Phoenix Art Museum presents first major exhibition of work by Cuban artist Juan Francisco Elso in more than 30 years

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Phoenix Art Museum presents first major exhibition of work by Cuban artist Juan Francisco Elso in more than 30 years
Installation view of Juan Francisco Elso: Por América, 2023, Phoenix Art Museum. Photo: Airi Katsuta

PHOENIX, ARIZ.- This past spring, Phoenix Art Museum opened Juan Francisco Elso: Por América, the first retrospective in an art museum since 1992 to explore the career of the late Cuban artist Juan Francisco Elso. The exhibition is organized by El Museo del Barrio and guest curated by Olga Viso, curator-at-large at PhxArt and senior advisor at Arizona State University’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, in collaboration with Susanna V. Temkin, curator at El Museo del Barrio. The survey offers a rare opportunity for U.S. audiences to experience Elso’s fragile extant works, including sculptures and installations that demonstrate the artist’s rigorous study of Afro- Cuban rituals and ancient Indigenous cultures as he attempted to at once understand and articulate an authentic Cuban national identity while expounding upon a broader trans-American citizenhood. By placing these artworks in conversation with prints, sculptures, and more by an intergenerational group of artists active since the 1970s—among them José Bedia, Tania Bruguera, Luis Camnitzer, Melvin Edwards, Karlo Andrei Ibarra, Glenn Ligon, Ana Mendieta, Tiona Nekkia McClodden, Reynier Leyva Novo, Lorraine O’Grady, and others—Por América uncovers the impacts of Elso’s legacy on generations of creators across the Americas since the artist’s untimely death in 1988 at the age of 32.

“It is essential for Phoenix Art Museum to bring Juan Francisco Elso: Por América to audiences in the Southwest,” said Jeremy Mikolajczak, the Sybil Harrington Director and CEO of Phoenix Art Museum. “The late Cuban artist had a brief yet impactful career, and as an institution committed to the research, scholarship, and presentation of art of the Americas, it is critical for our viewers to understand the complexity and diversity of views and histories from the region and among its artists. Elso’s deeply researched and incredibly moving works speak to a wider desire for a more equitable human existence and a multicultural worldview informed not only by larger philosophical views on the history of Cuba and its people but of a greater Latin American and contemporary identity. Through Elso’s work and the inclusion of an impressive roster of artists in conversation, we hope this exhibition broadens our audience’s understanding of Cuban art and that visitors find parallels between their own experiences and the issues Elso grappled with over his career.”

Based in Havana and Mexico City, Juan Francisco Elso (1956–1988) was part of the first generation of artists born and educated in post-revolutionary Cuba. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he emerged as a visual artist before dying of leukemia at the age of 32. Using natural, organic materials such as mud, clay, straw, twigs, bark, and earth, Elso crafted sculptures and installations that examine the influences of Indigenous traditions, Afro-Caribbean religious beliefs, and the traumas of colonial oppression on contemporary Cuban, Caribbean, and Latin American identities. The artist’s limited production, including plans for several unrealized works, reveal his more expansive understanding of the Americas, free from continental division and conventional ideas of state and nationhood.

Juan Francisco Elso: Por América is the first retrospective on the late artist’s work in more than 30 years, largely due to the delicate nature of Elso’s artworks and the strained political relationship between Cuba and the United States, which has hindered the exchange of artworks drawn from Cuban national collections between the two countries. The exhibition takes a contextual approach, placing Elso’s work in dialogue with a group of 40 multigenerational artists active in the Caribbean and throughout North, South, and Central America, who explore similar ideas and topics that preoccupied Elso throughout his life and career. Juan Francisco Elso: Por América is organized into the following thematic sections:

Elso and the Americas

At the heart of this section is Elso’s masterwork Por América (José Martí) (1986), which portrays Cuban poet, philosopher, national hero, and martyr José Martí. As a leader in the island’s struggle for national independence from Spain in the 19th century, Martí ultimately died on the battlefield in pursuit of that liberty. Considered one of the most important works of the late 20th century, Por América recasts the iconic portrait of Martí in human terms. The figure is rendered in wood, plaster, and earth and resembles a colonial church santo. Wielding a machete, the poet is positioned as both a devotional saint and an Afro- Cuban warrior. Other works in this section by an array of artists from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and the United States, including Papo Colo, Melvin Edwards, Scherezade Garcia, Ana Mendieta, Belkis Ayón and Ángel Ramírez, and more similarly consider the impassioned, frenzied, violent, and revolutionary moments throughout history that have shaped the Americas since European conquest.

