Published: April 29, 2016
MIAMI BEACH, FLA. — On the heels of renewed diplomatic relations and travel between the United States and Cuba, the Wolfsonian–Florida International University presents an exhibition exploring the two nations’ past connections and first major period of cultural exchange from 1920 to 1959. “Promising Paradise: Cuban Allure, American Seduction,” on view May 6–August 21, sheds light on the glamour and exoticism of tourism campaigns that lured Americans to their southerly neighbor, as well as the impact of Cuban culture in the United States that resulted from this contact — from rumba and mambo to Afro Cuban jazz and Latin nightclubs.
Complementing the hundreds of photographs, posters and promotional ephemera on display will be a series of reproduction record album covers and a floor installation of Arthur Murray dance steps in the Wolfsonian’s historic lobby, together activating the museum’s first floor with a summerlong celebration of Cuban music and dance.
In tandem with “Promising Paradise,” The Wolfsonian will acquire more than 1,000 works from collector, author and longtime Wolfsonian donor Vicki Gold Levi. The acquisition bolsters previous gifts of Cuban material by Levi to the museum, including a collection donated in 2002 of 400-plus objects ranging from cigar labels to magazine covers. Selections from both gifts will be included in “Promising Paradise,” in addition to loans and other items from the Wolfsonian’s permanent collection. Many of the gifted works are reproduced in the exhibition’s companion publication Cuba Style: Graphics from the Golden Age of Design, co-authored by Gold Levi with renowned art director and Wolfsonian advisory board member Steven Heller.
“We are thrilled to be presenting this exhibition on the cusp of a new dawn in Cuba-US relations,” said Wolfsonian chief librarian Francis X. Luca, who is co-curating the exhibition with Rosa Lowinger, noted Cuban-born conservator and author of Tropicana Nights: The Life and Times of the Legendary Cuban Nightclub. “These rare materials provide a glimpse into a period many Cubans and Americans have forgotten after more than 50 years of isolation. We’re excited to share Vicki Gold Levi’s gift with Miami, a city so richly influenced by the Cuban American community.”
Added donor Vicki Gold Levi: “I’ve had Latin rhythms in my DNA since growing up in Atlantic City, mamboing my way through high school dancing to Pérez Prado. As a picture editor and later as an author, I became further enthralled with Cuba. My collection is right at home at the Wolfsonian, where I know it will be the subject of continual study and reexamination for years to come.”
“Promising Paradise” features products of the pre-1959 tourist trade that framed Cuba as an escape for wealthy Americans from the bounds of Prohibition, Depression-era economic woes and wartime rationing. Through bold graphics, lush imagery and dazzling, enticing color palettes, these materials packaged and publicized the enchantment and beauty of Cuba for Americans, creating a fantasy of a dreamy island paradise.
The exhibition also addresses the role of Cuban tastemakers — artists, musicians, performers, graphic designers and the Cuban Tourist Commission — in shaping this vision of Cuba for American audiences in travel brochures, posters and promotional films.
Key works include a late 1920s sheet music cover for Cuban dances, Siboney, a true Cuban-American collaboration between Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona and American lyricist Dolly Morse; a film poster for the 1949 classic Holiday in Havana, with Mary Hatcher and a pre-I Love Lucy Desi Arnaz; Cuba, Ideal Vacation Land: Tour Guide (1951–52), touting a colorful book cover associating the island with the allure of a long-limbed, swimsuit-clad woman; and a brightly designed, abstract playbill, circa 1955, from the Tropicana Club, also in Havana.
Many of the works speak to historic issues of race and gender in representing ideas of the tropics, the exotic and the “other” — resulting in a highly constructed portrayal of Cuban culture. Women and the female body played prominent roles, as did acknowledgments of the Latin American and African geneses of jazz, rumba and other popular music and dance genres of the first half of the Twentieth Century.
“‘Promising Paradise’ marks new territory for The Wolfsonian,” said museum director Tim Rodgers. “As we continue to research the collection generously gifted to us by Vicki Gold Levi, we look forward to building upon these opportunities to tell the nuanced, complex stories of Cuba and the US — neighboring cultures that together shaped Miami into what it is today.”
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