PBS documentary explores contemporary Cuban art from the ’80s

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In May 2015, Miami-based Cuban émigré Yamilet Hernandez was looking for a way to combine her interests in contemporary art promotions and video production when she got an invitation from U.S.-based art collector Howard Farber to join him in Cuba. He was going to present the Farber Foundation Cuban Art Awards at the 2015 Havana Biennial, an initiative he started as the U.S. and Cuba were restoring relations. Hernandez accepted the invitation.

Back in Miami, she had already helped to produce several videos about Cuban artists in his collection, so she was excited to see Farber at work in Cuba. Now, three years later, she’s releasing her first-ever documentary “Changes,” which profiles the evolution of Cuba’s contemporary art scene.  

During that 2015 trip, she found the streets crawling with American art connoisseurs hoping to get ahead of a trend they figured was soon coming: bringing contemporary Cuban art to the United States. Six months earlier, then U.S. President Barack Obama announced he would begin the process of restoring diplomatic ties with Cuba. Suddenly hundreds of Americans were traveling there, even though it would take another 15 months for Obama to announce he was relaxing U.S. travel restrictions to the island.  

“It was an incredible moment,” she said. “So many art collectors and art lovers were going to Cuba. There was an exhibition from the Bronx Museum in Cuba’s National Museum of Fine Arts, there were collectors all over the street.”

Hernandez was so surprised by the number of travelers carrying Cuban art onto the homebound plane that she decided to work with a travel agency to organize an art gallery tour. Following that theme on subsequent trips, she says Cubans were calling the 2015 Havana Biennial “The Biennial of the Thawing.”

She also noticed that some of the featured works were created by the so-called ‘80s Generation, a group of Cuban artists who grew up learning to create works such as traditional landscapes or art that represented an idyllic vision of the Cuban proletariat. They wanted to break with these aesthetic and conceptual styles.

It was a time of great geopolitical change. By the late 1980s, the Soviet Union was engaged in an economic and political restructuring it called perestroika. News of this change led to a time of great reflection in Cuba, especially among artists, many of whom were forced to leave for creating art the government considered counterrevolutionary.

“There hadn’t been any kind of questioning; who are we, where do we come from, where are we going…and they started to ask those questions, expressing it through art,” said Hernandez, who witnessed these changes as she finished high school and went off to college.

Now it was 2015, and she was seeing some of these Cuban artists reuniting and exhibiting their works together in their homeland for the first time since that era. The scene was so striking it inspired her to start a documentary.

“I was resolving an existential anxiety,” she said as she recalled how she pulled together a group of friends to help document these artists.

“This time I found them experimenting with all sorts of new mediums such as performance art, video installations, or working with new materials they’d never incorporated before,” she said.

She later obtained a grant from Miami Dade County’s Cultural Affairs Division to cover production costs, and then an offer from the public broadcasting company South Florida PBS to air the film as part of its Film-Maker series.

Hernandez says that U.S. enthusiasm for Cuban contemporary art remains high, despite the Trump Administration’s partial rollback of Obama’s efforts to restore U.S.-Cuba relations. Last fall, the U.S. government tightened travel restrictions for Americans hoping to visit Cuba and suspended Havana-based consular services for Cubans seeking U.S. visits. But Hernandez is hopeful her film will keep interest alive, and encourage contemporary art fans to advocate for greater cultural engagement.

“I wanted this film to be a tool for documenting a forgotten era in Cuban art history, for reuniting the Cuban artists from that time, and engaging the public in their dialogue,” said Hernandez.

PBS now has a four-year broadcasting license for “Changes,” and it will soon be viewable through the network’s digital platforms, including the websites of South Florida PBS stations WXEL and WPBT, as well as on Roku and Apple TV.

In South Florida? See the film this week Thursday, February 1st at 5:30 p.m. on WXEL and Friday at 11:00 p.m. on WPBT.

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