The Politics of Boats and Immigration Still Holds Water in Cuban Art

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Boats are evocative and political images in Cuba. They represent the waves of immigration from Cuba to the United States, a perilous journey often taken by sea, that have comprised the Cuban diaspora since the 1959 Revolution. Today, as evidenced by artists from all over Cuba, boats are still powerful, pervasive, and political images.

Taking advantage of the United States’ wet-foot-dry-foot immigration policy, open exclusively for Cubans fleeing Fidel Castro’s post-1959 Cuba, Cubans fitted boats and rafts to make the journey out of Cuba for years. Wet Foot/Dry Foot promised legal immigration to the United States – but only if Cubans arriving on boats reached U.S. soil and were not apprehended by either government at sea. In a country that renounces these immigrants as traitors, the painting of boats, and by extension the discussion of the Cuban diaspora, can be construed as a political act.

In a small gallery in Santa Clara, Cuba, the first city that Fidel Castro and Che Guevara gained control of during the Revolution, Arístides Sáenz Sánchez displays her work which features two collaged barges made in the shape of paper boats. The image is handmade from scavenged newspapers, magazines, and found images. The two boats represent opposing sides: on one are figures and images of Cuba and on the other are images, advertisements, and leaders from America, including Donald Trump. The scene, taking place on the high sea, is watched over by Jesus Christ and the two boats are connected through a series of alternating Cuban and American flags. One interpretation of the work may see it as an artistic representation of the thawing relationship between the United States and Cuba.

In Havana, the bustling capital city of Cuba, the street artist 2+2=5? draws paper boats with the artist’s signature image inside: a young man with his face hidden by a grey ski-mask. In the image, the boy is depicted on calm seas, drifting both on the water and off to sleep, possibly lost or simply misguided. He dreams a question mark.

The work of Danilo Moreno, a painter with a gallery in Trinidad just outside of the jungles where the 1959 Revolution was fought, features dripping and vibrant images of boats. In each of his paintings, he depicts a paper vessel, like the one a child might make and sail briefly in a lake or bathtub. In one painting, the paper boat is anchored to the ground by barbed wire with the Cuban flag as a background. In another, four boats are tumbling across each side of the canvas, maybe sinking in what seems to be a tumultuous, frothing, and white-water sea.

“Cuba is a pen,” says Danilo Moreno. “We Cubans livestock enclosed. It costs a lot of work and money to leave the corral, to leave Cuba, and to know the outside world.”

“To know that there is an afterlife,” he adds.

The appearance of barquitos de papel or paper boats in three separate artists work in different Cuban cities showcases the importance of boat imagery to Cuban identity and culture. The Cuban diaspora remains fixed in the Cuban imagination. Boats are tangible symbols for the dream of freedom and mobility. The only thing left to agree on is in what direction Cuba is headed.

Written by Danielle Galván Gomez




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