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Human touch
Ana Flores shares her ‘Cuba Journal/Un Diario Cubano
BY BILL RODRIGUEZ
Close to the bone

Most people who travel back to the old country to find their roots don’t manage to return with more than vivid memories and a few good snapshots. But Ana Flores is an artist, so when she returned to Havana, which her parents took her from as a six-year-old, she came back with her imagination bursting at the seams.

"My work is always very direct, out of my life," Flores said, surrounded by the outpouring of work that has tumbled forth since her 2002 visit, mostly sculptures, filling the Main Gallery at the University of Rhode Island Fine Arts Center in Kingston. "In my mature work, the closer it is to the bone, the better. I’ve always been very honest about that."

On the one hand, being forthright in her show "Cuba Journal — Un Diario Cubano" was important to her. But on the other hand, that can be a problem when dealing with matters so personal and strongly felt. Flores said she wanted to get her ego out of the way, and the solution was one she’d often employed: humor.

"When you take irony and humor, it kind of just puts it on a whole other plane — it’s not just about you and your angst, analyzing your bellybutton," she said. "The playfulness allowed me to say things that if you said them seriously might be too heavy for people to get."

What she wanted to visually say included her take on Castro transforming the island, of course. Yet, as befits the creativity of an artist, her thinking is not doctrinaire, neither left nor right. Flores pointed out that in the 44 years since the revolution, Castro — "a brilliant madman" — has established a very well-educated society. At the same time, she notes in exasperation, people there are inundated with mind-numbing political cant. Decades-old slogans are still being recycled, like tires continually retreaded instead of being replaced.

"I said, ‘My God, it’s like a broken record,’ " she lamented. "And I’ve just been here for three weeks — I can’t imagine how the people feel about this constant repetition."

Flores, 48, lives in Charlestown with her husband, Gabriel Warren, also a sculptor, and their two children, ages 12 and 14. Leaving Cuba in 1962, she settled in Connecticut with her artist mother and architect father. Not speaking English, Flores found that she didn’t need words to express herself: she could use drawings.

"So for me at a very early age, art was this powerful way to communicate," she said. "It wasn’t just about making pretty pictures."

Flores was a painting major at RISD, where she graduated in 1979. But she found that she hated being restricted by a frame and canvas. "Because I like to work paintings and add things to them," she explained, "I ended up working on wood, and then the wood started getting three-dimensional — the painting came off the wall, and it just naturally evolved into sculpture."

Flores makes art extend into the world in another way — through arts education. For years she has been very involved in community collaborative creative work, hired by institutions from community centers to maximum security prisons, to help people realize that art is not confined to boxes called museums and galleries.

"I’m very committed to that — taking art off the private plan and reminding people that they’re fully creative, that it’s not just the elite few who can be creative," she said.

Flores may be more effective than many art instructors in convincing adult students of this, since the materials she uses are as available to them as they are to her. The objects in the URI show are made from paper and tin cans, from scrap wood and found objects.

"As you know, contemporary art has gotten very obtuse," she remarked. "I’m really against that kind of eliminating the bridge of communication."

Cuba as a subject fits both that attitude and the everyday objects Flores has employed in this show. She was impressed by the resourcefulness of Cubans.

"They live art," she said. "It’s not just something in the galleries. They have to be creative every day to figure out how they’re going to feed themselves, how they’re going to fix this, how they’re going to make a house and get the materials they don’t have."

"Then they dance and play music to finish off the day," she continued. "The bad energy, you dance it out of your body."

Flores hopes to take "Un Diario Cubano" to Canada, to northern New England, Florida, and possibly the West Coast.

— Bill Rodriguez

 

Hip-swaying Cuban cross-rhythms drift into the corridor from the URI Main Gallery, beckoning. Stepping inside, you see that the art show is titled "Cuba Journal/Un Diario Cubano." But soon you find that it might as well be called "The Ana Flores Social Club." The works are all about human interactions and frustrations and pastimes — all about people.

Though much of the mixed-media show is as light as a summer breeze, a helpful tone of meditative introspection is set as you turn right to the entryway, which is draped with turquoise cloth. Above it is a haunting blue mask of a woman’s face, eyes closed, topped with a painted sea fan. The graceful image is repeated immediately as you enter the gallery proper, this time on a literal fan, that implement so omnipresent and necessary in the tropics. Nearby, in a corner, is an open suitcase, and when you step closer any fantasy of a strictly entertaining journey quickly vanishes. The suitcase is filled with sand embedded with a few shells — and with plastic soldiers firing from behind a jagged, bone-white shard.

Above that is a paper religious medallion showing the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus hovering above three people in a rowboat. If you had other expectations when you entered, you know you are not in Club Med anymore.

Ana Flores guides us carefully through her memories and imagination in this show. She goes so far as to post entries from the journal she kept on the three-week trip to her homeland that she took two years ago, returning for the first time after 40 years. As she explains in an introduction at the entryway, because she went back with her parents, creating these works through the eyes of the six-year-old who left felt just right.

The seven sections of wall text have been blown up large, to visually hold their own with the art. They are lucid, narrative, and give us a sense of being there physically, as Flores’s art does viscerally. Her descriptions are vivid: "A young woman, like a priestess in a Greek temple, silently ushers us in. An eternal flame burns on a platform on the floor and bronze reliefs of Che and his comrades who died during the Santa Clara assault on Batista’s armored train are set into granite block walls." The constant presence of Castro on television reminds her of a TV cartoon character from her childhood, Foghorn Leghorn, who "was always lecturing and cajoling the hens in the coop."

Several colorful roosters peck at the gray gallery floor and strut in a couple of paintings, but the most dominating figure in the show is Castro. A ceiling-high puppet of him has arms outstretched, ready for an amiable abrazo, the cigar between two fingers actually a missile. The puppet theater he stands behind has little figures basking and running, playing a conga drum, fishing, making out. As elsewhere in the gallery, hand-written text is crayoned above the figures, explaining that this is the malecon, Havana’s oceanfront promenade.

Humor is not neglected. Visual puns about the revolution come, perhaps too repetitiously, in two variations: a couple dances atop a revolving phonograph, and similar small figures stand atop cans of Goya black beans — an island staple — that have protruding crank handles, as though these are children’s toys.

Walking the show as the floor plan guides us, further along are some sculptures that are less entertaining, that plumb Flores’s experience more deeply. A small female figure with a flower in her hair blows a kiss at us through a beaded curtain; prostitution is a tempting option on the impoverished island. Black Madonna/para mi tata is a life-size seated figure that lacks most of its upper torso; the rough-hewn hands of the wooden carving face upward in the lap, as though something is going to be placed in them.

For me the most skillful and affecting work in the show is another life-size seated wooden carving. Dream of Freedom. The hands of this second naked woman are at rest rather than supplicating, fingers draped over a wrist. The serenity is induced by calm frustration, however: atop the shoulders a black wire birdcage contains a small TV screen that loops images of seabirds soaring against ocean and blue sky.

Fortunately, Flores doesn’t resort to obvious images of fleeing boat people. They come to mind even more powerfully by being unmentioned. Reminders, such as a shark on the side of the puppet theater and a small Icarus-like figure suspended from the ceiling, strike us more forcefully than any explicit image is likely to accomplish.

Ana Flores may have chosen to guide us through the eyes of a six-year-old, but her "Cuba Journal," united by the heartbeat of music, is mature work, indeed.

" Cuba Journal/Un Diario Cubano "

At the University of Rhode Island Fine Arts Center Main Gallery, Upper College Road in Kingston, through July 31 and September 5 through 30.


Issue Date: July 2 - 8, 2004
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