Visual Art

MoCA North Miami Measures A Major Cuban Artist’s Impact

Written By Douglas Markowitz
November 13, 2023 at 12:35 PM

Installation view of “Transparency of God” through Juan Francisco Elso’s “El Rostro de Dios,” (1987-1988).  A retrospective of Elso’s work is at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami through March 17, 2024, (Photography by Martin Seck/Courtesy of El Museo del Barrio, New York)

In 1986, Juan Francisco Elso changed the face of Cuban art forever with a single wooden sculpture. Debuted at that year’s Havana Biennial, “Por América” depicts a tired man covered in mud, his body riddled with arrowheads, holding a sword in his right hand. This is no ordinary man, however: It’s José Martí, a founding father of Cuba who died in battle during the fight to liberate the island from the Spanish.

“It was a piece that rocked everybody’s world, not just Cubans in Cuba,” says Olga Viso, chief curator at the Phoenix Art Museum in Arizona and a former curator at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach. “It was like there was a before and after when Elso made ‘Por América.’ It symbolized this before and after of content that artists could deal with, and a way of artists kind of challenging and tackling, and questioning the values of the revolution in more veiled and poetic ways,” says Viso.

Installation view of “La ceiba y la palma,” (1983), screenprint mounted on cardboard and wood, 86.625 x 59 x 27.2 in and 96 x 40 x 30.75 in. (Photography by Martin Seck/Courtesy of El Museo del Barrio, New York)

Elso, along with peers like José Bedia, Leandro Soto, and Ricardo Brey, was part of the first group of artists to be born after the 1959 revolution that ushered in Communist rule. Known as Volumen Uno (Volume One) after an important 1981 exhibition at Havana’s International Art Center, they had begun to question post-revolutionary ideas around Cuban identity and society and explore ideas around a mixed, pan-Latin identity.

Viso, who is of Cuban heritage herself, came into contact with many of the artists in Elso’s generation while working in South Florida, and to them, Elso’s recasting of Cuba’s martyred George Washington, using humble materials and referencing Afro-Cuban religious motifs, touched a nerve of generational importance. It also scandalized the Cuban government.

“In Cuba, that piece meant so much, and I think when he left, the Cuban government was losing one of its key figures,” says Viso. “The Cuban authorities considered it a kind of sacrilegious presentation of José Martí… taken off the pedestal, a humble man covered in mud referencing African saints and African religious practices. It was just a total untouchable thing, yet at the same time, it resonated so deeply for everyone in that it represented that kind of hybrid identity that is so foundational to Latin American culture and Cuban identity in particular, (and) that he was recasting Martí for the present moment.”

Installtion view of “Dando y dando.” (Photography by Martin Seck/Courtesy of El Museo del Barrio, New York)

Elso tragically did not live to see his impact, dying of leukemia in 1988 at only 32 years old. But many artists in his generation were also exploring the same ideas.

That’s why a new retrospective of Elso at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami through March 17, 2024, also focuses on artists he influenced and associated with. Fellow Cubans such as Belkis Ayon and Ana Mendienta explore indigenous religious practices, as does Tiona Nekkia McCloden’s commissioned work “Absolute Congruence.”

Reynier Leyva Novo offers a shapeshifting sculpture of José Martí, responding to Elso’s own reinvention of the man. And photographs from Lorraine O’Grady, Albert Chong, and others offer the same stark, awed vision of the landscapes and people of the Americas.

There’s plenty in the show from Elso himself, of course – over 70 works in total. “Por América,” the namesake of the show, is the first work featured, and its impact may dwarf its diminutive size. The same can’t be said for Elso’s other assemblages, especially two groups of wooden sculpture which feel even more cosmic in scope and earthy in execution.

Installation view of “Essay on America.” (Photography by Martin Seck/Courtesy of El Museo del Barrio, New York)

“Essay on America” features meditations on death, gods, and transcendence. A skeletal, bird-shaped gliding machine allows the wearer to traverse “spiritual realms,” according to wall text. Nearby, a wooden “warrior effigy” is surrounded by flags with the names of legendary and mythical figures from across the Americas – Quetzalcoatl, Sitting Bull, Toussaint Louverture, Che Guevara – from which the figure draws power.

“The Transparency of God” is even more ambitious and stirring. Elso forms skeletal body parts – a hand, a heart, and a skull – from paper, rope, tree branches, and other stark, unhewn materials, inviting us to inhabit the body of a creator and stare through its eyes.

Works nearby by Glenn Ligon and Los Carpinteros converse with “The Hand of God,” but the sculpture itself is missing, represented by a photograph on the wall. The work itself is still in Cuba, unable to be exported due to worries over seizure by the U.S. government.

Installation view of Juan Francisco Elso’s “Corazón de América” (c.1987-1988) and a reproduction of “La mano Creadora,” (1987-1988). (Photography by Martin Seck/Courtesy of El Museo del Barrio, New York)

This situation highlights the obstacles Viso and her colleagues faced while assembling the show.

It took her 25 years to organize “Por América,” which debuted at El Museo del Barrio in New York last year before traveling to the Phoenix Art Museum and MoCA North Miami, in part because she had to wait for U.S. relations with Cuba to thaw. The risk of damage to many of the works, made from unconventional, fragile materials, was also a factor.

“In the end, we were able to reunite virtually all of Elso’s work together,” says Viso.

WHAT: “Juan Francisco Elso: Por América”

 WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday through Sunday, March 17.

 WHERE: Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami; 770 NE 125th St., North Miami

 COST: $10 for general admission; $5 for seniors, students with valid ID, youth ages 12 to 17, and disabled visitors; free for museum members, children under 12, North Miami residents and city employees with valid ID, veterans, and caregivers of disabled visitors.

INFORMATION: (305) 893-6211 and mocanomi.org

 ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music and more. Don’t miss a story at www.artburstmiami.com.

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