Coming up Cuban-American, caught somewhere on the gangplank between identities, Xavier Cortada always struggled to span the two worlds that defined him. He was the Americanito who knew Cuba only through his parents, and the cubanito who grew up praying to La Caridad del Cobre. The kid from upstate New York and who stumbled over his Spanish, and the Miami exile who labored to learn the difference between share and chair.
But it wasn’t until he hit college that the contradictions of duality turned sharp. Encased in that Americano world of fraternities at the University of Miami, Cortada was never farther away from his Cubania. He had been raised in that near-Cuba that was el exilio and now here he was, a world from the enclave that defined him.
His childhood had been spent surrounded by friends from unvisited but familiar places – places like Matanzas, Pinar del Rio, Camaguey. Now, living at the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity house, his friends were from truly distant locates – Missouri, Massachusetts, Kentucky. He was suddenly a foreigner in his own home.
It is in this muddled place that Cubaba was born. It was someone’s foil to himself, a frat house caricature in sombrero and toga who brought comic relief to the pain of otherness even while empowering the Cubanito in the Mexican hat.
Later Cortada came to view those Cubaba years as a youngster’s crude attempt at negotiating identity – a necessary passage to self-discovery, and ultimately, self-acceptance. Cubaba, the exhibit, is product of those explorations of self, and of one Cuban-American’s coming to terms with that part of his identity is truly de aqui and what part is de alla.
The Cubaba series offers not the simplistic iconography of Cuban nostalgia, but the tempered expressions of being caught somewhere between the truths and the myths that frame el exilio. When are you most Cuban? When you’re wearing your Cubaba persona in good-natured defiance of shame? Or when you’re kneeling before your virgin on the edge of Biscayne Bay. And when are you most American? When you’re praying for an unknown island, safe at the edge of that bay, or when you finally find yourself on that mythical island, praying among strangers in a strange place?
Cubaba reaffirms the precarious balancing act that is bi-culturalism. And the endless search that is finding a sense of place and person when you are the product of two worlds.
Xavier Cortada, 33, is a Cuban-American artist living and working in Miami. Although he has exhibited in museums and galleries on four continents, Cubaba is his first solo show in his hometown. The exhibit is truly a cultural celebration. About then and now. About identity and belonging. About being Cuban, being American. Being both and being neither.
“They distill the swirl of Cuban nostalgia and American reality as seen by someone who grew up in the middle of the exile enclave,” says Cortada. The work embodies the experience of fashioning a new hybridized identity in Cortada’s life outside the Cuban community and mirrors the unconscious and constant renegotiations of identity that characterizes exile life.
Cortada works primarily in acrylic and oils on canvas, although he has created numerous murals and has an impressive portfolio of drawings. Like his artist father and uncle before him, Cortada draws inspiration from the Cuban modernism and the vanguardia artist. His work is also informed by the twisting currents of twentieth century art, the visual barrage of advertising, the iconography of estampitas religiosas, Saturday morning cartoons, the stained glass windows of Gesu Catholic Church in Miami, and importantly, his travels through Africa and Latin America.
The painter’s visual heritage can also be traced along the black lines and collapsing spaces from Pable Picasso to Amelia Pelaez, who also inspires Cortada’s tropical palette. The portraits of long-necked women and translucent faces are subversive Modigliani’s, while the syncretic sensibilities of Wifredo Lam influence Cortada’s easy blending of symbols and cultures. Cortada slashes and tortures the canvas with knives and hard-bristled brushes evoking the athletic gestures of Willem de Kooning. Francis Bacon teaches him to thrust his personal passions and secret desires on cloth, layers of paint rubbing together creating a bruising picture of the artist’s soul.
The artist improvises and plays on canvas, manipulating meaning and texture to get his message across. He is also an attorney and community leader, who combines his artistic talent with his concern for social and political issues. Among the topics he has explored through his work are community development, racism, violence, poverty, political freedom, AIDS, and Cuba.
Cortada has exhibited in Washington, D.C., New York City, Berkeley, San Antonio, Madrid, Johannesburg, Mauritius, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, and Palm Beach. He was the first foreign artist to exhibit in Soweto after the end of apartheid in South Africa. Cortada’s work has been recently shown in solo exhibits at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cuzco, Peru, the Museo Tambo Quirquincho in La Paz, Bolivia, and the Regional Historical Museum of Santa Cruz, Bolivia.
Cortada has also lectured on the use of art as an agent of social change and painted murals with community groups in places as diverse as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Leadville, Colorado, La Paz, Bolivia, Freetown, and Sierra Leone. In addition, he has painted murals for Nike, HBO, MADD, the Indiana Governor’s Office, Miami-Dade Cultural Affairs Council, and Miami-Dade County Art in Public Places.
Locally he has collaborated with museums (the Lowe Art Museum, the Wolfsonian-FIC, Miami Youth Museum), and non-profit groups (including the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind, Centro Campesino, the Little Haiti Housing Authority, and the Little Havana Institute, among others) to create community murals. In October 1998, Cortada will unveil two 24-foot tall glass mosaic murals on the new Niketown building at Shops at Sunset Place in South Miami.