Mera Rubell: 36 studios in 36 hours!

Background: As announced here:

“the Rubell Family Collection is one of the leading collections of contemporary art in the world. Started in 1964, soon after Don and Mera Rubell were married, the Rubell Family Collection operates as a non-profit organization based in Miami where it presents rotating, curated exhibitions and hosts a variety of educational and community outreach programs.

Mera Rubell will be one of eight esteemed curators selecting works for Cream, the WPA 2010 Art Auction Exhibition. Building upon the popular Experimental Video Series at the Rubells’ Capitol Skyline Hotel, Rubell has determined to see the work of as many DC-area artists as possible and select up to twelve to be included in the WPA exhibition and auction. Her visits to DC are typically 36 hours long, and she has devoted her next trip to this project.

For 36 Studios – Part 1, Mera Rubell and a team of curators and writers will conduct 36 studio visits over the course of 36 straight hours. Each studio visit will last approximately 15-20 minutes and will take place starting at 5:00am on Saturday, December 12 and continuing until 5:00pm on Sunday, December 13.”

Got it?

So as all of you should have done, I threw my name in the hat for this spectacular opportunity to show my artwork to one of the world’s leading art collectors, and the same person (me) who once missed a 160 million dollar lottery grand prize by one number, hit it this time and I, along with 35 other lucky DC area artists, was selected to be visited by “Mera Rubell and a team of curators and writers.”

To say that I was ecstatic is the understatement of the year. I was dumbfounded and left a little speechless for the second time this month. An opportunity like this doesn’t happen very often, if ever.

When I returned to Earth, to my horror I realized that… ahhh… I had no work to show Rubell.

All of my work is still in Miami, safely stored awaiting for it to be displayed again at the coming Miami International Art Fair at the Miami Beach Convention Center from 5-10 January 2010.

Best known art collector in the world is coming to my studio and I have zip to show her.

Effing Great…

The Grand Admiral of the Soviet Fleet, Sergei Gorshkov once stated that the “reason that the American Navy is so good in time of war is because war is chaos and the US Navy practices chaos everyday.”

Thus, as a former Naval officer I have been well trained in dealing with chaos and once my heart slowed down I sat down to consider my options.

Should I put together a binder full of available work in Miami and pass it to Ms. Rubell in the hope that she would agree to check them out once she returned to Miami?

Should I sit her in front of a large flat screen TV and flash her digital images of my available work?

Or should I lock myself in the studio and create as many new art pieces as possible before her visit on Sunday afternoon?

Usually the hardest and most difficult path to an answer is the solution, and I decided to lock myself in the studio and create new art.

As a new father, this is not easy, and I discussed it with my wife. With her support, I chose the last option.

I spent the rest of Thursday doing and finishing up all of my chores, many of which had piled up while I was in Florida the previous week. I went to bed around midnight on Thursday night, with my head buzzing with ideas.

By 3:30AM on Friday, I was up, essentially unable to sleep and ready to create some artwork. This being the digital age, before I entered the studio I logged onto Facebook and began Facebooking the events about to take place.

Nine hours later, after a dozen sketches and several discarded starts, I had finished my first new drawing, a large portrait of Ernesto “Che” Guevara de la Serna Lynch, known to the world as “Che” and perhaps the most iconic figure in modern history.

“Asere, Si o No?” 19″x48″ Charcoal on Paper
When I finished I had something special. The appropriated image of Che from a photograph by a Commie photographer somewhere (ironic that Communists always nationalize and appropriate private stuff, so I have no issues appropriating their imagery) is to the left in a very Christ-like pose. Behind him, a slogan or graffiti on the imperfect wall asks the question in Cuban slang: “Asere, Si o No?” which means “Friend, Yes or No? in Cuban street dialect and is meaningless to all other Spanish speaking peoples. The capital letters answer the question by spelling out ASESINO or assassin. This is the second version of this ASESINO concept.

It is now well into Friday. More Facebooking and by now friends and family are encouraging me. Art critic Kevin Mellema advices me that “Sleep is for the weak. 72 artist hours is like a week and a half of work for 9 to 5′ers…. Of course you do want to be awake and coherent when they show up on Sunday…”

The next time that I sit down to draw I hit a groove and deliver five new drawings in about four hours. I’m employing a lot of charcoal dust to cover large areas and create a minimalist drawing concept. “Superman flying naked and close to the ground in order to avoid NORAD radar” is such a drawing. We barely see the naked superhero, but we do see his elongated shadow on the road below. The lane dividers are just erased charcoal, now showing the not so pure white Arches paper underneath. I toy with the idea of rubbing more charcoal dust onto the drawing to create the impression of the car oil stains one always sees in the middle of the lanes. I abandon the idea; it is a pure and clean highway under the Man of Steel.

“Superman flying naked and close to the ground in order to avoid NORAD radar”” Charcoal on Paper. 20×24 inches.
“True Believer” and “Woman who thinks that the tattoo that she just got on her back reads ‘Bring Bush Back’” come out next. Both are very quick drawings and the first one is a highly worked drawing with an almost fanatical message. I’m not satisfied with the charcoal aspect of the dripping blood from the newly finished tattoo and so I bring out colored pencils and apply a subtle sense of color to the piece. This is rare for me.

Now there’s red blood dripping down her arm. The second piece is the opposite: a rough almost unfinished drawing with a harsh, funny message. It is inspired by a cartoon I saw once which showed a burly sailor’s back. A tattoo on his back reads: “Don’t tell this guy what this tattoo says, he thinks he has a battleship.”

“True Believer” 22 x 14 inches. Charcoal and Colored Pencils on Paper.

“Woman who thinks that the tattoo that she just got reads ‘Bring Bush Back’” Charcoal and Conte on Paper. 14″x10″
I had set aside a nice vertical piece of dark paper and “Fallen Angel” materializes on it as I work furiously. It is the most minimalist of the pieces and it is finished in less that 15 minutes from beginning to end.

“Fallen Angel.” Charcoal on Paper. 21 x 11 inches.
On the radio, the pundits are discussing Obama’s speech at Oslo accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. I take a break and do some more Facebooking and I come across Mary Coble’s profile picture on Facebook and it triggers an idea in my head. Coble and Nobel seem to align and “Age of Obama - Nobel Peace Prize” is created. This is the second “Age of Obama” drawing that I’ve done. In the first, done while Obama was a candidate, the figure is canvas to a history of the candidate in the early days of the election. It is now in a private collection in Ireland.

