Up until three years ago, artist Juan Carlos Muñoz had never left his native Cuba. In 2009, he rolled 15 original paintings in a tube, tucked them under his arm and flew to Melbourne, Fla., where his surrealist art graced U.S. gallery walls for the first time. 

Some of these paintings, as well as works by six other Cuban artists, are coming to AnTHM Gallery at the Monte Vista Hotel in Black Mountain as part of the Arte de Cuba! exhibit. The majority of these of these works, which range from tapestries to photography, have never been shown in the U.S.

Why is Black Mountain hosting such a rare exhibit? “People who love art live everywhere: Why not Black Mountain?” asks Marjorie Pravden, curator of the exhibit and owner of Cuba! Gallery of Fine Art in Melbourne, Fla. Monte Vista Hotel owners Barney Fitzpatrick and Sue Conlon fell in love with the gallery during a visit to their Florida condo. They were determined to have Pravden curate an exhibit especially for their newly renovated hotel. 

Cappi Macsherry, art director at Monte Vista Hotel and owner of AnTHM Gallery, sees Black Mountain as the perfect place to showcase such an exclusive collection. “We are super privileged in Black Mountain to have a chance to see a glimpse into the progression of Cuba through their art,” Macsherry says.

How did these paintings and photographs make it out of Cuba and into the U.S.? The U.S. Treasury Department issues just 30 permits per year to artists and gallery owners who want to bring Cuban art to America. Marjorie Pravden received a coveted permit to bring the pieces in this exhibit out of Cuba and into Black Mountain. She traveled to the homes of Cuban artists to buy the art, took the paintings out of their frames, rolled them up and carried them onto the plane herself. A few of the artists, including Muñoz, have obtained their own permit to bring their art to the U.S. This process mirrors the dedication Cuban artists have to their work and their desire to create art in the face of Cuban censorship.

“These artists from Cuba have something to paint about,” says Pravden. “Anytime you have a country in difficulty or under stress with people who are not allowed to leave their country... anytime you do that, you have a common myth about them.”

Macsherry sees a yearning for cultural freedom in the pieces, but she also appreciates how open the art is to interpretation. She reaches for Dreams by Juan Carlos Muñoz while she is on the phone with Xpress. “Oh my God, it's amazing,” she says in a hushed tone. A fried egg, suspended by an old-fashioned airplane, floats above the head of an aged man with a long gray beard. The open drawer represents his empty stomach and the egg above his head symbolizes his hunger, says Pravden. It is a striking painting that uses surrealism and vibrant colors to convey the hardships as well as the mystery of Cuba.

“You can make out what you want from it,” says Macsherry. “It makes your mind wander; you can dream.” It is this sense of wonder that sets Art de Cuba! apart. “It just takes you to another place in your imagination,” explains Macsherry. “That to me is what art does; it's a catalyst to draw your imagination inward or outward in a wonderful way.” 

Cuban art is experiencing a renaissance, both in the U.S. and abroad. The few pieces that are allowed into the U.S. have brought on a new level of international interest. “Right now is kind of an auspicious time because we're right on the cusp of change,” says Pravden. “Cuba is going to be the next hot spot of art.”

Art is just one element of Monte Vista Hotel's monthlong celebration of Cuba. The hotel will overflow with Cuban food, creative cocktails and Latin music each weekend of the exhibition. Highlights include an opening reception on July 20 and patio parties in July and August featuring Cuban-inspired food and drink, dancing under the stars and plenty of music.

Most of us will never set foot on Cuban soil. It's doubtful that any of us will receive a permit to see a Cuban artist's studio, much less bring those works to the U.S. AnTHM Gallery's Arte de Cuba! exhibit might be the only chance Americans have to view these particular works with their own eyes. Relish this opportunity to see Cuban art up close with a cocktail in one hand and Latin music flowing freely through the air.

Mountain Xpress  July 17, 2012

Image courtesy of artist Juan Carlos Muñoz