Imagine a museum-quality exhibition where, at the end of the show, you can buy any of the pieces displayed.
That is the idea behind “Cuban Artists: The Prodigious Decade,” a curated exhibit at the Sagamore Hotel in Miami Beach with more than 100 works by 25 Cuban artists born at the time of the Cuban Revolution or shortly afterwards.
The show was crafted by Sebastien Laboureau, who first began curating exhibits at the hotel in the summer of 2016. He calls the Sagamore “one of the first art hotels in the world;” it began exhibiting the private collection of its owners in the late 1990s.
When new owners purchased the Sagamore two years ago they engaged Laboureau as the property’s official art advisor. Laboureau, an avid art lover, had been counseling private collectors for nearly a decade after leaving his job as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs.
That investment perspective brings a unique element to the exhibit. “We do museum-like exhibits, but everything is for sale,” says Laboureau. And, as a South Beach gallery-cum-museum, the Sagamore brings its own twist. “We are the only art institution open twenty-four-seven to the public—plus you can have a drink,” he says.
Laboureau says he wanted to create a show that also contributed to the understanding of Cuban art. “Cuban art has become some kind of a fashion statement, with everyone talking about it since Obama’s attempts to open relations. The reality is that Cuban art is something that has been very special for centuries. I came to [the Hotel’s owners] and said we want to do an exhibit about this generation [the ’80s], the ones who led the effort for Cuban contemporary art.
“All of them were born right after the Revolution, and knew no Cuba outside of the Revolution. In the ’80s, they started creating very innovative art that was also controversial in its commentary.”
Among the more notable of the 24 artists, some of whom now live in U.S. and some in Cuba, are names such as José Bedia, Arturo Cuenca, Ruben Torres Llorca, Glexis Novoa, and José Toirac. To celebrate the show, 14 of them came to Sagamore for the opening. “It was an emotional moment, a historical moment, to bring them all together,” says Laboureau.
In addition to hotel’s art advisor, the show was co-curated by Dr. Adriana Herrera and Willy Castellanos from Aluna Curatorial Collective. “The term ‘Prodigious Decade’ is the designation given to a turning point in the history of Cuban art,” says Herrera. “It was a time of aesthetic divergences that questioned the relation of the artists with official institutions.”
What impresses Herrera is how the artists “through various forms of aesthetic ruptures, disrupted the limits of what was permitted,” despite being “formed” at the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA) school in Havana. At the time these artists came of age, she says, the iconic imagery of Cuba’s revolutionaries (think Che Guevara) and its workers “was what the art had to be.” The new generation began to work instead with other types of images, such as those from forgotten or prohibited religious practices, or from classic art. “It was not abajo [down with] the Revolution or abajo Cuba, but rather saying they could embrace another type of aesthetics.”
The result is a fascinating array of paintings, with a handful of video installations and sculptures added to give the exhibit dimension. One of the more arresting is Jose Bedia’s “Killing in the name of…”, an eight-by-seven-foot canvas with a massive aircraft carrier surging toward the viewer. On its deck is a military jet, as well as a tiny sacrificial scene. “If you see the details, you see iconic references to certain [religious] practices. But Bedia is not alluding to Havana issues. It’s about the violence in the world, which could be created by the U.S., for example.”
Other works are more specifically Cuban referenced, such as Leandro Soto’s 1998 “La Diaspora,” which shows an abandoned rowboat in what are presumably Caribbean waters, or Ruben Torres Llorca’s “Surrealismo Socialista,” a play on Social Realism: a pencil on paper image of a female Cuban factory worker (think Rosie the Riveter) whose lower half is the tail of a genie.
More than political commentary, however, the ’80s generation was one that explored the visual space in an exuberant fashion, almost restlessly breaking out of the mold of social realism (think propaganda art). Those same artists have continued their playful use of images they literally turn on their heads—like Consuelo Castañeda’s “Babel C,” a 2012 canvas on three panels that flips a classic Tower of Babel upside down. Or Ruben Torres Llorca’s 2015 “Better Days Ahead,” which makes pop art from the paranoid imagery of the Cold War.
As for the prices, they range from $4,000 to $50,000: “Surrealismo Socialista” is priced at $6,000; “Babel C” at $7,500; “La Diaspora” at $9,000; “Better Days Ahead” at $26,000; and “Killing in the name of…” at $44,000.
“We have sold a few already. It’s very important for the artists,” says Laboureau. “In terms of prices, I do believe as a finance guy and an art advisor, that there is an investment opportunity for investors to enrich their collections. I believe that Cuban art is still undervalued.”