The film is black-and-white and projected on a plain wall. In it, a Cuban singer croons a mournful song in a smoky Havana nightclub. Grotesque U.S. businessmen sit and drink, and they casually select prostitutes from the bar. The women look frightened, but the men only laugh at their inability to speak English. The singer sinks to the floor, hands over his face, as the song winds down. More women enter, wearing fake “native” outfits – bikinis and wooden masks. Bongos play. Men ogle. Cubanas suffer.
The scene is from “Soy Cuba,” a Soviet film made in 1964, shortly after the Cuban Revolution. “Soy Cuba” is a fascinating film in its entirety, but this segment is particularly provocative, and its themes of sexual abuse smolder at the heart of “New Fantasies,” a group exhibit now showing at TEOR/éTica, a plucky little gallery in Barrio Amón.
Be prepared: “New Fantasies” is a small showcase, but it practically froths with rage. Its fury is well earned, of course. The theme of “New Fantasies” is masculine conquest of femininity, particularly by foreign invaders in Latin America. This history offers no shortage of horror, and it goes all the way back: In two antique engravings, “America” is depicted as a fertile woman awaiting a colonizer’s arrival. The theme is bleak and disturbing, and “New Fantasies” offers no solutions, not even hope.
The angriest piece of all is Joaquín Rodríguez del Paso’s painting, “The Pure Life.” The portrait depicts two Gringos in Hawaiian T-shirts huddling with a pair of (much) younger Ticas. They sit near a tropical beach, at a table cluttered with empty bottles and glasses. One guy makes a peace sign with his fingers.
But wait: The landscape behind them is an illusion. The “beach” is actually a painting-within-a-painting, held behind the quartet by two dark-skinned men in white shirts and bowties (the uniform of colonial servitude). Everything about this scene is fake – the jungle, the waves, and the relationships between the men and their mistresses. They pose, as if for a photographer, but even the medium is actually paint. “Pura Vida,” suggests del Paso, is an imperialist fiction, exploitation masked as paradise. By spreading those two fingers, even peace is mocked.
TEOR/éTica is a new gallery, and one full of chutzpah. Someone recently painted the building with portraits of monstrous demi-humans; no matter how quickly you take the curve, you can’t miss the murals of animal-headed women who cover the building. In a country that overflows with assembly line “art,” TEOR/éTica is refreshingly scrappy: If you know anything about Barrio Amón, “New Fantasies” may seem particularly daring in a neighborhood infamous for its prostitution, and for the foreign johns who visit them.
Given the vitality of its themes, “New Fantasies” would benefit from expansion. The exhibit also includes some multimedia installations, but it feels like a great idea that didn’t have the room to grow. Still, for people serious about contemporary art, TEOR/éTica demands a visit, and “Fantasies” is a worthy excuse. And if, sometime after dusk, you leave the gallery and trudge back up the hill, you may find the kind of woman who inspired it. She’ll be standing on the street corner. You may make eye contact. Because she’s real, and this is really happening.