In this second “Age of Obama” drawing, the figure is host to selected portions of the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.

“Age of Obama - Nobel Peace Prize” Charcoal on Paper. 16×12 inches.
I want to have some coherence to the work that I want to show Rubell, and many of these pieces have a seminal beginning in my historical interest in the Picts. And so out comes a Pictish drawing.

“Pictish Woman” Charcoal on Paper. 14 x 9 inches.
The Pictish drawing is the one that worries me the most. It is almost fantasy in nature. Will Rubell understand my historical interest in the subject and how it is the seed to the more contemporary work?

I take a break as I am tapped out and on Saturday afternoon we all visit some open studios and drop by the Washington Glass School, Red Dirt and Flux Studios. Rubell has already been to her designated visits there and excited artists tell me about her and her entourage. I sense some disappointment, some hope and certainly a lot of excitement.

I begin to gather another aspect of the impact that this influential person’s tiring and superhuman effort (36 studios in 36 hours) is causing on the DC art scene. Even the Washington Post, well-known amongst DC area artists for its apathy and indifference towards the local visual art scene has sent the Post’s freelance art critic along, and she has overcome her ennui about the DC artists and galleries that she is tasked with covering and is following Rubell to some of the studio visits, but soon drops out.

I’m angsty about the whole thing and can’t wait to get back to my studio and create some more work. I want to make sure that I make an impact.

On the drive home I pass by at least three Vietnamese restaurants and wonder why all the Pho places have a number after it (such as PHO 95, PHO 301, etc.).

My head has been filled by my visit to the studios with a need to be “shocking” in order to stand out. I waste precious hours struggling with a shocking idea. I visualize a man crawling away into the horizon perspective. We see his body clearly from the back, his buttocks clear and white, and his penis dangling between his legs as he crawls away. A tattoo with an arrow points to his anus and letters instruct “Insert Penis Here.” Another tattoo on his penis states “Suck This.” His butt cheeks sport tattoos that say: “Spank Here.”

The tattoo on his back says “Pat here” and the tattoo on his feet soles says “Tickle here.”

The title would have been “Man with Directions” but it never came about. It just wasn’t me. I’m no Chris Offili, taking a schlocky short cut to shock in order to gather attention. I feel guilty enough as it is about the drawing of the woman with the Obama tattoo on her back.

Instead another Che Guevara drawing begins to emerge. Much smaller, almost the opposite of the first piece. For almost a whole day the drawing looks like this:

A long-haired Che is to the left of the drawing (where else), with a vast empty space to his right. Long hair years before the Beatles and hippies, aloof and alone as an adventurer in a foreign land so much different than his native Argentina.

That night I can’t sleep much between fighting a nagging cough acquired while in Miami and racing ideas about how to finish the drawing.

On Sunday I wake up, calm and ready for the visit. And the last drawing crystallizes suddenly.

Finalmente Denunciamos a el que traiciono al Che (Finally we denounce he who betrayed Che). 4 x 24 inches. Charcoal on paper
The Spanish words announce that “finally we denounce who betrayed Che.” The capital letters answer the statement: FIDEL. I now have two of these… the circle is complete and I am ready for Rubell. It is 9:00AM on Sunday and I get a phone call from the WPA’s Lisa Gold.

Is it OK if they come around noon instead of the originally scheduled time of 2PM? She asks. I will be either the last studio visited or the penultimate one.

I tell them that I am ready.

And then, on that Sunday, around noon or so, when the doorbell rang, as chance would have it, I was carrying my newborn soon, whom I call Little Junes (for little Junior, the poor kid) around.

I went and opened the door; Mera’s Rubell’s “36 studios in 36 hours” posse was at my door-step, the 36th studio of the grueling tour.

She was here at last. All through the last couple of days my email inbox had been buzzing with artists reporting what was happening during their studio visit. “I think I’m in! said one email, “But even if I’m not, I’m feeling pretty good about my artwork!” it finished.

“Mera Rubell..a total life force!!!! My studio still vibrating with her energy, dialogue, quick take on everything…..her bowler hat — ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ bowler hat. I haven’t felt such positive power in DC for so many years!!!!” shouted out another email from a very talented DC area artist.

And now she was in my house.

It all happened fast, but soon we were talking about the artwork on the wall, with one of the visitors commenting that she had some Sandra Ramos’ works in her collection. The photographer documenting the visit was meanwhile admiring the photographs of Cirenaica Moreira and asking about her.

The eyes and attention turned to Ramos as people looked around my first floor. Someone of the locals recognized an early Tim Tate sculpture, which I had acquired at his very first solo show.

Meanwhile the wife offered fresh coffee, which was accepted by the tired, bleary eyed group. Little Junes, of course, was a big hit with everyone. Someone poked him on the side and he let out a big grin. “Everyone in the Campello household is working this visit except me,” I thought to myself.

“So, who’s the artist in this house,” asked Ms. Rubell, looking at me and Alida.

“I am,” I responded, but quickly added that Alida also had a formidable arts background, after all the Professor studied art at Colgate, Corcoran and MICA and was in the graduate program in printmaking and photography at the Art Institute of Chicago before she decided to focus on special education.

Before I knew it, we were looking at the only piece of my artwork that hangs in my house: the 1981 collage of Frida Kahlo that I did while a student at the University of Washington. I almost panicked when I realized that we were discussing a 28-year-old piece of art done as a class assignment under Jacob Lawrence.

“Maybe we should get down to the studio and see the work that I have for you,” I said.

We went down to the basement and Ms. Rubell looked to a wall full of certificates, photos and framed paperwork.

“Who’s got all these degrees?” she asked, a little amazed. I laughed and explained that I was a former Naval officer and all that stuff is what we call in the Navy the “I love me wall.”

There, framed for all to see was my entire Naval career: ships, submarines, medals, certificates, photographs, Arctic Circle papers, Equator crossing certificates, Suez Canal certificates, etc.

She looked with interest at a photo of a massive Soviet Typhoon submarine, which I had taken from a British helicopter that I’d been riding at the time somewhere over the Kola Gulf. I identified the huge sub to her. “I was born in Russia,” she stated. None of us knew that. I told her that Admiral Hyman Rickover, the father of the US Nuclear Navy had also been born in Russia.

