On Cuban Art in Panama, as told by Nivaldo Carbonell
By Rigoberto Otaño
Over the last few years, Panama has grown closer and closer to Cubans. Whether this closeness is due to its geographic proximity, or the similar climate and culture, on more than one occasion the Isthmus has been a mandatory reference point. Of course, art is no exception. For some time, the news of a gallery in Panama dedicated to promoting young Cuban artists has been making the rounds, especially locally. By now, the project is firmly established and we spoke with its director, Nivaldo Carbonell.
How did the gallery start and why such interest in Cuban art produced in Cuba?
It’s been four years already since the NG Art Gallery was created. The reasons have a great deal to do with my passion for Cuban culture in general. I’ve been collecting Cuban art for years and as a result have a considerable portfolio that includes the works of Servando Cabrera, Portocarrero, Roberto Fabelo and Manuel Mendive, among others. As time went on, I began to collect other work, by Adonis Flores, the Capote brothers, and a group of young artists who are part of what I like to call the Post-It Generation. Also, my daughter Gabriela Carbonell recently finished her studies in Art History at the University of Palermo in Buenos Aires, with a thesis on the work of Servando Cabrera.
What aspects did you keep in mind as you established your artists’ roster?
More than anything, we look for a balance, both generationally, as well as in the work and the different styles. For instance, we have two of the undisputed masters of Cuban art: Manuel Mendive and Roberto Fabelo. And we also work with other artists with very prestigious names (like Rigoberto Mena and Moisés Finalé), but it’s the art by young Cuban artists (30-40 years of age) that provides the bulk of the work. In that sense, we are working with artists from the generation of the early 2000’s (Adonis Flores and Frank Martínez), and on into the Post-It group (Niels Reyes, Jorge Otero, Alex Hernández, Adrián Fernández, Ariamna Contino, Mabel Poblet, Rodolfo Valdés, Jorge Dáger, José Luis Bermúdez and Rafael Villares, among others) and even young artists under 30 (Gabriel Cisneros). As for the media, we have a wide spectrum, from Otero’s stitched photographs to Cisneros’ sculptures, or the hyper-realist charcoal sketches by Dáger.
The other thing that’s fundamental for me as well, is knowing the artist as an individual – something that’s practically as important as the quality of their work. In order to do this kind of work, interpersonal relationships are absolutely essential; you need to really know each one of the artists, understand what motivates them, their muses, and be clear about how far they can go at your side. Once these elements have been defined, you’re halfway there.
We understand that you’ve also exhibited at international fairs. What kind of relationships do you have in that arena and how has Cuban art been received there?
NG at heart is based on defending our artists in a variety of sectors within the art world. The international fairs are certainly one of those. One of the most important for our market is Ch.ACO in Santiago de Chile, where we’ve already participated twice. Another is the SCOPE Art Show, where we’ve been able to participate in four exhibitions over just two years.
It’s a rigorous process, since we need to plan an entire year’s work in advance, with respect to the artists. We don’t even begin to put together the roster for each fair until we are absolutely clear on the lines they intend to follow. For us, the process is just as exciting as arriving at the shows themselves.
With respect to the reception of our artists, I can tell you about something that happened at SCOPE Miami Beach in 2015. This was the first time that we’d presented Jorge Otero’s work Sin título [Untitled] (2015), more commonly known as La Vaca [The Cow]. It was such a resounding success that the SCOPE team used it as the image for the entire fair. This is an enormous achievement if you keep in mind that approximately 200 galleries, many of them from New York or London, representing works by Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons, exhibit at each fair.
Finally, why Panama?
Even though I’m Cuban, I’ve been living in Panama for more than 20 years, and that’s given me the opportunity to witness its gradual growth. Remember that Panama was a pioneer in marketing Cuban art back in the 1980’s, when it provided an essential platform for the careers of Pedro Pablo Oliva, Julio Larráz and Tomás Sánchez, among others. So I’d say that there was already a tradition of successful relations between Cuban art and the so-called Hub of the Americas.
As well, Panama City is currently one of the most cosmopolitan capitals in Latin America and even though its growth has been unparalleled in the last few years, it still didn’t have a gallery dedicated heart and soul to art produced by young Cubanm artists. And evidently we weren’t mistaken. The proof is found in the massive acceptance by the Panamanian public and local collectors, and even by the Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC by its Spanish initials). Although I must admit that the journey ahead remains arduous, every step we take is reinforced by the absolute quality of the work we represent. Beyond any kind of provincialism, our artists are creating good art at the global level, while still incorporating autochthonous codes, something they’ve been capable of demonstrating at every step along the way.