By: Adam Lehrer
“Ever since my first trip to Havana, I was quickly exposed to a very real, thriving and warm culture,” says Bryant Toth of the SoHo House who curated the “Bryant Toth Fine Art – Cuban Art Exhibition” at the Chelsea Hotel on June 25, “I was hooked after the first trip and enamored by Cuban culture.”
Toth travelled to Cuba years ago and found a rich and unique culture that manifested itself in the country’s art. Unfortunately, Cuban art and culture has been isolated from the rest of the world since President John F. Kennedy signed a trade embargo on Cuba in 1962 (Proclamation 3447) following Cuba signing a trade agreement with the Soviet Union. Since then, traveling to and from Cuba has been notoriously difficult, limiting American exposure to Cuban art but also to Cuban exposure to American art and art from around the world.
But over the last year, trade relations with Cuba have thawed. Though to fully end the embargo requires Congress to make the final decision, traveling to Cuba has become easier. For some 50 years Cuba has been geographically close to the United States but nigh impossible to get to. That notion has only fueled American fascination with Cuban culture.
Because of limited exposure to the world, Cuban culture has an immensely strong identity. That identity manifests strongly in Cuban artists’ work. It is that national identity that gripped Toth when he first traveled to the country.
“Everything is decidedly Cuban – the food, sights, sounds, and art,” says Toth. “They all weave together to create a truly striking, captivating place.”
To both satiate American interest in Cuban art and expose Cuban art to an audience outside Cuba, Toth curated “Bryant Toth Fine Art – Cuban Art Exhibition” that held its opening at the Chelsea Hotel on June 25. The exhibition features portraits from some of Toth’s favorite Cuban artists: the expressionism-influenced painter Eduardo “Exposito” Gonzalez, the 27 year old draftsman Juan Carlos Vazquez Lima, Cuban culture celebrating artist Hector Frank, and San Alejandro Fine Art Academy-trained artist Ignacio Merida.
Toth and I corresponded over email to discuss his love of Cuban art and why he had to curate this exhibition.
Forbes: What does the lessening of trade restrictions between Cuba and the United States ultimately mean for Cuban artists?
Bryant Toth: One of the main changes that will transpire will be the increase of exposure via the influx of tourism by both US citizens as well as the rest of the world. The announcement has shed new light on Cuban art and peaked the curiosity of the rest of the world.
Also, Cuban artists will gain better access to materials like paints, brushes, and canvases. Perhaps even more importantly, Cuban artists will gain access to information: inspiration from other artists, mediums of work, and standard business tactics.
Forbes: What was it like for you being able to give these artists a place to show their work outside Cuba?
Bryant Toth: It’s been such a wonderful experience getting to know these artists. From working with them in their studios, to cooking dinner with their families, to sharing their stories; they’re all talented and it’s a shame that their art works have been kept from the rest of the world. But ultimately my goal is to get these artists themselves in New York City so they can show their own work and tell their own stories.
Forbes: There has always been an American cultural interest in Cuba: the food, Buena Vista Social Club, cinematic portrayals of Che and Fidel, etc. Do you think this might be because the country is so geographically close, but so metaphorically far away?
Bryant Toth: Proximity is a factor but also people are interested in visiting a county preserved in time. Cuba has always had very strong creative roots in music, food, art, and literature and these roots have caught the world’s attention.
With that said, the nation’s isolation from many of its neighbors has fueled Cubans’ desires to develop strong self-identities that then manifest in the art.
Forbes: Social unrest often begets great creativity; did art flourish or flounder under the rule of Castro?
Bryant Toth: As mentioned above, the isolation has fueled creativity and a Cuban self-identity. But social unrest permits limited exposure for inspiration: books, materials, and exposure to creative minds outside of Cuba.
The Cuban government allows certain individuals more artistic opportunities as unofficial “ambassadors” of the country; Cuba has always been proud of its history in creative arts.
Forbes: How did this particular exhibit come into fruition?
Bryant Toth: I decided to do a group show for this exhibition. It was important to showcase different artists with different styles, approaches, and outlooks. But all the artists use portraiture as the common theme. My goal was to showcase a large selection of pieces by different artists and expose New York to a piece of Havana.
Everything in the exhibit was intended to be authentically Cuban: the aesthetic of the space (layers and layers of plaster/paint on the ceiling), a 5-piece Cuban band, signature Cuban cocktails made with rum distilled in the traditional style, sun flowers, and of course, the art. I wanted it to be more than a traditional art opening, which I think we accomplished.
Forbes: Where is Cuba in terms of gender equality? I couldn’t help but notice that the entire roster consists of male artists. Is it difficult to find women artists in Cuba, and are there social or cultural explanations for this?
Bryant Toth: My focus was to cultivate these specific relationships but have met some female Cuban Artists and hopefully will have the opportunity to work with some in the future.
Forbes: So many of the images from the show depict the human form, is it safe to say that Cuban art is fascinated with people over anything else?
Bryant Toth: Human form and portraits were the general themes of the show, but it’s safe to say that depicting the human form is one of the most common and fascinating subjects in Cuban art and art from around the world. Personally, I find it to be the most dynamic.