She thanked me for my service, told everyone that she had her Naturalized US citizen certificate framed and on her wall, and then we all entered the well-lit mess that I call my studio.

“Show me what you got,” she said, settling down on a stool.

And so I was in the position where I suspect every artist on this planet would love to be: Ubercollector Mera Rubell and a small entourage were in my studio, waiting for me to show them my art work.

But I am of Cuban ancestry, so rather than showing work right away, I started talking about it.

And because I am of Cuban ancestry, before I started to talk about the artwork, I talked about what led to the artwork.

I told them that when I found out on Thursday that I had been selected to be visited by Rubell, I was ecstatic and glowing with anticipation.

And then I told them that I had immediately realized that I had no current work to show them, because all of my work is in storage in Miami waiting to be shown at the Miami International Art Fair.

“Do you know about that fair?” I asked possibly the world’s leading art fair goer. She said yes.

“So I thought that maybe I could ask you to visit me at the fair and see the work.” I paused, and everyone looked a little alarmed, mostly me at seeing them a little alarmed.

“You have nothing to show us?” Someone asked.

“Yes, I do.” I answered. “Because what I decided to do when I realized that I had no work to show you, was to create as many drawings as I could between then and now. And so between Friday at 3:30 AM and this morning at 9:00 AM I created everything that you will see today.”

Rubell looked a little amazed. “You mean that you did all the work in the last 36 hours?” She asked.

I said yes.

“You see,” she turned to the entourage, suddenly filled with vigor and energy, “this is the first artist who crated new artwork just for the visit!”

“Ahhh…” I stammered a little embarrassed. “I had to! I had nothing to show you.” But I was inwardly feeling that things were going well now.

“What have you got to show me?” She said, the studio suddenly bristling with her energy. “This is a dynamo in human form,” I thought to myself.

And yet, I delayed a few precious moments more, and then really started talking about what drives my imagery.

I talked about how I had discovered the Picts in my childhood reading and then re-discovered them in Scotland when I lived in that breathtaking nation from 1989-1992.

I told them about the research that I had done as an amateur historian on them and their tattoos, and I showed them some examples of Pictish artwork that I had pinned to my studio wall.

In this photo by Lisa Gold, Rubell is looking at me describing the tattoo artwork of the ancient Picts, as I weave a artistic genetic line to my current work.

I described how a few years ago I had a show where it was all about Pictish art. And then I led the discussion, minutes gone by, to the trail of that artwork to my current work.

I’m a good talker, and I think that they were all interested in this historic genetic line that I was weaving. No one was yawning, and the room was still charged with electricity.

I explained how the tattoos married with my interest in narrative art, and art that tells a story or makes a point, backs up an agenda or delivers a social commentary.

And then I turned over the gigantic drawing of Che Guevara with the writing on the wall behind the Argentinean icon.

“Asere, Si o No?” 19″x48″ Charcoal on Paper
As I’ve described before, this is a huge charcoal drawing of Ernesto “Che” Guevara de la Serna Lynch. Che is to the left in a very Christ-like pose. behind him, a slogan or graffiti on the wall asks the question in Cuban slang: “Asere, Si o No?” which means “Friend, Yes or No? The capital letters answer the question by spelling out ASESINO or assasin. I explained all these Cuban nuances to the Spanish language and my agenda behind it.

“You did this in the last 36 hours?” Someone asked a little quizzical.

“You see!, You see!” beamed Rubell, this is what I’m all about!” she gestured at the piece as I discussed my historical affinity to Che Guevara, both as a hero to some and as a mass murderer and racist to others. Rubell noted that I had captured a strong sense of the zealous Maoist in his eyes and face.

“What else is there?”

The next few pieces went fast. With each I explained what the drawing was all about. I discussed the intimacy of drawing the viewer close. I discussed humor in art when I showed them the Superman drawing. I discussed being very tired and possibly hallucinating when I did the “Fuck Elections” Obama drawing. I discussed the nuance of words when I showed them the “Age of Obama - Nobel Peace Prize” drawing.

“Is that Catherine Opie?” Asked Rubell when she looked at “True Believer.” I told her no (the model is actually a local Sunday School teacher). “She really looks like Catherine Opie!” she commented. Note to self: contact Catherine Opie and see what she thinks of the likeness.

I was in a groove, and I can’t remember why, but there was a lot of laughter all the time. I think that I asked them if they were laughing so much because they were delirious from lack of sleep. They exploded in laughter at that. I laughed too, because I was indeed super tired from the last 36 hours, but I was also feeling quite on track.

I could sense that Rubell really liked my drawings, but that she also liked the reason for them, the “why I draw this” idea. Somewhere in there I talked about conceptual art and how often the idea is more interesting than the final product and people agreed with me.

More talking, more good vibes.

“Awright,” she says, “can you step out for a minute?”

I leave them and go upstairs. “How’s it going?” asks my wife.

“I think it’s going great,” I answer as a series of raucous laughter blasts emanate from the basement. My wife, Little Junes and I look at each other and wait.

An eternity goes by before I am called down to the basement.

“We were wondering,” says Rubell with a devilish look in her eyes - this woman is not tired, at least not now, after a grueling 36 hours marathon of studio visits; that much is clear to the most casual observer.

“We were wondering if…” she pauses, “considering that you were a Naval intelligence officer… if you had done some intelligence preparations ahead of time and had all these drawings in your flat files and just pulled them out just before we came?”

I could see a glint of devilishness in her eyes and I wasn’t really worried that they thought that was the case, and so I easily denied the issue. Nothing like having the truth on your side.

“Raise your right hand!” ordered Rubell, her Russian-ness suddenly coming to the front. I did.

Next I was made to swear that all the work had been created in the last 36 hours, while Jennie Yang recorded the event with her camera. For a moment there I flashed back to my days in the Navy, with the myriads of re-enlistments and ceremonies where oaths are taken.

But I was in a good place, and my tired bones and eyes were testament to the truth of my creation of these works in the last 36 hours. The swearing was easy, with the relaxing backing of the truth.

We all filed out of the studio. On the way out she looked at a handmade Valentine Day’s card from my wife that I pinned by the door. “This is a love nest,” she stated, “another love nest…”

“We’ll let you know soon,” said the WPA’s Lisa Gold, efficient and precise to the last minute, and reading my mind as it wondered “Am I in?”

