Aptly named, the exhibition Todo clandestino, todo popular on view at Art in General, reveals hidden glimpses of everyday Cuban life. This solo show features the work of 35 year old Alberto Casado. Although formally trained Casado favors techniques similar to those of Cuban folk art. He paints on the reverse side of found glass, letting the crinkled aluminum foil shine through. His work touches on a variety of topics including; US-Cuban relations, Cuban political anecdotes, iconic portraiture, and the psychic state of the Cuban public.
A second feature that Todo poplar, todo clandestino brings to light is influence that Afro-Cuban Abakua religion has had on Casado’s work. A secret society, brought to Cuba by slaves in the colonial period, Abakua has a complicated hierarchical structure of dignitaries. Members perform occult ceremonies and use a hermetic language that includes complex graphic signs and symbols.
The exhibition highlights on two unique aspects of Casado’s work: his interest in la bolita, the Cuban lottery, and the influence of the Abakua religion. In la bolita, players bet on numbers associated with Chinese charades, known as chifas. Each number corresponds to an image of an animal, person, or thing. Popular, although, often played clandestinely, this Chinese charade system is also used for dream interpretation. Casado devoted the entire series, Candado Numero Dos, to the theme of the lottery. His interest with la bolita appears to be two-fold; the representational possibilities of this secret and idiosyncratic language, and the public’s obsession with it.
What la bolita and Abakua share is the esoteric symbolic language that without the research of curator Holly Block, would be lost to the eyes of the non-Cuban viewer. Block reveals the dark meanings of chifa numbers that are paired with traditionally positive images. Casado utilizes these cultural codes to create multiple meanings for both naïve and educated viewers.
The work, El buen doctor, reveals Casado’s interpretation of the options facing contemporary Cubans. The piece depicts an obrero with his hands cut off, splayed out on an operating table in front of a surgeon. The surgeon holds a needle and thread in one hand and the Chinese chifa number eighty in the other. The exhibition label explains that eighty represents el Medico Viejo or interestingly enough, El desesperado in la bolita.
Surrounding the two main figures are four hands inflated hands offering the words, Luchar, Escapar, Trabajar and Robar, four distinct paths for the common Cuban struggling in today’s Cuba. Each hand is filled with symbols that correspond to the hand holds. The palm labeled Trabajar depicts the tools of the obrero; pick axes, hammers, saws, and shovels. These tools are archaic compared to the heavy machinery used by laborers in the United States. The realm of Robar offers devious images of knives, pistols, dollar bills and beer bottles. Escapar envisions the familiar row boat, an inner-tube, airplanes and wine glass. The fourth hand is ambiguously titled Luchar and portrays a variety of luxury items, including TVs, a high heel, a boom box and telephone. Here again Casado plays with an enigmatic system of symbols, leaving the meaning of Luchar unclear.
El buen doctor suggests disillusionment with the condition of contemporary Cuba as do other of his works. However, on the whole they are not dooming. The lively carnival colors of Casado’s work connote the vibrancy that compliments his interest in Cuban mass culture. Todo clandestino, todo popular documents the growing Cuban commodity culture under a dwindling Communism. Despite the images of blindfolded men, chopped off limbs and other symbols of isolation Casado’s works seem to offer remedy through the very action decoding them.
Not all Casado’s works imagine the abstract psychic effects of the changing Cuban culture but others based on historical anecdotes depict scenes of the evolving political climate as well. Dicen que en la Sala Talia…portrays an event sponsored by the art collective Arte Calle in which members of the public disrespect the legacy of Che Guevara by walking over and inappropriately dancing on top of his portrait. The crowd then degenerates into chaos which Casado depicts with figures throwing their arms in frenzied gestures and shouting angrily. Several of other paintings show the artist’s interest in manner in which crowds function and take on a life of their own.
Todo clandestino, todo popular is packed full of references to fascinating Cuban subcultures and Art in General provides a plethora of educational information. Be careful not to get lost in the political and cultural histories. In the manner of great art, Casado’s images do more than re-tell history; they also comment. As I gazed at works made from old bus windshields, I felt this view of Cuba’s social/political situation was more intimate than any other I could get from any digital media or news reporting.