An exhibition of Cuban artwork is now on display at Western Kentucky University called “The Island of My Love: The Faces and Stories of Cuba”
Miwon Choe, professor of art education at WKU, first traveled to Cuba 15 years ago and began making connections with members of the Cuban art community. She said the artists on display as part of this new exhibit range from young children to professionals.
In Cuba, volunteers often serve as art teachers at schools and weekend programs where they instruct not only young artists, but sometimes retirees in their 70s or 80s.
One of the pieces in the exhibit that stands out to Choe is a painting created by one of those adults learners that focuses on the Santeria faith.
“She made that piece for us and said ‘I want you to take this one with you and show them what this means for us.’ And that just truly, completely touched me,” said Choe.
For Cubans who don’t always enjoy freedom of expression, said Choe, having their work on display in the United States is meaningful.
“I’m not sure if I fully understand how much trust they’re placing in this whole event because the artwork – a lot of them, they created the piece for the exhibition. I told them this is an opportunity to tell your story from your point of view and there’s no limitations.”
Another challenge for Cuban artists is a lack of basic resources like art supplies. Victoria Layne, who assisted in curating the exhibit, said that adds to her appreciation of the works.
“As an artist myself, it’s very inspiring and it makes me want to get back to the studio and work,” said Layne. “But it also just kind of speaks to their mindset, like, their art is how they live and this is how they’re communicating and how they’re feeling and that’s also something that just speaks volumes to their way of life.”
The lower level of the exhibit features the artwork itself. Upstairs, photos are on display of many of the artists in their Cuban neighborhoods. The photos were taken by a pair of award-winning photographers as part of their “String Project” collection, a concept that binds together different photographs of people clutching the same white rope in different surroundings.
Connecting Art and Literacy
Choe’s nearly two-decade connection with the Cuban art community has also paid dividends for students in South Central Kentucky. Sandra Carter, a retired teacher from Warren Central High School, said a partnership was formed several years ago between Choe’s art students and high schoolers who were having difficulty with their reading skills. The college students talked about art as they tutored Carter's students in reading.
The high school students would also hone their writing skills by penning letters to students in Cuba.
“The thing that was the most exciting to me was when the Cuban students would write back and my students would read what they wrote and would be so excited that someone from another country cared enough to write back to them,” said Carter.
She noted the vast improvements in her students.
“We had students that were late and tardy school all the time – but that year they were not. They were coming to school, they were excited and the main thing is, they learned to read.”
The exhibit “The Island of My Love: The Faces and Stories of Cuba” will be open through April 6 at the Ivan Wilson Fine Arts Center at WKU, and is part of the university’s International Year of Cuba.