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Cuban art in spotlight amid U.S. detente

Cuban artist Jose Angel Toirac poses in his studio in Havana, Cuba. He has done a series of irreverent paintings of Fidel Castro that have not been exhibited. (Tribune Content Agency)
Cuban artist Jose Angel Toirac poses in his studio in Havana, Cuba. He has done a series of irreverent paintings of Fidel Castro that have not been exhibited. (Tribune Content Agency)
HAVANA (AFP) ― In Juan Roberto Diago’s studio at his remodeled 1920s house, five Americans scrutinized the Cuban artist’s work, wearing baseball caps and sunglasses.

“That’s a piece I bought last time I was here,” said Robert Penta, a 33-year old attorney, pointing at a red and brown canvas leaning against the wall.

It’s the second time in as many months that this group from Louisville, Kentucky, has traveled to Cuba on a special art license.

They wasted no time following the historic rapprochement between Cuba and the United States after 53 years of diplomatic hostility.

“We kind of made an emergency visit,” said 33-year-old Cordt Huneke, who works in private equity, as he stood in front of a Diago painting he just decided to buy.

“I think Cuban art is about to explode. It’s going up fast, faster than anyone anticipated.”

Alberto Magnan, the Cuban-American owner of Magnan Metz Gallery in New York, accompanied this group of buyers.

He said Americans were always interested by art on the island, but demand has surged in recent weeks.

The day of the announcement that the two one-time foes were moving to warm ties, on Dec. 17, the gallery owner said he received 25 calls from collectors.

‘Freedom of expression’

Since 1962, an embargo has prevented imports to the United States of most Cuban products. But there are no limits on informational items such as books, films, music and artwork.

Artists are also one a few categories of people allowed to travel relatively easily between the two countries, along with diplomats, journalists or doctors.

“Art was excluded from the embargo; it was lucky for us,” said artist Kadir Lopez, 43.

Paved with black and white tiles and with walls and floors covered in modern art, Lopez’s refurbished Havana studio stands in stark contrast with the 1950s American cars lining the street outside.

“It’s because art carries information, and that has to do with freedom of expression,” the artist explained. Though the Americas’ only communist government controls information, Lopez insisted he never was asked to modify his work.

“Metaphor is very important. You can speak about everything, it’s just about how you present it,” he said.

This exemption from the embargo partly explains Cuba’s large number of artists and the international fame that some of them enjoy.

Lopez sold his first piece for $300 when he graduated 20 years ago. Today, he says the same piece is worth at least $25,000.

Payments, shipping onerous

But restrictions on payments with U.S. credit cards (now expected to end) and on direct shipping between the countries still apply. That makes the process complicated and expensive for American buyers.

One option is to pay in cash or through an art gallery abroad, and ship the work via Europe; still, the shipping alone runs about $3,000 a piece.

Producing certain types of art in Cuba is also costly and sometimes impossible because of the lack of materials and infrastructure.

Now the US-Cuban rapprochement could simplify transactions and help promote local artists.

“New factors are going to come in, new entities, galleries, art centers, foundations, museums,” said Luis Miret, who heads Galeria Habana, Cuba’s oldest gallery.

Standing in the gallery’s back room, a treasure trove of sorts packed with paintings, photographs, books and sculptures, Miret said: “If things get simpler, people will come with a greater interest in selecting Cuban artists.”

“And we will share the international promotion cost,” he added.

Blessing or curse?

Ending the U.S. embargo ― which requires U.S. congressional cooperation ― could bring a million more tourists to the island every year, according to the Cuban Ministry of Tourism.

The Cuban art world sees this as a blessing and a curse: It will make art increase in value and shed light on emerging artists.

But skyrocketing demand could adversely impact the quality of the work.

“As Cuban artists, we have always been very careful with what we do; the market has never interfered in our production,” said 43-year Diago, whose works now sell for up to $100,000.

“I think this boom can be good and dangerous. It all depends on whether we will be able to handle this avalanche of demand.”

For big changes to take place, the embargo would have to be lifted, an unlikely event in the short term, with the Republicans who hold both houses of the U.S. Congress opposing the move.

Even with plenty of uncertainties on the horizon, Cuban art’s value is on the rise.