent this is an early step in a longer arc. ACAC has only just put its metaphorical feet in the water and stirred it. We’ll have to wait and see what ripples return from across the Gulf.