In Coffee and Crepes, a restaurant on Cesar Chavez Avenue, 15 watercolors depicting Antonio Guerrero’s life in prison will be featured through March 30. The exhibit, called “I Will Die the Way I Lived” and organized by the Ciudad de Libertad, aims to promote awareness of Guerrero and the Cuban Five — five Cubans who the Ciudad de Libertad believes were wrongly incarcerated for spying on anti-Cuban terrorist groups while in Florida.
This political element defines the exhibition, and those who visit should expect to engage in a political, rather than a historical, art discourse with the paintings. Guerrero learned to paint while in prison, taking lessons from fellow inmates, and as such, the watercolors are simple. One of the organizers, Professor Carlos Ugalde from Glendale College, has written a letter to President Barack Obama and hopes that this exhibit will inspire people to sign it. As such, any attendants should not expect art in the vein of Van Gogh, but in the vein of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Ugalde brought up the Rivera quote, “All art is political,” and this exhibit serves as a testament to that.
Norton Sandler, another coordinator, also stressed the political aspects of the exhibit.
“Well, our goal is to win support for the release of the five,” said Sandler. “[On Feb. 27] Fernando Gonzales was released from prison. He’s the second of the five to be released. The other three are serving long, long sentences, and we’re trying to raise awareness of this injustice and raise support for the release of the other three. These paintings focus on conditions in prison, especially in the beginning of the incarceration.”
Though the watercolors do not exhibit aesthetic mastery, their political power is significant. One of the paintings, “El Recibimiento (The Welcoming),” depicts Guerrero’s arrival in prison. A ratty bed with a roll of toilet paper greets the viewer, and bilingual signs tell the story of Guerrero’s entrance into “the hole,” otherwise known as solitary confinement. These signs, which tell stories of resistance and craftiness, provide the brunt of the exhibition’s power.
After all, these paintings tell a story from a prisoner’s perspective. A picture of an air vent holds no power, but the story of how Guerrero could use that air vent to read poetry to his Cuban brothers holds meaning. This emphasis on a prisoner’s point of view transforms mundane objects into compelling political symbols, with an example being “Ajedrez (Chess),” which depicts a chessboard that the Cuban Five created out of the few objects granted them. For those interested in the incarceration from the viewpoint of the incarcerated, these pictures serve as a look into America’s prison system.
The exhibition also shows the power of alternative media. Ugalde expressed the lack of knowledge on the Cuban Five, due to the lack of mass media backing. Though one of the five was released a week ago, Ugalde says, no articles were written on his release or on this continuing issue.
The small venue allows for an intimate experience with the organizers, who hope to be present as much as possible. A poetry reading will be held on March 14 and a film will be screened on March 30. This alternative to other art galleries, such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, provides one-on-one discussion and community involvement, which, given the political nature of the pieces, seems necessary.
Those looking for simple viewing without politics should not attend this exhibit, but those who hope to learn more about an ongoing issue in international relations should attend. The printed text does a good job of contextualizing the issue, showing the recent release of Gonzales, and the benefit concert held in his name in Cuba.
Though this might seem strange to most modern viewers of art, this is what the exhibit aims to do, and does so successfully. The organizers have made it clear that this is a didactic move, so for people who wish to be taught the intimacy of it, it makes it indispensible. Those who already know of the Cuban Five, or have already made up their minds, however, need not attend, unless they’re looking for a political conversation or hoping to sign Ciudad de Libertad’s letter to the president.
But will it make new converts to Ciudad de Libertad’s cause? That is difficult to say. The art, even coupled with the writing, does not seem powerful enough to do so, but maybe the intimate connection with the docents will.