If you think baseball is as “American” as apple pie, Stealing Base: Cuba at Bat will surprise you. This exhibition of contemporary Cuban art at Oglethorpe University Museum of Art through December 7 makes a case for America’s national pastime as a metaphor for Cuban society and a symbol of national identity.
Baseball was introduced to Cuba by brothers returning from college in Alabama just before the first Cuban independence movement in 1868. From the beginning, Cubans have associated baseball with a collective Cuban identity that crosses race, religion and politics.
The “Esquina Caliente,” or “Hot Corner,” in Havana’s Parque Central is a celebrated gathering spot where men of all ages, incomes and backgrounds heatedly debate baseball under the statue of revolutionary hero José Martí.
Like the Hot Corner, this show brings together diverse artists working in a variety of media who are linked only by their Cuban birth and the subject of baseball.
Reyneiro Tamayo parodies Cuban baseball fanaticism in El Cuarto Bate (The Cleanup Hitter). A cartoonish batter wearing the red Cuban uniform anxiously attempts to swing at a ball without capsizing the boat filled with fans perched on his shoulders.
La Virgin de la Caridad del Cobre (Our Lady of Charity), the patroness of Cuba, who sits atop the crowd looks worried. Is she worried about the game or does she fear that a strike will sink the hopes of the nation?
The theme recurs in Arlés del Rio Flores’ 2012 untitled charcoal and oil painting from the series Esperando que caigan las cosas del cielo or Deporte nacional (Hoping That Things Fall from the Sky or National Sport). Disembodied, glove-clad arms reach skyward, like tulips in a field, some rendered in color and others in fading gray. Are they straining for the ball or something else?
Either way, they are empty-handed. In the artist’s sculptural version of the theme, the bronze arms are skeletal, as if to suggest a long and fruitless effort.
Cuban-born Quisqueya Henríquez, the one artist added to the Atlanta iteration and the only female artist in the show, includes surreal collages commingling body parts of baseball players and females in her site-specific installation.
Cuban and U.S. contexts for baseball are compared in Atlanta-based Alejandro Aguilera’s Bill and the Baseball Game (2014). Re-created for the OUMA show, Aguilera’s corner installation features a white church surrounded with Mexican tiles and peanut-lined walkways, with a baseball diamond backyard. The surrounding hills, painted with red Georgia clay and populated by simply rendered genre scenes in the style of Alabama self-taught artist Bill Traylor, underscore baseball’s connection to everyday life in both Cuba and the American South.
The graphic renderings of Bernardo Navarro Tomás and Carlos Cárdenas pitch with a political spin. In Tomás’ The Old Ball Game, a ghostly cartoon Fidel Castro, wearing a Cuban national team uniform turned green, leans casually on a twisted tree branch in a bright-green ball field.
With staring baseball eyes, and a menacing skull-like face, he twirls a softball-sized globe on his skeleton finger. Posters of Communist leaders and slogans like Che Guevara’s famous appeal for Cuban self-determination — “Patria o Muerte (Homeland or Death)” — line the stadium walls, while scribbled lyrics of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” fill the dirty white sky to create a chilling image of dystopic dreams.
Baseball and artistic freedom elided in 1989. After relentless censorship of their work, young Cuban artists declared that since they could no longer paint, they would play baseball. In the current issue of the Art Journal, curator and independent researcher Tamara Díaz Bringas describes the event:
“Everyone was in costume. In that terrain of disguise the soldiers pretended to play softball, the artists pretended to play baseball, and the massive [illegal] protest of ‘young artists’ pretended to pass as an inoffensive ball game. After all, in a context where the right to strike was not permitted, perhaps this was only possible as transvestism.”
José Ángel Toirac’s delicate silver and oil painting of a batter at home plate, La Muerte en Pelotas (Homenaje a Antonia Eíriz) (Death in Baseball / Hommage to Antonia Eiriz), honors an artist hounded out of a career by censorship.
Knowing that baseball signifies artistic freedom in the Cuban context suggests a more complex readings of other works. Unfortunately, little history is provided to help viewers access the richer context.
Even so, Stealing Base: Cuba at Bat succeeds in demonstrating that, in Cuba, baseball is more than just a game.