The exhibition whose title is literally translated means "Before There was Nothing," is something. And when I say "something," I mean it in the exclamatory sense — the "Boy, that's something," sense, in which you turn to the deliberately unspecified pronoun because the same-old, same-old adjectives and nouns sound woefully insufficient when used to describe what's in front of you. What's in front of me, what has brought me to this state of scrambling for suitable branding vocabulary, is “Antes Que Nada: 13 Contemporary Artists in Cuba,” a show opening Friday, Sept. 19, at the Alabama School of Fine Arts.
On display in the ASFA Vulcan Materials Gallery, "Antes Que Nada" includes more than 50 paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, photography installations and mixed media works by a dozen Cuban artists and Stephen Humphreys. The latter, a Birmingham native and a longtime contributor to the Weekly, has described art as something he was always focused on even when he was doing other things. Humphreys attended Indian Springs School and studied art history at Princeton. After graduating from law school at the University of Georgia, he worked at Maynard Cooper in Birmingham and eventually established a law practice in Athens, Ga. When he first visited Cuba in 1991, he was there on legal business but had a chance meeting with the artist Jose Bedia. Following an enthusiastic conversation about art, Bedia gave Humphreys two prints. The gift served as a seed — Humphreys’ personal collection of contemporary Cuban art now includes more than 150 pieces. About a third of those works are in “Antes que Nada,” including the two Bedia prints that started it all.
Anything, something & nothing
The show takes its title from a Cuban colloquialism that means “before nothing else.” Whereas in English we might say, "Before anything else," to denote that which takes top priority, the Cubans say "antes que nada" — literally, nothing. As Humphreys and gallery director Cumbee Tyndall selected works to include in the exhibition, Humphreys repeatedly considered the metaphorical implications of the phrase.
"For one thing, it's a certain kind of Spanish negative that means a positive," Humphreys says. "Before nothing not only means before something, it means before anything else.”
Additionally, there are two senses of the word – before as in the period of time proceeding and before as in, in front of. The bilingual wordplay is deliberate and, because of the artists’ country of origin, political. Humphreys explains that because of the political estrangement between the U.S. and Cuba, this contemporary artwork has been created in semi-isolation.
“One of the things we’re exploring is the question, what is Cuba? Politically speaking, what is Cuba? Is it something? Is it nothing? In the United States, we say it is nothing. We insist it is nothing. But this art is something, and it is coming from somewhere.”
Parsing the meaning of “something” and “nothing” may sound like heady talk, but Humphreys emphasizes that the show is also about transformation.
"When I look at art, I am always interested in and always looking for the process of transformation," he says.
That seeking is clearly visible in the artwork assembled in “Antes Que Nada.” Myriad influences on contemporary Cuban art are represented: African, European and American markings are visible through singular style of the Caribbean country.
One of the most extraordinary pieces in the show is Se Sale de Este Marco (It is Leaving the Frame). The artist Barbar Amaya Mata Calzada works as a historic preservationist in Cuba. Her materials are found objects of the highest order -- architectural salvage pieces and restoration materials. Sa Sale de Este Marco is painted with gold leaf and other restoratianativias on a piece of sheared wood from the San Francisco de Paula Church in central Cuban town of Trinidad. One edge is cut and painted to look like the frame of an icon; the rest of the painting is an extreme closeup of a saint or the Virgin Mary, only the eyes visible, the rest of the face gone, as if to suggest the portrait came to life and split the frame open to enter to world of the viewer.
A set of nine paper collages by Vladimir de Leon adds some of the brightest colors in the show. In cut-up images from American magazines, machine parts are re-imagined as human figures participating in personal dramas.
"What you see in these is a strange mix of mechanical and organic," Humphreys says.
Vestigios, a series of abstract photos by Alfredo Ramos, could be called Portraits of a Process. The large, abstract images are of intricate, seemingly random patterns of black on a white background.
"They're really photographs of his bathroom wall," Humphreys says.
Ramos had a white porcelain bathroom that doubled as a dark room. Hanging processed prints meant that the photo chemicals he used would often eat into the white porcelain, staining the tub with strange patterns. Vestiges are photographs of those patterns. In other words, they are photographs of the photographic process.
Another evocative piece is one of Humphreys' own photographs of a young man diving from a seawall in Havana. The water beneath him appears to the viewer to be as wide as the sky -- endless, infinite blue beside blue, the color interrupted only by the diver's lean body as a bright brown stripe. "That kid plunging into the ocean, that's an image of transformation too," Humphreys says. "Before you plunge into something else, you are before nothing. He is before nothing. It's also everything."
In the work of Olympya Ortiz, text melds into the air, and rivers and mountains are rendered as flowing script. The canvases clearly show human forms, but they are comprised of other organic shapes — human, reptilian, liquid. It's difficult to determine whether all these things are becoming the human or whether the human has become all of these things.
"Words themselves are an attempt to make something intangible concrete, and that’s what’s happening in these paintings," Humphreys says.
The most political art included in “Antes que Nada” is by Jorge Luis Marrero. In fact, Humphreys was denied permission to take one of Merrero's pieces out of Cuba because it depicted the Marxist leader Che Guevara in a coffin. Humphreys was able to bring a Marrero piece titled Obama Being Pursued by a Sick Cat, which, like the title suggests, depicts the Democratic Presidential Candidate being attacked by a grotesque creature, more monster than cat in its appearance. His other drawings have a calculatedly childlike quality -- Merrero has attempted as an adult to make exact copies of drawings he did as a child.
"Again, it's antes que nada. He's going back and trying to be something that he was before he was what he is now."
A place of transformation
While a few of the artists represented in the show are not well-known outside of Cuba, many of them have participated in exhibits in New York, Paris and other international cities of note.
"Alfredo Ramos participated in the last Havana Binennale, Olympya Ortiz shows in Berlin – a lot of these artists have a fine pedigree," Humphreys says. "This show could be at the Whitney."
One of the reasons it's being held at ASFA is as a tribute to Humphreys' grandmother, Mrs. Edwin A. "Bill" Rose. While working as a supervisor in the Speech Arts program of the Birmingham City Schools, Rose noted the lack of opportunity for talented, non-academic students, and helped to establish the School of Fine Arts in order to reduce the drop-out rate and to provide artistic opportunities for young people in Birmingham. In a way, the show can be viewed as a way of Humphreys' continuing his family's arts advocacy.
"The show is about all kinds of transformation – animate to inanimate, tangible to intangible, corporeal to spiritual, and vice versa to all of those. It's all about the nothing that existed before there was something. And the nothing is everything."
To view images from the "Antes Que Nada" exhibition of Cuban art, visit the Birmingham Weekly Flickr stream.
"Antes Que Nada: 13 Contemporary Artists in Cuba" opens with a reception from 5-7 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 19, in the Vulcan Materials Gallery at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, 1800 Eighth Ave. North. The exhibition runs through Dec. 19, with several additional events to be held at the school in conjunction with the show. For more information, call (205) 252-9241 or go to www.asfa.k12.al.us.