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Derick Varn discusses shifting nature of Cuban arts and literature with Rachel L. Price, professor in the department of Spanish and Portuguese at Princeton University and the author of Planet/Cuba, which  Fredric Jameson described as ‘a rich revelation of Cuban art’ that will ‘amaze, fascinate and instruct’. They discuss art in Cuba after the recent changes in diplomatic relations with the US.

Rachel Price, Planet/Cuba: Art, Culture and the Future of an Island (Verso, 2015) 256pp

Derick Varn: While to many Americans Cuban literature can seem much more alien than Chilean or Mexican literature: is this sense of isolation a misunderstanding from Americans?

Rachel Price: I’m not sure where this sense of alienness is being described or registered―who feels this way, or what such readers find alien. There have been some new translations of Cuban literature that seem to be finding readers here (see, for instance, Yoss’s A Planet for Rent, translated in 2015 by Restless Books). That said, of course there are peculiarities about Cuban life over the past decades that are indeed less familiar to US readers than, say, some of the more traditional novelistic treatments of middle class life in Chile and Mexico since neoliberalism.

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Rachel Price, by ChinHsin Ester Kao

DV: How do you think ideas around communism have effected the art world in Cuba? Is the affect often over-stated?

RP: A question that demands entire books for an answer! I recommend many pieces by Gerardo Mosquera, and especially Rachel Weiss’s To and From Utopia in the New Cuban Art (University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

DV: In a piece in Rorotoko Rachel Weiss  said that “What happened in Cuba was basically the collapse of a dream. That’s obvious, but nonetheless painful.” Your book mostly focuses on the shift in the arts, particularly the visual and plastic arts. Was there a similar shift in poetry in Cuba?  Who could be an paradigmatic writer for such a shift if there was one?

RP:  Many poets indeed testified to such disillusion, to the collapse of dreams. Reina María Rodríguez’s poetry documents this shift particularly movingly. As Marta Hernández Salván documents in her book Minima Cuba, first the late 1980s group Proyecto Paideia, to which Rodríguez belonged, engaged these themes (Paideia also included poets such as Víctor Fowler, Rolando Prats, Omar Pérez, Antonio José Ponte, Rolando Sánchez Mejías, and others), then the subsequent group Diáspora(s) continued to explore melancholic affects.

DV: To focus on that melancholia a moment. Have different identity groups within Cuba been more or less focused on in it in their art, such as the  Afro-Cuban community?

RP: Different people in Cuba have, of course, responded differently to the nation’s history, politics, changes. Black Cubans have approached these questions from across a wide spectrum of positions, like any other group. Pedro Álvarez and Alexis Esquivel are two artists who have dealt with the racialized nature of per-revolutionary nostalgia and contemporary economic liberalization, respectively.

DV: How profoundly do you think the diplomatic thaw with the US is going to affect the literary community there?  And is the threat of further “neo-liberalization” a real fear in the arts community?

RP: As to how much the diplomatic thaw will affect literary production: that remains to be seen; there was no ban on translating Cuban authors, for instance, so any renewed interest—the US market is largely anglophone—will be due less to regulatory changes than to piqued interest. A recent dossier introduced English-language US readers to some recent authors.

DV: How immediate what the effects of  Raúl Castro’s economic reforms on the Cuban arts community?

RP: While artists had long enjoyed a relatively privileged status vis-a-vis the general populace in terms of travel and possibilities to earn money abroad, the Raúl-era removal of the permission needed for travel has certainly helped artists’ greater circulation through residencies, presentations, exhibitions, etc.

DV: Have these changed in policy significantly altered artists understanding of cubanidad?   I know that this is beyond the scope of Planet/Cuba but do you see further significant changes to that notion of “Cubanness”?

RP: I think contemporary artists are not particularly interested in “cubanidad”—which is not to say they are not interested in working with everyday reality in contemporary Cuba or with the identitarian icons that have been circulated in the name of the nation, groups, and so on for a long time.

DV: I am interested in understanding the contrast between the recent development of Cuban art in this more open period to recent development in other artists in countries such as Brazil or Columbia. How as the tension between say very local identity and an international art market developed similarly or diverged between Cuban and Latin America?