We got upstairs, and started to say goodbyes… it all felt good. And at this point I was just glad that this electrical woman had decided to work her tuchus off and charge up the artists of the DC area.

“So what do you think of the Washington art scene?” asked Mera as she prepared to leave the house.

She turned and looked at me, and I began to answer her.

If you are a reader of this blog you already know the answer that that immense question, and I began to answer her. I told her how DC area artists were very lucky in many aspects and that (in the opinion of a world traveler and frequent flyer with an interest in art scenes) this region had one of the most vibrant and best art scenes anywhere in the world. I also told her about how diverse the artwork and artists were, and I told her about Art-o-Matic as a magnet for gathering artistic energy. I told her about the wealth of exhibiting opportunities that abound in our region. I told her about the many artists’ groups that deliver support and community and advice to local artists. I told her about the strong sense of artistic energy that soaks into everything around the nation’s capital.

She asked me about the local museums and I began to peel the scab from the other side of the coin, the negative side of the DC art scene; the side that outsiders see; the side that many focus on; the side that symbiots feed upon.

I then submitted my opinion, based on my observations and discussions with artists and dealers over the years, about the lack of attention that local museum curators give to our area’s artists.

I suggested that it was easier for a local museum curator to take a cab to Dulles to catch a flight to Berlin to go see the work of an emerging artist than to catch a cab to Georgetown to do the same. I offered that this was perhaps because our museums saw themselves as “national” or “international” museums rather than a city museum and thus ignored their own back garden.

I also offered that the new Katzen Arts Center was a refreshing change from that and that it was the only local museum to have a connection to the local art scene. Several entourage voices agreed with me and explained to Mera about Jack Rasmussen’s (Katzen Director and Curator) deep DC area roots.

She asked me about the Washington Post and about specific writers there. “This is an informed person beyond one’s wildest guess,” I thought to myself as I unloaded with all cannons on the local newspaper.

I described for her how the Post has decimated its visual arts coverage in the last few years. She asks me informed questions about specific writers. I realize that this is a woman who already knows more about many of the inside parts of the DC art scene than most of the writers tasked with writing about it.

I give her my opinions and back it with specific events: the critic who once wrote about a print without realizing that it was a copy of a well-known Picasso painting - I give it as an example of that critic’s suspicious art history background; or the writer whose snarky writing has improved over the years, but still betrays the writer’s scant training in writing about art. I talk about the writer who got caught discussing a show that he’d never been to; I mention the ones that got fired because of ethical issues. I mention the art critic who covers New York galleries but seldom DC galleries.

DC is a small town and everyone knows about all that happens here. And you reap what you sow and right now some pens filled with apathy and ennui and snarkyness are reaping the caustic results of my opinions. I’m back in the groove on a different, if favorite subject of mine, and I’ve got the ears of one of the world’s most influential art persons.

I’m talking too fast, but I know that she’s absorbing it all. She asks me about a specific critic and wants to know what I think of the critic’s writing. I give her an honest answer, which comes out somewhat more positive than I would have expected.

“Is that writer the best one to write about what goes on in DC and about DC artists?” comes the question, at least I hear it that way.

“No,” I answer very quickly.

I predict her next question when she asks, “then who?”

I give her a name, and I am pleased that several voices in her entourage, agree with me immediately.

“Then why isn’t that writer covering this event?” she asks of them, not me.

Someone explains about the writer recusing from covering the event because of a relationship with one of the artists. “That’s stupid,” she opines, “the critic could have just recused from covering that artist.” Afterwards, when I was discussing this with a friend, I was told that this wasn’t the case and that the critic in question didn’t recuse himself.

I keep to myself how in DC it is a certain impossibility for writers and critics not to have some sort of relationship with some of the artists they cover.

Someone adds that the writer in question is the only one who really has a finger on the pulse of DC area artists.

She soaks it all in, but I suspect that she may be asking questions to which she already knows the answer.

They leave and I’m on Cloud 9 and I play the Beatles’ White Album with a smile on my face.

This electric person is going to do wonders for DC artists and erase decades of neglect from our press and from our museums… Helter Skelter baby!

Update: Rubell picked the “Age of Obama” piece for the Katzen Museum. At the auction the piece received furious multiple bids and sold for 170% higher than the high estimate!

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On the return of stolen Cuban artwork

There are a lot of museums in Europe, mostly France, and a lot of collectors in Europe and Asia, and several major auction houses that are nervously looking to what happens in Cuba once its brutal dictatorship finally ends.

They are nervous because worldwide courts have consistently recognized the right of original owners to the return of artwork which has been looted by governments and dictatorships, confiscated, sold and re-sold.

It has taken in some cases several decades for the artwork to return to the familial descendants of the original and rightful owners, but essentially international law is pretty clear on the subject that generally no government can confiscate private property.

There are, of course, many dictatorships worldwide where one of the foundations of those regimes is that private citizens under their yoke cannot own private property.

It occurred to me recently that when the current Cuban dictatorship took control of that unfortunate island on January 1, 1959, one of the first things that they did after they executed thousands of people, burned and banned books, jailed all political opposition, and closed down newspapers and magazines, was to confiscate most private property.

And there was a lot of artwork confiscated in Cuba; stolen from their rightful owners. A lot of that artwork in now in Europe.

We’ve been led to believe that in 1959 Cuba was just another Latin American cesspool, but the facts are that in 1959 Cuba had one of the highest standards of living of any nation in the Americas and a higher per capita income than several European nations and higher than Japan, as well as a positive immigration flow from Europe to Cuba, as well as the third highest protein consumption in the Western Hemisphere. Today the island’s food rations are actually lower than the slave rations mandated by the Spanish King in 1842.

The island also had the lowest infant mortality rate in Latin America and the 13th lowest in the world, ranked ahead of France, West Germany, Belgium, Japan, Austria, Italy and Spain. The average wage of a Cuban worker was higher than for workers in West Germany, France, Denmark and Belgium and in the late 50s Cuban labor received 66.6 per cent of the nation’s GNP, again higher than several European nations (the US figure is 68%). And the 8 hour week was mandated by law in Cuba in 1933, five years before FDR’s New Deal got to doing it in the US. And in the 1950s, 44% of Cubans were covered by social legislation, a higher percent than the US at that time.

