“They’re coming by the busload,” said Alpizar, who just two weeks into the biennial had sold a half-dozen works including the piece featuring Icarus, entitled Home. Another painting that was snapped up by an American collector, My Ark, was a whimsical cross between a stern of a boat and a religious tableau, with famous historical figures peeking out from the windows: Ernest Hemingway, Karl Marx, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Pope John Paul II.
While Cuban emigrant artists living in Miami sometimes struggle to be noticed, artists who remain on the island enjoy the cachet of providing a kind of forbidden fruit for US collectors. People on both sides of the exchange say the mutual affinity exists not despite but because of the five decades of geographical proximity and political animosity.
Many collectors are Cuban-Americans, perhaps eager to acquire a link to their lost homeland. Others are patrons from big cities such as New York, San Francisco and Seattle that are more open to detente.
“There’s a very easy connection between us. The American public ... has a very special sensitivity to Cuban art,” said Carlos Rene Aguilera, who exhibited a dozen paintings inspired by black holes, string theory and other scientific mysteries, hauled all the way from the eastern city of Santiago. “Maybe it’s because of curiosity about each other’s history. Maybe it’s because we are neighbors and there is a messy relationship between our countries, so this creates interest.”
So great is that interest that Americans are often willing to shell out the asking price with little background research, and with a little luck, even junior artists can command eye-popping prices. Tales abound about fourth-year university students selling pieces for US$15,000, equal to the prices commanded by Alpizar, an established artist whose work has been shown in dozens of individual and collective exhibitions over a 23-year career.
“It’s what the market will bear, and why not shoot for the moon?” Weingeist said. “All it takes is somebody feeling giddy who’s got the money for something they like.”
The transactions are usually handshake agreements to wire money to bank accounts holding international currencies that many artists prefer to keep in Spain, the Netherlands or Canada, rather than the local bank accounts for Cuban pesos used only on the island. The seller then ships carefully wrapped paintings to overseas addresses.
Galleries are cut out of their traditional middleman role, giving collectors the sense that they’re getting a better deal. The arrangement also brings buyers in direct contact with the artists as they go knocking on the doors of home studios.
Artists say the biennial is a crucial time to build their names and establish those contacts.
“I’ve collected a ton of business cards,” said artist Tamara Campo, whose ode to the world financial crisis is installed in a bunker of La Cabana fortress. It features a wave of some 650 banknotes fashioned from fragrant cedar cascading from the ceiling into a jumbled pile on the floor.
“A lot of people want to talk to me,” Campo said. “I have to check my email, because it’s been days.”