RP:  As you can imagine, Latin America is so vast and varied that it is hard to compare all the specific histories of the different countries, especially places like Brazil, which is huge and has its own long history of connections to an international art market. That said, much of Latin American art in the 20th century understood itself to be negotiating between European and more global idioms (especially in the period of the historic avant gardes) and “local” (often national but also regional) contexts.

DV: What do you think can be gained about understanding world literature though understanding plastic arts in a very particular area?

RP: I would have to start with the many debates about what, if anything, world literature is…but to take the question at its broadest—what can we understand about literature from thinking about plastic arts—I think both are grappling with form, but in very different ways; literature though has nothing like the actual market that visual art does. Some people argue that it is less “plastic” (more stuck in the forms of prior centuries) than contemporary art; others that its very independence from any real financial power frees it to be stranger and more idiosyncratic. I think in general literature and the plastic arts are very much in conversation these days, with a lot of writers writing about contemporary art, and a lot of artists working with language. Maybe the convergence of both the linguistic and the visual in so many social media platforms contributes to this…

DV: What do you think can be gained about understanding world literature though understanding plastic arts in a very particular area?

RP: There are so many artists indicating a wide range of changes! It’s hard to choose just one—and each points to different areas. You can see a new wave of painters (not studied in my book) interested in figuration, exhausted with the charge of meditating on politics (as an interesting review by the Cuban curator and critic Elvia Rosa Castro has noted, with regard to the work of a young painter Leonardo Luis Roque, or interested in abstraction (like Luis Enrique Chávez-Pollán sometimes is), or interested in history—as in the work of Alejandro González or Alejandro Campins. There is work like that by Celia y Junior and by Susana Pilar Delahante Matienzos that sometimes engages new media and surveillance, and sometimes (in the case of the latter) the figure of the black woman in Cuba, or conceptual work in video and photography like that by Javier Castro or Lorena Gutierrez…and the ongoing work of artists active since the 1980s, such as Tania Bruguera or Lázaro Saavedra…so I would really signal the abundance of directions as itself interesting.

DV: I would have to start with the many debates about what, if anything, world literature is…but to take the question at its broadest—what can we understand about literature from thinking about plastic arts—I think both are grappling with form, but in very different ways; literature though has nothing like the actual market that visual art does. Some people argue that it is less “plastic” (more stuck in the forms of prior centuries) than contemporary art; others that its very independence from any real financial power frees it to be stranger and more idiosyncratic. I think in general literature and the plastic arts are very much in conversation these days, with a lot of writers writing about contemporary art, and a lot of artists working with language. Maybe the convergence of both the linguistic and the visual in so many social media platforms contributes to this…

RP: Gallery culture is already changing inasmuch as new independent galleries have opened (though one, Cristo Salvador, has apparently closed). As I mentioned in the book, international galleries will likely continue to open. The embargo remains, however, and so long as it does it will be difficult for US galleries to be involved.

DV: Could you make any guesses about how Castro’s death might affects arts and culture in Cuba?

RP: While I don’t think Fidel Castro’s death will necessarily have an impact on Cuban arts or culture in any immediate sense—though it is true he was more invested in both than is Raúl—the threats to global security, economies, political life and the recently normalizing diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States that the imminent Trump presidency poses are dire, and likely to have negative effects across a range of spheres.


C Derick Varn is a teacher, poet, and theorist living in Cairo. He is a reader for Zero Books and the editor of the online literary magazine, Former People.  His poetry has appeared in Axe Factory, Writing Disorder, Union Station, and Unlikely Stories.

ChinHsin Esther Kao is the featured illustrator on this post. She is an undergraduate at Wheaton College (IL) and double majors in English and Philosophy. She was the Critical Essay Editor for the college’s independent magazine The Pub and the Art Editor for Kodon. Esther also writes for the online publication The Odyssey and is interning forInheritance magazine under Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California.

The HKRB Interviews series specializes in new books in philosophy and critical theory. Recent interviews have included Simon Critchley, Jodi Dean and Srecko Horvat.

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