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GRAFT (Cuba) is the latest iteration in Edra Soto’s ongoing series GRAFT (2012-, made after a trip to Cuba in 2018 as a participant in Cross Currents Artist Exchange. The series is Soto’s homage to rejas, or the distinctive architectural screens intrinsic to Puerto Rican domestic architecture she grew up with.The beautifully engineered decorative panels that are the basic forms of GRAFT are inspired the white painted wrought iron screens covering doors, porches and windows that were widely used in mid-twentieth century Puerto Rican domestic architecture. Rejas are a distinctly Boricua (native Puerto Rican) strategy of visual pleasure, aestheticizing security screens whose purpose is to protect the inhabitants and their possessions. Soto’s screens also invoke an earlier Caribbean spatial practice; the wrought iron screens used to frame the balconies and secure the open windows and doors of Puerto Rican colonial homes. Such screens were more common and more practical than glass windows in the tropics, allowing cooling breezes to circulate through interiors in the tropical heat. GRAFT quotes forms of decorative screening that predate colonial Spanish America: decorative wrought iron in Spain, implemented as a result of the North African conquest of Spain and the Moorish occupation that brought Moorish cultural practices (including architectural) to Spain where they were absorbed into “lo Español”. From there, Moorish elements were incorporated into Spanish colonial architecture (a style known as mudejar) throughout the Spanish Americas; in the 20th century, enthusiasm for earlier architectural forms led to practices like the decorative screens of Puerto Rican houses, and lately to Edra Soto’s reiteration of the form in her ongoing project, where they once again generate Caribbean/American paradoxes. That is, they attract and repel, invite in and keep out, protect and reveal. Screens restrict entry and exit but they allow visibility; they require intentional looking (perhaps a form of voyeurism?), since a casual glance does not yield the whole picture.

 

The screens evoke visual and spatial Caribbean colonial and twentieth century history for delight as well as to critique or comment on issues of social justice, (including the legacies of slavery and colonialism and the asymmetrical effects of political ideologies and economic inequality), and personal narratives (exile, nostalgia, frustration, longing and desire). Nostalgia, across both time and distance is at work in GRAFT; while GRAFT points to the other embedded histories I have mentioned above, it does so only in the most oblique sense, like a shadow or a pentimento haunting the edges of beauty.

 

The screens are at once decorative, comprised of graceful geometric arcs and repetitive interlocking motifs, and proscriptive, evocative of a jail, a birdcage, a fence. They serve to demarcate a boundary between “pure” interior zone and the contaminated public space of the street. While in English reja is translated as screen, screen also describes a surface for projection, (cerca in Spanish). Thus, although the title GRAFT alludes to the action (grafting) represented by the project, the screen of rejas also serves as a pantalla, screen for projection—the projection of meaning and memory. Soto has installed GRAFT in previous iterations, from the exterior porch of a residential gallery where it “grafted” Caribbean architectural motifs onto indigenous Chicago domestic architecture and a gallery in the Chicago Cultural Center, among others. GRAFT is rhizomatic, without punctum, infinitely repetitive and meditative. With a flat, decorative visual interface the screens are visually engaging, unobtrusive; they allow viewers to make connections between institutions and regimes of restriction without insisting that they do so.

 

In GRAFT (Cuba), she reprises this strategy with photos taken during her visit to Cuba. This way, Soto invites viewers to share her experience—of place, of memory, of the human and natural environment. Cuba, our closest non-contiguous neighbor, has long occupied an outsized place in the U.S. imagination as a site of fascination and fear since the triumph of the revolution in 1959. During her visit, Soto was interested in the everyday, the nondescript places and interactions that make up a place, not the iconic tourist sites sold as a pre-packaged fantasy.

 

Soto would like GRAFT to stand as a provocation: to make viewers think about asymmetries of power, to consider who is excluded, who is inside, who has privacy, who surveils. The imposition of alien forms on the host; the “unnatural” dependence of this alien form on the host—which is alien? Which is host? The “grafting” of subaltern forms originating in the colonial periphery onto the metropolis, and the grafting of colonial, metropolitan forms onto the periphery. These practices reference the immigrant and migration; those who, like Soto, have lived with imported forms in their home place, and those who have migrated and taken root in the metropolis.

- Alison Fraunhar

 

Alison Fraunhar, is Associate Professor at Saint Xavier University in Chicago. Dr. Fraunhar teaches courses in Modern and Contemporary, Latin American and Women's Art and Film Studies. She has published numerous articles on Cuban visual culture and is presently at work on a book manuscript examining the intersection of race and gender in Cuban national identity. She has traveled to Cuba often over the last decade and is very familiar with the arts community there.

Installation view of GRAFT (Cuba)

Installation view of GRAFT (Cuba)

Installation view of GRAFT (Cuba)

Installation view of GRAFT (Cuba)

Installation view of GRAFT (Cuba)

Installation view of GRAFT (Cuba)

Installation view of GRAFT (Cuba)

Installation view of GRAFT (Cuba)

Installation view of GRAFT (Cuba)

Installation view of GRAFT (Cuba)

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