- On the Cover
José Angel Toirac (b. 1966) is one of the leading artists of the generation of the 1990s, a group of artists who came to the Cuban public art scene precisely as the socialist system under which they had grown up was beginning to crumble. Toirac graduated from the Instituto Superior de Arte in 1990, just as the so-called Special Period—the economic and social crisis experienced by the island after the fall of the Soviet Union—began to unfold. It was a tough decade for Cubans, young and old, a decade in which the very fabric of time unraveled, as the past appeared to be no longer. Social and economic ills that had been supposedly vanquished and that had supposedly vanished—racism, prostitution, foreign tourists and investors—suddenly started to operate in the present, charting new and improbable paths to personal prosperity and well-being. The mighty dollar made quite a comeback, as if 1959 had been just a glitch, a temporal detour from a fatal path to dependent capitalism. Global brands such as United Colors of Benetton and Meliá Hotels returned to an island that for thirty years had witnessed only publicity celebrating victory . . . over capitalism.
Like many of his peers, Toirac responded to these changing and challenging conditions through personal engagement with history, especially a history that no longer made any sense. Fidel, the great icon of anti-imperialism, was dining with foreign investors and inviting them to purchase a piece of Cuban paradise, at prices and under conditions (particularly on the labor front) that would have put Batista to shame. Toirac processed these tensions through the iconic (and long-censored) series Tiempos nuevos (New Times, 1996), a rather ironic title, as in a very real sense times were not “new” at all. But his inquiries did not stop at irony or irreverence: he pushed on to probe the very process of history making, the mechanics of creating a visual archive of sacred and sanctified revolutionary images that, under further scrutiny, turned out to be quite dull. To be an artist of his time, Toirac had no choice but to put time itself to the test.
His work has received national and international acclaim, as illustrated by his richly deserved Premio Nacional de Artes Plásticas (2018). Prize winners always get a solo exhibit at the National Museum of Fine Arts: it will be interesting to see what goes into Toirac’s exhibit, given that some of his best-known pieces have been censored by Cuban cultural commissars in the past. In the meantime, his work is treasured by some of the best private and public [End Page 411] collections of Cuban (and contemporary) art in the world. And it just happens that, as we write this note, we are preparing to host the exhibition OPIUM, curated by the internationally known Octavio Zaya, which will be presented at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University in the spring 2019. It is a happy coincidence—the prize, the exhibit—as we began to plan this “overdue introduction of Toirac to Harvard” (Octavio’s words) before the Premio Nacional was announced. But by including works from OPIUM in this issue, including drawings never exhibited before from the evolving series Esperando por el momento oportuno (Waiting for the Right Time)—a series that includes the censored paintings of Tiempos nuevos—we also take care of Toirac’s overdue introduction to Cuban Studies.
José A. Toirac, Zero, 2012, from the series Esperando por el momento oportuno, graphite and pencil on cardboard, 20.5 cm × 27 cm. [End Page 412]