Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara: Dispatches from a dissident artist imprisoned in Cuba

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, Untitled, 2020, from the series “Puertas”. Charcoal on paper, 39 x 33 in. (Courtesy of Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara).

Think of these drawings as visual journal entries. Eloquence often resides in severe brevity.

They are dispatches from the restless mind of a black performance artist deprived of his main platform, the streets of Cuba. They witness grief and trauma. They witness an unrelenting rebellion, the tenacious grip of his pencil moving across the pages of a spiral notebook to drag these dispatches out of brutal incarceration.

Imprisoned Cuban dissident artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara created these sixty drawings, now featured in his Miami solo exhibition, “Alcántara” at “The ArtSpace @ I’ve Been Frame” – a small gallery connected to a frame store in heart of the city’s Little Havana. There is also a smattering of photography and video. Most of the work dates from 2021 and 2020.


WHAT: “Alcántara”

WHEN: April 22 to May 8

WHERE: The ArtSpace @ I’ve Been Framed, 733 SW 8th St, Miami, Florida, 33130


Alcántara is a famous figure in the Cuban San Isidro movement. The movement, formed in 2018 to protest Cuba’s authoritarian rule, is galvanizing the island in 2021 with massive and unprecedented protests. His performance art is shared widely on social media, challenging the Cuban government’s repressive tactics and suppression of creative freedoms. In “Flag”, he carried a Cuban flag on his shoulders for thirty days, protesting laws restricting the use of the flag.

The artist has been detained in a prison in Havana since July 2021.

In September 2021, Alcántara was cited as one of the 100 Most Influential People of the Year by TIME magazine, praised by fellow activist artist Ai Weiwei that even in prison, “his life, behavior and expression in together are so powerful that they can withstand the aesthetic and ethical degeneration of authoritarianism.

From inside a Cuban prison, his harsh eloquence continues to resonate outside the island. On May 4 in Washington D.C., the nonprofit organization Freedom House, primarily funded by the U.S. government, presented its annual Freedom Award to Alcántara and fellow imprisoned Cuban activist Maykel Castillo Perez for their leadership in the movement. San Isidoro.

In March in New York, a blog post by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation reported that Alcántara was one of twenty-two artists featured in “Umbral: A Collective Exhibition of Contemporary Cuban Art,” organized by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. and Montserrat Contemporary Art Gallery. It was organized by Anamely Ramos and Claudia Genlui.

Genlui, a Cuban-born curator who moved to Miami in November 2021, has curated his current gallery show in Miami. She is also a founding member of the San Isidro Movement; his curatorial projects are supported by a residency at El Espacio 23 in Miami, created by collector and philanthropist Jorge M. Pérez.

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, Untitled, 2020, from the series “Puertas”. Charcoal, acrylic on paper, 64 x 39 in. (Courtesy of Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara).

According to a Spanish email from Genlui, translated by the gallery’s art consultant, since November 2020 the artist has been unable to perform in public spaces due to extreme Cuban government surveillance. Many drawings were created while he was imprisoned, a few while he was being held on a hunger strike at Calixto Garcia Hospital in Havana.

Alcántara’s international reputation is mainly based on his bold public performances. Unfortunately, even in this volatile time in the United States, when legal rights like voting and pro-choice legislation are under attack, an exhibition cannot match the explosive effect of its performance art. Meanwhile, the designs introduce a more intimate and thoughtful side to his creativity.

They reveal how this performance artist, working under severe duress, cultivated a gift for visual expression in a provocative yet modest format. Additionally, the drawings shed further light on his aesthetic of questioning the authority of the state to restrict creativity and public protest, even when working behind bars as a sequestered studio artist. .

No longer making statements of protest in the streets with his physical presence, he withdrew into himself to represent his body in torturous conditions of resistance. The drawings of doors in his “Puertas” series similarly show doors being beaten and violated – these doors can no longer fulfill their function in the service of state control of individual behavior.

The doors become a metaphor for how the Cuban government blocks individual expression; Alcántara renders the gates non-functional for government uses, just as renderings of his own body continue to defy the government.

This work demonstrates a great mastery of drawing. Although Alcántara is regularly described as lacking formal artistic training, he emerges as a self-taught, observant visual artist in his own right.

Flashes of black humor sometimes puncture his drawings. For example, a series devoted to the constant surveillance of the Cuban government features a UB694 branded camera drawn in artful and dark compositions. One of them shows her overlooking a modest vegetable garden. This intrusive camera also appears on the face of a stripped down quote from an iconic Vermeer painting, “The Girl with a Pearl Earring.”

Another shows the camera ‘face’ wearing a Covid-19 mask as he swings uneven scales of justice. These uneven scales amplify an underlying theme, evident in many of Alcántara’s works, of the establishment by authoritarian governments of severe social, racial, and gender inequalities. And the series, titled “Payasos,” features graphite and pencil portraits of an angsty, cross-dressing clown.

Striking and chilling black-and-white photographs show the artist as if he had been hanged, mortally poisoned or driven to death, documenting the artist’s performances exposing the state’s likely ability to assassinate him as a dissident and to pass off his death as a suicide. .

Alcántara seems to be part of a solid tradition of Cuban-American artists. The staged photograph of the artist falling from a window to her death recalls how Ana Mendieta fell, or more likely was pushed, to her untimely death from a New York apartment window, leaving a imprint of her body which strangely reminded her. influential art. Likewise, his self-portraits sometimes resemble self-portraits of Luis Cruz Azaceta, whose art reflects the moral indignities committed by the AIDS epidemic, terrorism and other crises.

Nobel laureate and novelist Mario Vargas Llosa has penned a starkly eloquent response to the violence of World War I that shaped George Grosz, another artist whose work exposes corruption in his native country. Published on the Tate Museum website, excerpts could describe Alcántara. Llosa writes, “Most of my work has to do with the kind of violence that is everyday life in Latin America… You feed on everything you hate.

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