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Art exhibition fuels US-Cuba thaw

New Mount Rushmore by Long-Bin Chen, featuring Barack Obama
The exhibition aims to help bring the two countries closer together, amid signs of a new era in relations

By Michael Voss
BBC News, Havana

Hundreds of Cubans packed into Havana's Museo De Bellas Artes for the launch of the first major US contemporary art exhibition to be shown here for almost a quarter of a century.

It's part of the island's biennial art festival, which every two years features hundreds of artists from Cuba and around the world. Until now it has been difficult for Americans to attend.

The exhibition is called Chelsea visits Havana and features about 30 artists from more than two dozen galleries in New York's arty Chelsea neighbourhood.

The show's American curator is gallery owner Alberto Magnan, whose parents left Cuba when he was five years old.

"I would love for this show to be a beginning step towards both countries getting a little closer together and starting a dialogue and I think art is a great way to do it," he said.

Alberto Magnan first approached the Cuban authorities three years ago with the idea of bringing a cross-section of contemporary American art to Havana.

But he had to wait for new presidents in both countries for the idea to come to fruition.

'Cultural lighthouse'

The curator of contemporary art at Havana's Fine Arts Museum, which is hosting the exhibition, Aberlado Mana, describes the show as "a surprise and a miracle".

Artist Doug Young with sculpture of nuclear command desk
I'm not a political person - the goal is to face mortality and embrace the engineering that went into all this Cold War weaponry
Doug Young
Artist

"This is the first exhibition we made after Obama rose to power," he says. "This is a kind of lighthouse of the next process of the culture and the politics between Cuba and the United States."

One of the works attracting attention is what appears to be an abstract red wooden cut-out by New York artist Padraig Tarrant.

It is called Castrobama and on closer inspection it reveals the silhouettes of Fidel Castro and Barack Obama eyeing each other, face to face. A symbol perhaps of what many believe could mark the start of an easing of relations.

Che Guevara portrait

Another of the works on display is a sculpture of a US nuclear command desk from the Titan 2 missile complex outside Tucson, Arizona, complete with flashing lights and launch key.

It is a reminder of these two countries' troubled past relationship and just how close the world came to nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis.

Visitors at the exhibition
Most of the work has no political overtones

"It's a coincidence, I didn't build it specifically for this exhibition," explains the artist Doug Young.

"I'm not a political person. The goal is to face mortality and embrace the engineering that went into all this Cold War weaponry."

There's a jigsaw puzzle portrait of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, called "Black Che", by Christoph Draeger.

New Mount Rushmore, by Long-Bin Chen, is a sculpture made with New York City Yellow Pages of the four American presidents featured at Mount Rushmore, plus Mr Obama.

Most of the work on display has no political overtones and features a broad spectrum of the art trends in New York.

The show is expected to attract large numbers of Cuban artists who have spent years working in isolation, with little real contact with what is going on across the straits of Florida.

The Cuban curator, Aberlado Mana, believes that for the first time in years it will be possible to compare the two.

"It will be interesting to see who comes out on top," he says. "I believe that the Cuban art is at the same level as the American art. The difference is that the Americans have people in the back to support and help them make money but the quality of the Cuban art is quite the same."

Many of the American artists are also taking inspiration from what they are seeing in Cuba.

"The Cuban art I've seen is phenomenal," says installation artist Jade Townsend. "Can you imagine that, without having a commercial drive behind work, what amazing things you can come up with."

Travel ban

During the Clinton years, US museums and art dealers used to regularly visit Cuba, buying works and helping Cuban artists to exhibit there.

But the Bush administration tightened trade and travel restrictions, making art and other cultural exchanges increasingly difficult in recent years.

Art is not covered by the trade embargo but most US citizens are banned from travelling to communist Cuba.

More than a dozen of the US exhibitors, along with the organisers and some top US art dealers, have all managed to obtain permission to come here.

Now there is talk of trying to take a group of Cuban artists to exhibit their works in the United States. They may prove a much tougher test of this newfound cultural diplomacy.



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