Exhibitions Collectors Cuba

An exile’s return to Cuba

Ella Cisneros Fontanals fled the revolution at 15. Now she’s taken her collection to show in Havana

Ella Fontanals Cisneros fled Cuba with her family at the age of 15, moving to Venezuela, where she began collecting art in the early 1970s. The president and founder of the Miami-based Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation (Cifo) and the newly established Cifo Europa in Madrid, Cisneros’s re-entry into Cuba’s cultural scene took place on 11 May with a presentation of her collection at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana. The show is the first initiative by Cifo Europa, and is a satellite exhibition of the 11th Havana Biennial. Artists represented include Vito Acconci, Olafur Eliasson, Tracy Emin, Mona Hatoum, William Kentridge, Subodh Gupta and Ai Weiwei.

“We organised the exhibition through Madrid because we wanted to focus on art, and we didn’t want to get into political issues,” says Cisneros. When asked about the reaction from Miami Cubans who have been outspoken about maintaining the US economic embargo, she replies: “Most people have said they are proud of me. I haven’t had a negative reaction at all.”

In Havana, Cuban artists flocked to the opening reception where Yoan Capote said: “I think what she’s doing could be considered controversial in the US, but Ella has a feeling of optimism about the young generation of Cuban artists. We don’t have contemporary international collections in our museums, and it’s important for art critics, students, artists and the public to see this work. It helps to break down the barriers of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of Cuba.” Fellow artist Carlos Garaicoa was hopeful that the Cisneros exhibition would further promote cultural exchange and convince private and public collectors to show their art in Cuba in the future.

Shipping art to Cuba from the US where the Cifo art collection is based has its challenges. The foundation applied for a permit from the Department of the Treasury and the logistics took over a year to arrange. The bulk of the selection was transported directly and placed on a cargo ship that delivered humanitarian food aid from the US to Cuba, but this practice is hardly the norm.

“Individual artists working in the United States cannot send their works directly to Cuba. They have to send it through another country like Mexico, and it becomes much more expensive and often becomes cost prohibitive,” says Jorge Fernández, director of the Havana Biennial. When asked how the embargo impacts the biennial he adds: “People who want to travel to the biennial must have a special licence. 500 American visitors came to the biennial this year, but there were 2,000 people that had expressed interest. That means only one in four were allowed to travel here.”

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