And while we’ve been led to also believe that Cuban peasants and farm workers lived in a near feudal state, the average farm wage in Cuba in 1959 ($3.00 a day) was higher than those of farm workers in France ($2.73), Belgium ($2.70), Denmark ($2.74) or Germany ($2.73). In the US it was $4.06. And in 1959 only 34% of the Cuban population was rural and the nation had the lowest inflation rate in the Americas, 1.4% - the US was at 2.73%

So this was not a nation mired in poverty, as we have been led to believe, but a nation under the yoke of a very brutal dictator in the person of Fulgencio Batista.

The very wealthy Cuban upper and business class hated Batista and became the financial backers of the Castro Revolution, raising millions of dollars for the rebels. They also owned many art masterpieces from both European and Latin American masters.

As a thank you, nearly all of this work was confiscated by the Castro dictatorship and by 1961 most of the best work had made its way to government-owned museums and collections, and most of the owners had made their way to the United States in the largest proportional mass exodus in contemporary history.

When the abomination known as the Soviet Union collapsed in the 90s and Cuba’s sugar daddy stopped sending billions of dollars in subsidy to the Castro brothers, the Cuban economy collapsed, and one of the results of that collapse was the mass selling, by the Cuban government, of those confiscated masterpieces, most of which found their way to European museums and European and Asian private collections via French auction houses. Thus many masterpieces once owned by the Fanjul family, or the Bacardi family, or by sugar magnate Julio Lobo (whose interest in Napoleonic memorabilia led to him amassing one of the world’s largest collections of Bonaparte memorabilia such as weapons, furniture, paintings, letters, etc.) were sold to European museums and collectors.

But now I think that the end of the brutal Castro dictatorship is nigh, and one day soon, when the rule of law and democracy and freedom returns to Cuba, one of the first things that the descendants of those families should do is to go after whoever now possesses their families’ stolen artwork and goods, and in some cases even copyrights.

And the details of these illegal sales have left bloody footprints. For example, according to Maritza Beato’s excellent article in El Nuevo Herald titled “El Saqueo del Patrimonio Cultural Cubano” (The Looting of the Cuban Cultural Patrimony), the sale of the Julio Lobo Napoleonic collection to a French museum was orchestrated by a French official attached to the French Embassy in Havana. His name is Antoine Anvil.

And if I was one of those auction houses or museums in Europe or collectors or dealers around the world, I’d be a little nervous.

What goes around comes around.

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Some thoughts on Steven Soderbergh’s “Che”


A while back I got some preview tickets to the opening of the new Steven Soderbergh two-part epic about the life of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Argentinean blue blood guerrilla leader, starring Puerto Rican actor Benicio Del Toro in the leading role, which has already earned him Best Actor, 2008 at the Cannes Film Festival.

Because I was away on vacation, I couldn’t go, but I do plan to see this film, as I have been an avid Guevara follower nearly all my life.

“Che Guevara” by F. Lennox Campello. Charcoal c. 2003. 6 x 15 inches
My father fought alongside Guevara during the Cuban revolution, and like most of those brave young men who fought against the Batista dictatorship both in the mountains of Oriente province and the streets of Havana and Santiago de Cuba, he never expected the Cuban Revolution to put in place a worse dictatorship than Batista’s bloody regime.

In fact, most people don’t know that the official Cuban Communist Party was part of the Batista government while the Revolution was underway and even Guevara, a Communist all along, had harsh words for the Cuban Communists during the struggle. In 1958 he wrote that there were “mutual fears” between the rebels and the Party, and “fundamentally, the Party of the Workers has not perceived with sufficient clarity the role of the guerrilla.”

After the revolution, Guevara further added that he “only knew of three Communists who had participated in combat.” Besides himself and Raul Castro, one wonders who the third Communist was (Raul Castro’s future wife, Vilma Espin was also a known Communist; however, she was one of the urban guerrillas working under Frank Pais, the anti-Batista leader in the streets of Cuba. Pais was strongly anti-Communist. Of interest, a persistent rumor blames Espin as the traitor responsible for Pais’ death at the hands of the Batista police).

Guevara was a very courageous and even reckless fighter (as opposed to Castro, who spent most of the war secluded in the relative safety of the Sierra Maestra mountains). But he was also the executioner of the Cuban Revolution, a fact that he never hid but which most Guevara admirers conveniently ignore.

It was Guevara who executed deserters and captured Batista soldiers and henchmen during the struggle, and it was Guevara who signed the tens of thousands of execution orders after the Revolution, when Cuba was bathed in blood by firing squads. See some of the documented Cubans executed by Guevara (including over a dozen shot by Che himself) here.

Because of that, Guevara is known to Cubans as “El Chacal de La Cabaña.”

“El Chacal de La Cabaña” translates to the “Jackal of La Cabaña,” although it is usually translated as the “Butcher of La Cabaña.” La Cabaña is an 18th century fortress complex located on the elevated eastern side of the harbor entrance to Havana, and the location for many of the thousands of firing squad executions which took place after January 1, 1959. Shot were former members of Batista’s police, informants, traitors, and counter-revolutionaries.

The best known story about this period relates to how a Cuban mother went to see Che to beg for her son’s life. The son was 17 years old, and was on the firing squad list, to be executed within a week. If Guevara pardoned her son, the mother begged, she would ensure that he never said or did anything against the Revolution.

Che’s response was to order the immediate execution of the boy, while the mother was still in his office. His logic: now that the boy was shot, his mother would no longer have to anguish over his fate.
Dead Che, source unknown
On the other hand, Che’s courage as a guerrilla leader and his dedication to his caused are well documented and never challenged. While Fidel Castro tightened his grip on the Cuban people and replaced the Batista dictatorship with the Castro dictatorship, Guevara put his life at risk fighting in guerrilla wars in Africa and Latin America, until he was caught in the highlands of the Bolivian mountains in 1967 and executed on the spot. Just as he would have done had the situation been reversed.

It is this side of Che’s complex character that Che’s admirers and apologists always focus upon, and I am looking forward to seeing if this film addresses both the spectacularly courageous side of this iconic figure, as well as his war crimes and dark side of a man with little compassion and remorse.