African Legacies

Elso viewed the Americas as a geography and social experiment defined as much by the histories of ancient indigenous cultures as the legacies of the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism. This section of the exhibition explores Elso’s dedication to studying Afro-Cuban and Amerindian histories, as well as the influence of his own devotional practice of the Afro-Cuban religion La Regla de Ocha (also known as Santería) on his artistic production. Complementary prints, objects, and more by artists such as Albert Chong, Lorraine O’Grady, María Magdalena Campos-Pons, and Elso’s peer and friend José Bedia also examine the influences and legacies of the African Diaspora in the Caribbean and beyond.

Essay on America

Elso often worked in series, creating sculptural groupings that interrogated his larger musings about the Americas. This section features various multi-object installations that consider humanity as a confluence of earthen imperfection and divine excellence, always on the edge of self-destruction or enlightenment. Pájaro que vuela sobre América [Bird that Flies Over America] (1985), for example, is a flying machine constructed from wood, wax, and jute. Designed to fit Elso, the object is built for an imagined earthly warrior to metaphorically access spiritual and heavenly realms. Other works featured in this section include prints, sculptures, and more by Mexican artists Graciela Iturbide and Magali Lara.

The Transparency of God

During the last years of his life while living in Mexico, Elso started his final series, The Transparency of God, which was part of a larger vision he was unable to complete before his death. In this section of the exhibition, visitors encounter the three sculptures that Elso did finish—Corazón de America [Heart of America], El Rostro de Dios [The Face of God], and La mano Creadora [The Hand of the Creator] (1987- 1988). Although three additional objects were never realized, the artist left verbal instructions for how the three sculptures should be installed in relation to each other to suggest the contours of a monumental god-like entity. The exhibition’s presentation of The Transparency of God honors Elso’s intent with the objects he completed.

Unfinished America

Elso viewed the Americas as a work in progress, a living entity that could be remapped, reworked, and re- envisioned endlessly. His hopeful, more equitable, trans-American worldview was free of geopolitical borders and nations and instead stood grounded in respect and care for the land, ancestral traditions, and shared food, goods, and services that all humans need to thrive. This final section of Por América presents Elso’s last completed work before his death: Caballo contra colibri [Horse against Hummingbird] (1988). The sculpture depicts a bird (symbolic of Indigenous life) confronting a horse (a symbol of European colonization). It reflects on the lived histories of the Americas while encouraging viewers to imagine an alternative reality in which the bird is victorious. Works by Luis Camnitzer, Karlo Andrei Ibarra, Kcho, Tiona Nekkia McClodden, and others throughout this section also consider and theorize new narratives beyond our collective memories.

“A contextual approach underpins all of Juan Francisco Elso: Por América,” said exhibition curator Olga Viso. “It stems from a desire to situate the artist firmly in his place and time, while also considering his influence and legacy. All too often, the art world positions Caribbean and Latin American artists whom it sees as working outside the mainstream, or who have had abbreviated careers, as artistic anomalies unmoored from their context. To challenge such assumptions, this investigation offers an alternative proposition that weaves Elso firmly into the fabric of a contemporary diasporic imaginary. It is an approach that I hope offers readers the opportunity to learn about Juan Francisco Elso and the history of artistic production in Cuba, as well as a generation of international artists who were at the center of defining the multicultural 1980s and are critical figures of the rich and prismatic cultural landscape in the Americas today.”

Juan Francisco Elso: Por América is accompanied by a comprehensive, fully illustrated catalogue co- published by El Museo del Barrio and [NAME] and edited by Olga Viso. The approximately 400-page volume is the first English-language monograph on the artist and is also produced in Spanish. It features essays by international scholars Rachel Weiss, Orlando Hernández, Cuauhtémoc Medina, and Gerardo Mosquera, whose previous essays and interviews with Elso are translated into English for the first time. New voices, including the Afro-Caribbean scholar Erica Moiah James and the Cuban-American curator Gean Moreno, offer theoretical perspectives and positions informed by contemporary race and diasporic studies, while contributions from artists and curators such as Tania Bruguera, Coco Fusco, Jimmie Durham, Graciela Iturbide, Reynold Kerr, Magali Lara, Corina Matamoros, Gerardo Suter, and Javier Tellez provide personal reflections on the artist and his legacy.

Phoenix Art Museum
Juan Francisco Elso: Por América
May 6th, 2023 - September 17th, 2023

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Phoenix Art Museum presents first major exhibition of work by Cuban artist Juan Francisco Elso in more than 30 years

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