“You Know Who We Are,” at the El Espacio 23 in Miami, is a survey of art from Cuba and its diaspora that, despite its title, proves there are legions left learn on this subject. The co-curators, Anelys Alvarez and Patricia Hanna, chose a thematic approach, rather than a historical one, presenting the canon as a collective drama spanning several generations and thousands of miles.
All 100 or so artworks in the show, from sculptures to installations to paintings and everything in-between, were acquired after 2017 by Miami’s foremost collector, Jorge M. Pérez, who appears regularly on the ARTnews Top 200 Collectors list. The display has no discernable hierarchy; Wifredo Lam, a pioneer of Cuban modernism, hangs beside artists only recently rescued from obscurity.
“The fragmented history of Cuban art has been subjected to political readings, to the dichotomy of inside and outside—the island and its diaspora,” a text accompanying the exhibition notes. “It has been marked by intentional omissions, by the erasure of talented artists whose forced or voluntary exiles extracted them from the cultural continuum of the nation, and by generations of Cubans who were not born on the island.”
The collected artists revisit enduring issues—ones related to gender, human rights, and race—while also fighting for freedom of expression. Several of the artists included in the show were directly involved with the 2021 anti-government protests across the island over food shortages and a worsening standard of life exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. In response, the Cuban government with a crackdown on communication and dozens of artists and activists have been arrested or disappeared by authorities since the protests began. Among the activist-artists in the show are Tania Bruguera, who was arrested during the protests but later released, and Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, whose five-year prison sentence has drawn international condemnation.
Alvarez and Hanna, who both manage Pérez’s personal collection, began curating the exhibition before the protests erupted, and afterward became involved in the efforts to save in-peril dissident artists through a collaboration with the nonprofit Artists-at-Risk. ARTnews spoke with them via Zoom to learn more about the process of bringing “You Know Who We Are” to the museum. A condensed version of the conversation follows below.
ARTnews: What was the timeline of planning “You Know Who We Are”?
Patricia Hanna: In 2016, we donated close to 200 artworks to the Pérez Art Museum, so we started the collection from scratch again. Because of who we are, we wanted an ongoing investigation into Cuban and Cuban diaspora art, and so it was always our focus before the events of 2021. Seeing the state of affairs and where the world was, political and environmentally, we decided it’s an important part of the collection. Let’s really bring this to light—let’s make it part of the dialogue.
Where do you start curating a show that covers such a vast span of history?
Hanna: Cuba is very particular because there is such a huge diaspora. There are Cuban artists everywhere, and though every individual’s history is different, everyone’s collective experience is somewhat the same. We took 500 works and boiled it down to around 100, to make sure there were clear individual voices and practices. We’re creating conversations between these works, between artists that may have never met. Some left the island and never came back, some studied abroad and returned. Some were born there and have never been elsewhere. It made sense to break these conversations into distinct thematic groups.
Anelys Alvarez: When the protests happened in 2021, we were helping artists get out of the island with Artists-at-Risk, so that became part of the conversation. So, it became a timely show. We’re showing what is at stake for these artists and activists.
What was the process like working with Artists-at-Risk?
Hanna: Because of our work with the collection, we’ve always been involved with the art scene in Cuba
—we’re friendly with the artists, curators, and professors there. During the height of the movement, we got a call from María Magdalena [Campos Pons, a Cuban artist], and she put us in touch Tania Bruguera and Coco Fusco, who knew us as an organization that could activate support from this side, with our residency program in Miami. We wrote letters and petitions. We had to go through proper channels to give the artists residencies in the U.S., and through these conversations we got to hear firsthand what was happening on the ground. It was a really eye-opening experience for us to realize that our support does make a difference.
Alvarez: We have three apartments on the other side of the program that created an opportunity to host the artists and let them continue their practices. Having them here became an incredibly important part of our curation.
How is all this reflected in the show?
Hanna: A whole section of the exhibition deals with human rights. Leading that section is a manifesto on the artist rights that was published Bruguera. The first piece that welcomes everybody is a huge vinyl wallpaper that’s called “estados,” or “states,” and it’s screenshots of Facebook statuses from that time. Some are statements of support, some are sad, some are calling for help or giving real-time descriptions for people who have been isolated not only because of the censorship in Cuba, but because it is an island. For these artists, curators, and political prisoners, this fundamental freedom to know they have a voice is critical for us. For Otero Alcántara, this may be his first presentation in a museum outside Cuba.
Alvarez: It was important for us put those artists who have not been able to leave the island in conversation with Cubans from different backgrounds. It’s beautiful how they may have different experiences but can relate to a collective memory.