Revolutionary Island: Tales of Cuban History and Culture @ Sonoma Valley Museum of Art

Cuba, a small island nation located in the Caribbean, is just 200 miles South of Miami across the Straits of Florida. Yet the name alone conjures up so many things, from food and music, to cigars and baseball, as well as revolutions and radical ideologies. Its complex and turbulent history is partially the result of its important strategic location. A glimpse of this intriguing and romantic land can be savored through its art in an exhibition called Revolutionary Island: Tales of Cuban History and Culture, The Sarah & Darius Anderson Collection, currently on view at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art.

This compelling and informative exhibition features just a small selection of the art and artifacts gathered by two passionate collectors during more than twenty-five years of travel to the island. Begun by Darius and then enthusiastically supported by his wife Sarah, the Anderson Collection represents their deep love for the land and culture. The exhibition portrays many different facets of the country and culture—the passions, beauty, and opportunities, as well as the suffering, deprivation, and political failures. Yet, the overall vision is presented through Anderson’s own sensibilities and life’s journey.

26 de Julio

26 de Julio

The exhibition includes a diverse array of historical objects, artifacts, and contemporary art in a range of media. The paintings, sculptures, prints, posters, photographs, and videos tell a story of Cuba’s culture and history from 1911 to the present. After entering through the lobby, decked out with Cuban baseball jerseys, the small side gallery displays early photographs of Fidel Castro and original pro-revolution posters. To intensify the revolutionary zeal, a black and red military tank, 26 de Julio, commands the central area of the room. The tank was inspired by the one driven into Havana by Fidel Castro and Ché Guevara to celebrate their victory. While most of the artwork in the exhibition is by Cuban artists, the tank was commissioned by Darius Anderson, and built in 2003 by Sonoma County artist, David Best, who is known for his distinctive art cars and involvement with the Burning Man project.

After viewing the ruckus of the revolution, another room, painted a tobacco brown, addresses Cuba’s cultural pastimes and interests, such as baseball, cigars, and rum. Photographs, artifacts, and ephemera portray, without judgment, the workers as well as the elite. Ornate humidors, elegant rum bottles, and sumptuous service ware represent commodities and diversions that had a historical impact on the country. They also reveal a noticeable contrast to the utopian communist ideologies of another era.

Underwater Kingdom

Underwater Kingdom

As the exhibition moves into contemporary times, the focus of much of the artwork expresses social and political narratives, and some of it is quite moving. Several paintings by Franklin Alvarez Fortun, from his Underwater Kingdom series, 2005-2006, take up one wall. The paintings reference a mythical underwater world, but the figures are portraits of Cuban’s who lost their lives in sinking vessels, trying to find a better place. Children hug their toys and people carry their belongings in buckets and boxes, as they continue their journey to a promised land beneath the sea.


Space Occupied by a Dream

Space Occupied by a Dream

In Space Occupied by a Dream, 2000, a mixed media sculpture by Esterio Segura Mora, a figure of a man rests upon bundles of newspapers. Behind him, rows of old typewriters ascend the wall. Is he dreaming of fame, words to be written, or freedom of artistic expression? The meaning remains obscure. Perhaps a bit less ambiguous is an untitled piece by Mario Miguel Gonzalez Fernandez. From the edge of the gallery wall hangs one half of a swinging bar door—one side is painted with the Cuban flag, the other side with the American flag. No explanation was given, but it can be interpreted as a commentary on the complex and entangled U.S.–Cuban relations.



Though it is important to note that the work here is a reflection of the collector’s aesthetic and perspective, the exhibition gives broad insight into contemporary Cuban art. Early on, the Castro regime created state-sponsored art schools which were available to everyone. In the early years the schools promoted avant-garde aesthetics, and encouraged expression of culture, place and Cuban identity. The Instituto de Arte Superior was founded in 1976, and its students organized the first Havana biennial in 1984, which now includes work by international artists. These schools have endured even after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its economic support. In recent decades the sensibility of contemporary Cuban art has evolved, reflecting more outside influences from technology and increased tourism.

El Piano

El Piano

A piece towards the end of the exhibition, El Piano, 2006, by Rene Francisco Rodriguez, conveys the idea of the past informing the future. Set in a room of its own the painting shows a young girl sitting at the piano, hands on the keys, a spirit-like grandmother figure sits beside her, singing along. A video of traditional handwork is projected onto where the sheet music would be, while the sound of piano music plays in the background. The installation connects the past with the future, suggesting that national identity and Cuban heritage is still an important subject matter, and that art education continues to be a national value.

The exhibition continues through April 14, 2013. For additional information and related events, check their website,

Photo credits:
Underwater Kingdom from
All other photographs by the author.

About Satri Pencak

Independent Curator, art writer
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