Cognitive Dissonance: Contemporary Cuban Art in Tampa

Tessa Wiseman Reviews the Exhibition Growing Up In Neverland

Anyone remotely familiar with the childhood classic Peter Pan understands that the phrase “Growing Up In Neverland” is an oxymoron. Neverland is a place where aging is nonexistent. Boys, girls, animals, and a handful of mermaids remain young and innocent as long as they remain in Tinkerbell territory. My interest in the paradoxical nature of this exhibition’s title is why I spent my last few hours in Florida browsing the show.

Growing Up In Neverland is an exhibition presented by the University of Tampa. It includes photographs, sculptures, paintings, and films created by Cuban contemporary artists. Upon entering the wood-floored space, I was met by Marcus, a student at the University of Tampa, and my trusty guide to the Cuban art on view.

As I meandered through the exhibition, I encountered two complementary stainless steel sculptures standing about one foot apart. From their base to about four inches up, they are identical: a small girl blowing bubbles. On the left, the product of the “bubbles” becomes a replica of the Continental United States, while on the right they take the shape of the island of Cuba. The left side is entitled Cuban Dream, while the right is entitled American Dream. I took the two girls’ creations to reflect the images of the country that they can only claim to know about in dreams. The sculptures sit so closely, but the two girls seem so far away in their acts, perhaps wishing they could see the country of their dreams in actuality.

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Cuban Dream and American Dream by Alain Pino, Mario M. Gonzalez, and Niels Moleiro

Another work of interest was a long panel of aerial view photographs entitled 90 Millas. On one end is a view of Miami; the other end is an overhead view of Cuba. In between are snapshots of the journey from one point to the other. Steps on either side of the exhibit allow viewers to see the photographs from a higher view, so each panel blends together into a continuous strip of land and sea. A sign taped to the floor warned: Do Not Climb Steps, but Marcus gave me a “go ahead” nod. I climbed up and looked down, imagining the ninety-mile flight across crystalline water.

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90 Millas by Sandra Ramos

While the works in this exhibition were aesthetically pleasing, I found myself most interested in the political undertones. The Great Carriage is a bronze statue where beautifully detailed people journey atop a large fish. They are paddling with their eyes closed. A king stands on the back of the fish without a paddle, and with his eyes open. “It’s people blindly following and working for their leader,” Marcus told me matter-of-factly. “You know, Castro.”

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The Great Carriage by Pedro Pablo Oliva

Unsurprisingly, Castro was featured in much of the work throughout the exhibit. Some were baffling—like the one where he is playing a flute and floating in the air. Another, entitled The Strange Wanderings of Utopito required Marcus and I to put our remedial Spanish skills to the test. We deciphered: “To have a clean conscious is the result of a bad memory.” Both of these pieces were done by Pedro Pablo Oliva, and painted with intense attention to detail, down to Castro’s graying beard.

Before I left, I asked Marcus about the Neverland reference. Oddly, he didn’t know for sure, but on the drive home, I remembered something my brother said after he studied abroad in Cuba years ago. “It’s like going back to the 1960’s. The vintage cars and taxis give it that old-timey feel.” The old-timey feel being a result of the full embargo the U.S. had imposed on the country for decades, and is just now lifting.

It is of course naive to equate a country with timeless cars to a place of youthful nirvana. Cuba isn’t a fountain of youth; it remains a struggling country in many ways. The very real and oppressive politics of the Castro brothers have bred far more negative consequences than that of the fictional Captain Hook. Despite the questions I still have about the title of the exhibition, I left the space very interested in the work I saw, and eager to know more about the connections between Cuban history and the idea of Neverland.

Growing Up In Neverland was on view from March 4-18 at the University of Tampa’s Scarfone/Hartley Gallery.

Tessa Wiseman is a Baltimore-based writer from the Sunshine State.

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