I am also curious as to how the film handles Guevara’s departure from Cuba. “Che”, claims Dariel Alarcon Ramirez, who joined the rebels in 1956 and then went with Guevara to Bolivia, “left Cuba after being accused of being a Trotskist and a Maoist…. and because of the problems he had with the Cuban government, specifically Fidel and Raul Castro.”

Once I see the film, I will tell you my thoughts on it.

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What’s wrong with Showtime Dexter’s Cubans?

Depending on who “fits” the cultural/ethnic/racial/political label created in the 1970s, Hispanics or Latinos can come from ancestries from around 20 or so Spanish-speaking nations in the Americas. I think that Europe’s Portugal and Spain were also once in that group but are certainly no longer there, especially in the “Latino” label.

20 or so very diverse and distinct nations.

Disclaimers: I do realize that this coming issue of mine is perhaps a very jingoist issue, and I am also keenly aware that I’ve written about it before in a smilar context but in for a different scenario. And yet the more that we become aware how culturally blind Hollywood is, the more they underscore their own cultural ignorance with minute mistakes that keep adding up to colossal mountains.

Last year I complained when Jimmy Smits, a superb actor on his own, was chosen to play the lead part in the CBS drama “Cane”, a series about a wealthy Cuban-American family.

My historical issue was that although Jimmy Smits is a great actor, he was not what your typical Cuban sugar magnate would have looked liked in the racist Cuban society of the late 1950s and the Cuban-American refugee wave of the early 1960s. His casting for the part was intolerably historically inaccurate.

CBS picked Smits, a brilliant actor, I guess based on their perception of what a Cuban looks like (Smits is not of Cuban ancestry… his father, Cornelis Smits, was a Surinamese immigrant from Dutch Guiana, and his mother, Emilina, is Puerto Rican).

This is what the person that Smits’ “Canes” character was loosely based upon really looks like

But I suspect that because, like a lot of Cubans, he looks too “Anglo” and not enough of what Hollywood (and CBS) wanted all of us to think that Latinos should all look like, they hired a terrific Emmy-winning Surinamese actor who fits the sterotypical image of what Hollywood thinks Cubans should look like, to play the lead part.

Latinos are a culturally, racially and ethnically diverse group of people, and we’re not all made of one mold, as Hollywood wants you to think.

So that was then, and here’s what has me all spun up in a new tempest in my demitasse.

Currently my absolute favorite TV show is Showtime’s “Dexter.”

If you haven’t seen this show, then go and rent seasons one and two out on DVD and then get hooked.

In the series, Michael C. Hall is absolutely brilliant as a serial killer who works as a blood expert for the Miami Metro Police while hiding the fact that he is also a serial killer. Dexter goes after bad guys, but he is still a truly disturbing psychopath pretending to be normal while killing bad guys left and right in a very orchestrated manner.

Dexter is television crime drama at its best. It is a brilliantly conceptual idea brought to life by really good actors and the gorgeous setting of Miami.

And because this show is set in Miami, several of the regular characters in the series are portrayed as Cuban characters, such as Dexter’s boss, Lt. Maria LaGuerta, played superbly by Puerto Rican actress Lauren Velez and detective Angel Batista, also played superbly by Puerto Rican actor David Zayas.

Now enter season three, which introduced a new character, that of Asst. District Attorney Miguel Prado, another Cuban character played by, yep that’s right: Jimmy Smits!

Smits is a terrific actor, and since by now he seems to be making quite a decent living playing Cubans on TV, the least that Showtime can do is hire some Cubans to write their Spanish dialogues for the series so that at least he can sound Cuban.

I know that this is pedantic, but everytime that Smits or the other “Cuban” characters speak to each other in Spanish banter, it is grating to Cuban ears to hear “non Cuban” Spanish being spoken.

Imagine that you are watching a foreign movie, let’s say that it is a French movie… and all the dialogue is in French, and in the film there are two British actors who are playing American parts, and every few minutes they speak to each other in English, and instead of American English coming out of their mouths, what comes out is cockney English.

That’s what (in my pedantic world of Virgos) I have to suffer everytime that LaGuerta, Batista and/or Miguel Prado talk in Spanish.

The straw that broke the camel’s back a few episodes ago was when Miguel Prado (Smits) jokingly called Dexter a “filipolla” (or “gilipolla”).

That’s when I realized that the writer that Showtime has hired to write the Spanish for the series, not only has no idea about what Cuban Spanish sounds like, but also zero idea of what Latin American Spanish sounds like, as opposed to Castilian Spanish.

Having lived in Spain for a few years in my 20s, I know what that word means, which is essentially a curse word used by Spaniards; let me repeat that: Spaniards, to mean asshole or jerk, etc.

I am almost 99% sure that no Cuban in Miami or Cuba or anywhere else in the Great Cuban Diaspora, has ever called anyone a gilipolla, unless perhaps they live in Spain and have picked up the term there… from Spaniards.

But in Miami? Naaaaaaaaaaaah…

A Cuban would have said “Maricon” or perhaps “Cabron.” But fili/gilipolla? Nunca!

Now imagine those two Brit actors playing Yanks in my earlier French movie example, calling each other “gits” or “wankers.”

Welcome to my pedantic hell.

And now for Showtime: My list of actor candidates who are actually of Cuban ancestry and thus a shoe-in for the part and who actually speak Spanish with a Cuban accent:

Andy Garcia (duh!!!! perfect for the part!… but probably too classy and too expensive to do TV).

Nestor Carbonell. He was great in “Canes” and also in “Lost City,” although I think that he wears eye make up?

Mel Ferrer… ah!… I think he’s dead.

Desi Arnaz… fine, fine… he’s definately dead; but how about Desi Jr.?????

Jorge Perrugorria

Cesar Romero … fine! I know that The Joker is definately dead.

Julio Mechoso

Ruben Rabasa

Victor Rivers

George Alvarez

Showtime: call me.

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Report from the Affordable Art Fair in NYC

Just back from New York where I took part in that city’s version of the Affordable Art Fair. In the past I have described this fair as being on the front battle lines of the art world, since its aim and price points (artwork from $100 - $10,000) tend to focus the event on both emerging collectors on a budget and savvy collectors of all kinds looking for regional emerging artists and good deals on established artists of all levels.

The fair opened on Wednesday night with a press preview and then a collectors’ preview, and according to the fair’s effervescent and hardworking director Laura Meli, it was the largest opening in the fair’s history.

