A few dozen Central Ohioans plan an act of artistic diplomacy.

In the American imagination, Cuba is an island of classic cars and old Spanish buildings, of Castro and communism, but most people only know it from photographs. The images are true, says Julie Abijanac, but it’s “grander than that.” The Cubans are welcoming, the environment beautiful, the air salty. The colonial architecture is unlike that of European museums, Michael Reese adds, because people actually live in the buildings.

“I’ve been to Paris and England,” Abijanac says, “but there was something very different about Cuba that, I don’t know, it just really sticks with you.”

Six months after Abijanac’s first trip, the artist is still processing her experience. Across the table from her, Reese offers his fond take on the island he’s been to more than 20 times as an art consultant, buyer and tour guide. To their delight, they will return soon for an unprecedented set of international art exhibitions called Columbus in Cuba | Cuba in Columbus.

Reese first visited the county after being blown away by the Pizzuti Collection’s Cuban Forever exhibit in 2014, as the U.S. softened its longstanding embargo and relations began to thaw. He returned again and again, and his love for Cuban art grew. He and a partner, Ruthie Newcomer, organized cultural tours of the island, and they began bringing artists from Columbus to meet the Cuban curators and artists they’d befriended. That exchange will bear fruit in April, as 39 artists from Ohio will display work in two shows during the 13th Havana Biennial: ConnectArt, a side-by-side exhibition of Columbus and Cuban artists, and Intermittent Rivers, an international showcase for Central Ohio’s Laura Alexander, Cody Heichel, Elsie Sanchez, Tariq Tarey and the late Aminah Robinson.

Columbus will be represented like no other city outside Cuba, Reese says, and other than Robinson, all the artists have accompanied him to the island in the past five years. Twenty-four will return to Cuba for the biennial, with financial support from organizations such as the Greater Columbus Arts Council, the Ohio Arts Council and the Columbus College of Art & Design, where Abijanac is a professor. This October, locals’ work from the biennial will be unveiled at galleries and institutions across Columbus, alongside art from 15 to 20 Cubans.

Abijanac will have two pieces in the international exhibitions. “Accretion” features discs of cardstock spilling outward from a picture frame, an abstract portrayal of how Cuba changed her and opened her eyes to the value of creating for its own sake. The other is “1873.276KM,” the distance between Columbus and Havana in kilometers, which is represented by Byzantine chainmail hanging between two stones—one she took from Havana and the other from Columbus.

Her art isn’t political, Abijanac says, but Reese disagrees. “You have a rock from Cuba, a rock from the U.S.,” he tells her. “You have this chain that connects us.” He’s concerned about emphasizing politics, but it seems inescapable. As President Trump reverses the Obama-era thaw, Reese hopes this project inspires a re-examination of the embargo’s existence. Cuban art is clever, ambiguous and subversive, and he wants Americans to visit, to see it firsthand, to walk the streets and talk to the people, to breathe the salty air. columbusincuba.com

Update:

A couple of months after this article was published, we received an email from Michael Reese, the project’s organizer, who took issue with the writer’s use of the word “subversive” in reference to Cuban art. Due to the sensitivity of the international relationship between the two countries and our desire to make it clear that the word wasn’t used by Reese, we invited him to send us a note clarifying his views.

To the editor,

I write in reference to the April article about Columbus in Cuba, Cuba in Columbus. The interview captured the anticipation of this groundbreaking cultural exchange. Since then, Central Ohio artists travel to and participation in the Havana and Matanzas Biennale exceeded everyone’s expectations. We can’t wait for the next phase of the event, the display of exchange artwork around Columbus. 

However, I must take issue with the editorial labeling of the Cuban artists’ work as subversive. That word carries a derogatory connotation that mischaracterizes both the art and the artists.

Civilization evolves due in part to the impact of art and those who create it. They are avant garde. They are inventive. They are ahead of the times. 

In this moment, the further tightening of the embargo is causing much hardship among the Cuban people. Art is a medium that speaks in a universal language that brings people together rather than driving them apart. One can see things differently, from an alternate perspective or lens, but casting such differences in a narrative of subversive intent mischaracterizes and misleads; and should be avoided. 

Sincerely, 

Michael R. Reese

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