The influence of Fidel Castro can be felt here through familiar images.
Paintings capture families leaving Cuba by boat or innertube. Another image shows a naked man holding a rope and literally dragging the island nation which is surrounded by a fence. And there's "The Portrait of El Dictador" that shows a scowling pig wearing a military commander's hat.
Sharing the stories of Cuban exiles is the mission of the new American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora, which recently had a soft opening in Miami after four years of construction.
And the death of the Cuban leader Friday evening underscores the importance of the museum's place in the art world.
"The inadvertent legacy of the dictator and his brutal revolution is evident on every wall of our new museum, a virtual temple of artistic expression, conceived for reflection on the last 57 years," said Ileana Fuentes, the museum's founding director. "The American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora, and the message it delivers to the world has never been more relevant than it is today."
But it's not just the Cuban story being told here at the center. The inaugural exhibit, called "Dictators, terrorism, war and exiles," features 32 pieces of art work by Cuban exile artist, Luis Cruz Azaceta, a New Orleans resident. The collection also includes paintings and acrylic artwork related to the collapse of the World Twin Towers during Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and photographs and imagery from the 1993 Oklahoma City bombing.
"His art tells a story; it tells a story not just about Cubans but actually, it tells a story about Latin American dictators. It tells a visual story about domestic terrorism for example," Fuentes said. "War, everybody can relate to that both in their own countries and in many regions of the world. So it's not just about Cubans, except for the exile part of this exhibition. Most of it is generic."
The arts organization was formerly known as the Cuban Museum when it was founded in 1996. The group presented events at different venues from community centers and the Miami Dade Auditorium to Miami Dade College's Koubek Center.
"It was operating as a museum, an institution without walls," Fuentes recalled of the museum's earlier incarnation. "We didn't have a headquarters. We didn't have a facility."
With a $10 million grant from the Miami-Dade General Obligation Fund in 2004, the arts group was able to buy and begin renovations on the former rehearsal home of the Florida Grand Opera's Arturo di Filippi Center on Coral Way, by the Rhodes neighborhood in Miami. With the recession in 2011, those county funds were temporarily suspended, improvements on the building was halted and it fell to deterioration with roof leaks, said Fuentes.
"It had to be gutted, which was not in the plans," she said.
When funds became available again at the end of 2013, redevelopment of the 15,000-square-foot property continued, said Fuentes. The two-story building now boasts four gallery areas with 8,000 square feet of space, a theater that can accommodate 110 people for panel discussions and film events and a garden in the rear. There's also a grand winding staircase, gleaming white marble floors and sweeping high ceilings that call to mind old Florida homes.
With the new location also came a new name.
"The name change was in a response to a need to change the brand to make sure that in the name itself, it was clear what this museum's mission was," said Fuentes. "To say Cuban museum was very vague; is it Cuban from Cuba, is it Cuban from Miami, is it art, what is it? It wasn't clear."
Fuentes said "American" was added to the name "because it's in the United States which is the country that has given refuge, and future and a life to most of the Cuban diaspora. [The museum] is of the Cuban diaspora because it's about telling a story of a people that live all over the world, that have left their country, that their children and grandchildren have been successful for the most part. We are going to try and tell that through the arts and through scholarly activities, humanity activities."
She noted that the center also fits another category of museums called "museums of memory," similar to what other Holocaust and Jewish facilities do.
"We are filling a gap of an untold part of Cuban history and Cuban sociology, and Cuban art and Cuban letters, that part of the story that from the Cuban perspective is untold. It is not a part of the official story, and one of the objectives that we have here so that Cubans from the island can visit and learn what that part of the story that they never heard or saw is about, we are preserving that."
The current exhibit, which spans the two floors, will run through March 26. Fuentes said she would like to have a collaborative exhibition with the Lowe Art Museum at the University of Miami to present pieces of its collection of Cuban art. Another exhibit to open later in 2017 during Art Basel will focus on the work and stories of 18 "trail-blazing" Cuban-American artists from South Florida.
In the meantime, Fuentes and her staff are seeking accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums. They are also looking for new funds, donors and grants. An official grand opening is scheduled for May 1 during Miami Museum Month.
Fuentes said the ongoing migration of Cubans to the United States and afar will keep the museum busy in the years to come.
"The diaspora is far from over, the exile is far from the over, fleeing is far from over, so this is a story that is going to continue manifesting itself chapter after chapter after chapter," she said.
The American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora, 1200 Coral Way, is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. except Wednesdays. Visit thecuban.org