There’s a piece at the Perez Art Museum Miami that, from afar, looks like an oil on canvas painting. The large, mostly black-and-white work captures a seascape.
But look closely, and the dark waves are actually made of fishing hooks –– about 550,000 of them.
It’s artist Yoan Capote’s way of depicting the ocean as seen through the lens of Cuba: as a way out of the island or a dangerous barrier keeping people in; as a place to contemplate the possibilities of a better future or to lament the lives lost in those waves; as a source of food and hope or as a dangerous place.
“The fish hook is a symbol. It’s a trap itself. And it’s a very aggressive object. It’s related with pain,” says Capote, whose piece, titled “Island (see-escape),” is part of a new exhibit at the museum. “For us, the sea is a political limit, and it’s a wall, and it’s an iron curtain.”
The piece is one of 170 works by contemporary Cuban artists displayed in the exhibit, “On the Horizon: Contemporary Cuban Art from the Jorge M. Pérez Collection.” Other featured artists include Alexandre Arrechea, Carlos Garaicoa, Hernan Bas, Teresita Fernandez, Enrique Martínez Celaya, Glexis Novoa and Zilia Sanchez.
The works were collected and donated by Jorge M. Perez himself, and will be displayed in three chapters of three months each, through April 8. They now are part of the museum’s permanent collection.
In “Chapter 1: Internal Landscapes,” many pieces express a desire for freedom and explore Cubans’ frustrating relationship with the sea.
Capote experienced this frustration first-hand. As a child in Pinar del Rio, fishing was a hobby. However, after moving to Havana to study art in the 1990s, it became a matter of survival.
“In the ’90s, I had to make my own food. There was no food, no meat, no beef,” he recalls. “I used to do it for my own support.”
He watched as friends decided to take a boat with the hopes of reaching Miami. Some never finished the journey.
“For Cubans, the sea is kind of the Wailing Wall. Almost every family in Cuba has a history related to the sea and to that isolation, or with the people that left,” Capote says. “This painting is an homage to those people, too. I really respect all the people that took that decision to risk their lives. It’s about risk, about getting hooked by the sea.”
He contemplated the idea of leaving his home country, he says, but never had the courage to leave his older family members behind.
“I have a lot of family. It’s very sad when young members of the family leave, and leave all those old family members living there,” Capote says. “Even if you send them money, they can’t survive.”
Art was Capote’s way out, exhibiting and selling works in other countries, but always returning to his homeland.
“Art saved me. We never imagined it could be a solution for our lives,” he says. “Politics have borders and have limits, but art doesn’t. Art can break those limits.”
For Perez, Cuban art was his way in. He was born in Argentina to Cuban parents and grew up in Colombia. He moved to the United States when he went to grad school — and collecting Latin American art became his way of staying connected with his Latin roots.
“It was a very traumatic period. I felt like Yoan Capote, that I was leaving behind friends, and childhood, and roots, and coming to something that was very different than the way I was growing up,” he recalls. “And while this is a great country and I’m very proud of being American, I’m also very Latin American in the way that I think and in the way that I was raised. And I was afraid of losing that.”
He says he began traveling to Cuba about six years ago looking for classic and contemporary art.
“Collecting Latin American art, going to those countries, meeting these artists is a way of staying grounded in my traditions, and it’s a way of showing the world what these artists have to offer,” he added.
In his last visit to Havana, Perez met with Capote and saw him working on another fish-hooks piece. That’s when Capote told him about his other work, “Island (see-escape),” which had been sold to a gallerist in Germany.
“So we immediately got in touch with the owner of the piece in Germany, and went through a biding process, and bought it,” Perez says.
For Capote, having his piece find a permanent home at the PAMM is an accomplishment. Since he finished the work in 2010, he wanted it to be exhibited in Miami, the place that so many Cubans have dreamed of while staring out at the sea.
“This is the best home this piece can have because this piece also represents the light that is beyond the horizon,” Capote says. “And in some ways, the piece being here, it closes a circle.”
“On the Horizon: Contemporary Cuban Art from the Jorge M. Perez Collection” will run through April 8. Admission is $12-$16. Call 305-375-3000 or go to PAMM.org.