Held at the Metropolitan Pavilion in New York’s W. 18th Street, the fair packs galleries from all over the US, Europe, Latin America and Asia into two halls, and it is the New York version of a successful formula that sees Affordable Art Fairs take place in Bristol, London, Sydney and Amsterdam. Curiously, there’s no Affordable Art Fair in Miami.

Preview night was indeed packed, and because our booth was next to one of many free bars, there was a good flow of people, mostly young and mostly drinking, throughout the night.

In the past (I have done this fair before) good sales do take place on this overcrowded night, and although the sales were a bit slower than I remembered, we did manage to sell several oil paintings by Norfolk-based artist Sheila Giolitti as well as a few of my own drawings.
Erosion by Sheila Giolitti
“Erosion,”Mixed Media on Wood by Sheila Giolitti

With price points ranging from $200 to $2,000, the sold work was at the lower end of our price scales, which were dominated by Cuban artist Sandra Ramos gorgeous oil paintings ranging from $7500 to $10,000. We also spent a long time talking to a curator from the Met, who was admiring Ramos’ works and was very well-versed in them. We also had sales of photographs by Cuba’s talented Cirenaica Moreira, whose work ranges in price from $800-$1200.

The rest of the fair saw pretty much a pattern emerging in both sales (at least from the gallerists anecdotal reports) and in people and traffic.

As far as sales, they appeared to be brisk and constant, and the wrapping line for purchased artwork was long nearly every hour of the fair. We saw all sorts of work being sold, and certainly size seemed to matter; the more acreage that buyers got for their buck, the more it seemed to move.

As with any fair, location is key to success, and many dealers in the larger of the two halls were complaining that the new entry pattern, which forced visitors to enter the fair through the smaller hall, rather than through the building’s main entrance. This entry pattern ensured that the people flow initially went to one hall and made the second, larger hall, a secondary (and thus more visually overloaded) destination. One of the galleries on this new traffic pattern (in the first hall) told me that they had doubled last years’ sales by Friday night.

And it did seem that most of the people action took place in the smaller hall and the large areas around the two hall’s connecting hallway. Once visitors entered the maze of booths in the main hall, traffic dissipated significantly by the time it got to the rearmost walls.

In fact, sales seemed so brisk in certain geographical parts of the fair ,that there were people lining up in some of the galleries on the people-path, actually waiting to buy art. Galleries in the rear walls were a bit less busy, but there seemed to be artwork moving nonetheless.

For example, Parisian gallery Envie D’Art, located at a prime location where all foor traffic had to walk by, reported that they had nearly sold out their entire booth on preview night!
Sujeto/Objeto by Ruby Rumie
Teselas: Getsemani Sujeto / Objetoby Ruby Rumie

New York’s Angela Royo Latin American Art was also having resounding success selling panels from a 5,970 piece installation by Colombian artist Ruby Rumie. Each panel held 25 of the miniature acrylic, lacquer and resin pieces – sold for $2,000 each – and by Saturday she had sold out. Rumie’s fascinating work, according to the artist is “a representative section of a historical neighborhood on the Caribbean coast of Colombia… Due to the pressures of the real estate market, this neighborhood will soon disappear. I have created a record of its people with a painted silhouette of each adult, elder, child and adolescent member of this neighborhood, 5970 people in total.” It is a brilliant work of art.

As the weekend progressed our own trend continued to establish itself: a lot less foot traffic and sales focusing on the lower priced items on the booth. By the end of the fair Giolitti had nearly sold out, with only two paintings left from the fifteen or so that she had brought to the fair. I also continued to sell my lower priced drawings in the $200 range, but none of the higher priced drawings were moving.

We did manage to sell the very last print from Cuban artist Sandra Ramos’ set of 50 mixed media etchings of “La Maldita Circumstancia del Agua Por Todas Partes” (The Damned Circumstance of Being Surrounded by Water).

 La maldita circumstancia del agua por todas partes
“La Maldita Circumstancia del Agua Por Todas Partes.” Mixed Media etching by Sandra Ramos

This is Ramos’ iconic piece from her very dissident series from the 1990s and her first work to enter the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). It was also used as the cover for Holly Block’s indispensable bible of Cuban art, “Art Cuba: The New Generation.” The piece was acquired by a member of the board of the Newark Museum.

At $5,000 for the work, it was our biggest sale of the entire fair.

We’ll be back next year, although we intend to get the largest size booth available and thus hope to be relocated to the main traffic areas of the fair. Although much has been written about the brakes being applied to the art market, it is my impression that at this art fair, and at these price levels, the buyers were still out looking for good art at a good price.

One final kudo to the organizers and worker bees of the fair, they really worked their arses off to make the complex operation of running an art fair work efficiently and well, and my only constructive criticism to them would be to return the entry point to the building’s intended entrance, thus affording either of two halls an equal chance of being selected for the first and most important viewing.

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Studio Visit: Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons

She has been called “one of Boston’s most prominent artists,” and as evidence it has been submitted that the Cuban-born artist has shown at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center, the Smithsonian, the Venice Biennale, and many other prestigious venues around the world.

And last year the Indianapolis Museum of Art hosted “Everything Is Separated by Water,” a mid-career retrospective of Campos-Pons’ paintings, sculptures, photos, and installations.

IMA poster for Campos-Pons exhibition

I visited Magda, as she is usually called, and we met in her four year old gallery, Gasp, which she and her husband opened in 2004 — and which according to the Boston press “specializes in group shows of young experimenting artists and stars from the international art circuit that her own stature attracts. It’s one of a handful of galleries in town that aren’t primarily commercial or institutional.”

“You look like one of my cousins,” she told me with a huge smile as we met; the smile would rarely leave her face during the three plus hours that I spent talking with this dynamo of a woman.

Campos-Pons was born in La Vega, in the province of Matanzas, Cuba, a sugar plantation town where her Nigerian great-great grandfather worked as a slave in Cuba’s brutal slave system, in which sugar mill owners often owned thousands of slaves and where life, death and rape were common parts of life.

In Spanish, Matanzas means “Slaughter” or “Killings” — imagine a US state or a Canadian province named “Slaughter.” It commemorates the actual suicide deaths of tens of thousands of Taino Indians who committed suicide rather than become slaves to their white masters from Spain as Kubanacan (as Cuba was known in the native Taino language) became a colony of the mighty Kingdom of Spain.

