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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