When Cuba’s native population died out from suicide or disease, the Conquistadores began the America’s slave trade and brought in African slaves purchased from the Arabs, and mostly on the brutal labor of their backbones, a new Cuban nation was forged eventually.

And as an Afro-Cuban woman, Campos-Pons has used her cultural and racial background the initial key theme of her own work, with long ties to her Cuban homeland, but also with a powerful influence of her evolving Americanosity.

We talked about Cuba, about her background there, her education, her growing disappointment with the intolerant and repressive Castro regime, her trials and tribulations in leaving the land that she loves so much, her marriage to the talented American musician Neil Leonard, the struggle to get a legal visa to the US - during which she lived for a year and a half in Canada on art fellowships with her husband visiting her on weekends, before she was allowed to immigrate to the US at the end of 1991.

We switched between machine-gun Cuban Spanish and English, as she described her gallery, which she is heroically building one room and idea at a time. I was amazed by a wide-planked wood floor that Magda constructed herself, the doorway that she cut through the wall, the translucent plastic materials that she uses very elegantly to cover up and separate areas and to create a resident artist’s studio, and the new expansive room that she is now building. “This gallery is an art installation in progress,” I thought to myself.

We discussed her then current show at the gallery, Are We There Yet? - curated by Dawoud Bey. It featured work by Howard Henry Chen, Alan Cohen, Christine DiThomas, Aron Gent, Rula Halawani, Surendra Lawoti, Curtis Mann, Oscar Palacio and Adriana Rios. I was particularly impressed by the work of Curtis Mann and Christine DiThomas. Mann’s compositional abilities and a very effective technique of distressing paper in order to acquire a good ground for the piece, really yields very memorable imagery, while DiThomas’ photographs transcend the focus of the show and float - aided considerably by the very elegant presentation and soft focus - a sense of time and place; they can be “modernized” images from the 50s, 60s or even colonial America.

Magda was enthusiastic and energizing in describing the show and the artists, and relating - from one gallerist to another now - the struggles and successes of running an independent art gallery: dealing with landlords, helping the emerging Brookline neighborhood establish a separate but individual identity rather than become another cookie-cutter gentrified neighborhood. She is a hurricane in action, one moment telling me about her plans to talk to a friend restauranteur into opening an Iranian food cafe that would feature artwork; the next moment talking about forging friendships with the new small businesses that have opened since they opened Gasp.

In the middle of this, a Chinese lady pops into the gallery. “I just cooked these and wanted to give you some,” she tells Magda as she hands her a bag full of noodles. She is the owner of a tiny new Chinese restaurant down the block. It is the perfect exclamation point to our conversation.

I’ve been there for over two hours and I still have not talked about her own work, but I have been hypnotized into talking for hours about Cuba, the gallery business, art, race, immigration, the press, Cuban food, cooking, her neighborhood, Boston, and even issues dealing with the plight of illegal aliens.

Her 15-year-old son Arcadio walks in, already half a foot taller than either one of us; it is time for Magda to check his homework assignment. They disappear for a while in the back of the gallery while she checks his laptop report. Later on I find out that Arcadio’s homework assignment is in fact assigned by his parents in exchange for computer gaming time. The assignment? To write four gallery or museum reviews a month. “He is really developing into a very good writer and critic,” the proud mother tells me.

When I am not here/Estoy Alla by Magda Campos-Pons
“When I am not here/Estoy Alla” c. 1994 by Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons

We digress into a discussion about children and she laughs as she tells me about the surreal experiences of a Cuban black woman in the wee hours of the morning taking her very Bostonian child to hockey practice in a freezing ice arena and also relates Arcadio’s visits to Cuba and how well he fit into the Cuban world of La Vega.

My wife calls and wants to know if she can run from the downtown hotel to the gallery and meet us. Magda, who also runs regularly, changes gears and gives her directions and is amazed when my wife shows up forty minutes later. “You ran from Copley to here already?” she asks amazed.

We start the gallery tour all over again - this is a gallerist possessed by love for her art and love for her gallery and the opportunity that it affords to the artists that she show. “We have a different model,” she tells us. “We have a curated show each month,” she explains, “with a thematic exhibition by several artists as well as a show by a new, emerging artist in the back room.”

We walk upstairs to her studio, on the way up she apologizes about the mess that we’re to expect. “All artists do this,” I think to myself. I have never been to a neat artist studio, and hopefully I never will.

She immediately begins to root around for things and artwork and post-cards and books and memories. “I never throw anything away,” she warns us as she dances around the crowded two rooms that make up her studio space. The walls are packed with both work by other artists, really advanced work by her son, and works in progress by Campos-Pons.

Like most Cuban artists, Magda is highly trained in nearly every facet of the fine arts: she is a printmaker, a painter, a sculptor, a videographer, a photographer and even a glass artist.

Over the years her photographic work has been a prominent member of the leading visual imagery of contemporary art; the one below (of Magda and her mother) once graced the cover page of the New York Times’ art section…
Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons

As most artists who dance at the top of the art world know, it is a hard dance, and continuing exploration of what fuels the fire of being an artist becomes an essential part of continuing success.

María Magdalena Campos-Pons. Backyard Dreams #5, c.2005.

We begin discussing her latest works and Magda dissolves and melts in front of my eyes, and reforms herself into a fountain spewing multiple jets of information at once.

There’s something unique about this talented artist - she’s the Cuban art world’s Pocahantas to the New Yorkish John Smith art universe. Through her and her work, Cuba’s bloody African entrails are exposed, perhaps to the chagrin of Miami’s powerful and nearly all white Cuban-American population. Like Pocahantas, she learned English harshly and quickly, and also like Pocahantas, she learned to adapt as needed and become a new entity in an almost colorless new world.

Through her and her art, first Bostonians and then the art universe was given a high dose of Cuban art education, and within that art world even African-Americans were also initiated: “you are not the only ones, my Northern brothers and sisters,” her artwork shouts to the four corners of America.

It is all a good thing for art, because the most important achievement that her artwork has caused is to deliver Campos-Pons from precisely all those boxes and labels that we are all so fond of trying to pin on artists.

In a very strong sense, her artwork and her success has liberated her from labels, and while her Cubanosity has certainly fueled her artistic personna and productivity, it is her talent and work ethic as an artist that now has her as just a brilliantly talented artist simply producing great art.


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