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  • Mia Humphrey

Finding Place: Meeting Ana Flores

Ana Flores, a Cuban-American artist based in Charlestown, RI, uses her sculptures to explore identity and place.

Ana Flores on the balcony of her studio in Charlestown, Rhode Island.

I got lost on my way to artist Ana Flores’s house—Google Maps can’t locate a home that exists amongst the trees. After calling her to get directions, I pulled into Flores’s driveway, only identifiable by the lonely mailbox sticking out into the road. Beyond the road cutting through the town of Charlestown, Rhode Island, I was suddenly engulfed in a bright green canopy of trees with no sound of modern life—only chirping birds. We were greeted by Flores’s barking dog, Brody, followed closely by Flores. As I entered her oasis, I understood why this was where Flores finally found her sense of belonging. As soon as I stepped out of the car, she offered me tea and coffee and I followed her into her home.

Ana Flores is a Cuban-American sculptor and painter who grew up in the Northeastern US. Flores, age 6 at the time, left Cuba with her family in 1962 after realizing that Castro’s 1959 Revolution promise of a new and independent Cuba was in fact the beginning of a repressive era. Flores’s art explores place through the use of both natural and found materials. When making sculptures, her style is often to take something typical—a hand, a chair, a body—and transform it with natural materials such as thorns, logs, or roots from her backyard. Her artwork is evocative of moving in an entrancing forest, using earth tones and curving lines. Intricately carved wood contrasts with her use of naturally rough textures. The art focusing on her Cuban identity uses brighter colors and less natural materials and has the same strong sense of grounding and place as her environmentally focused art.

Flores’s home is a cozy cabin in the woods with every space adorned by sculptures and paintings. Near the kitchen is a set of glass doors opening to a side porch where I picture the artist lounging with a book, contemplating the trees. Flores and her husband built a home here in Southern Rhode Island after Flores graduated from RISD in Providence, RI in 1979. After serving me coffee and a thick slice of freshly made cornbread, Flores led me outside to her studio, Brody in tow.

When Flores left Cuba, she moved to Connecticut. She arrived in winter in the thick of a snowstorm—something she had never experienced in her island home. Arriving in the Northeast in the 1960s, she also experienced what it was like to be surrounded by people who didn’t speak her language or share her culture. However, Flores was able to avoid harsher discrimination because, as she put it, “We were white and didn't look very Cuban, we blended in except for the last name.” For Flores, being white-passing meant needing to hide some aspects of her Cuban identity - a painful silencing of the self.

Flores’s art was her way of navigating the space in-between whiteness and Cubanness. While she always felt the immense pride of being Cuban, it took a trip to New Zealand to make her feel the need to be more connected with that part of her identity. As we sat on the balcony of her art studio overlooking a forest of green, sunlight streaming through leaves and warming the wood beneath our feet, Flores explained that in New Zealand, “The Maori give you their Maori name, which canoe their ancestors came on, what was the mountain of their ancestor, and the river. They tell you who they are. I felt so ignorant of who I am… after I went to New Zealand, I realized I really needed to go back to Cuba. I needed to know where I began.” Flores returned to Cuba for the first time in 40 years.

“The first trip was an awakening for me—of finding my roots, finding that I was so Cuban in so many ways. I knew my mountains. I knew my river. Then I came home and I rooted even more deeply in this place because now I knew the starting point. I realized I have to get my own island first and then build out from there.”

From this regained sense of place, Flores was inspired to create her first large-scale exhibit using sculpture to explore communism and the Cuban Revolution of 1959. In the installation, visitors were greeted by a larger-than-life Castro puppet made of paper maché and mosquito netting. Its looming arms stretched over a blue wooden box representing the famous Malecón wall in Havana. It threatens the small wooden figurines of locals lounging by the ocean below.

In another sculpture, Fidel y Che Crank Toy, a small and menacing Fidel Castro and Che Guevara stood next to a palm tree, braced with guns at the ready, their beards proudly embodying the Cuban machismo culture Castro was so famous for. If you twisted the crank, the soldiers began to dance. It is made of metal spare parts—wood scraps, a can, a gear—a reference to the scarcity experienced by Cubans when they lined up for rationed essentials monthly. The toys are a nod to the “ingenuity” of people in Cuba under the constraints of Communism and the isolation on the island.

Cuban Dancing Toys. Courtesy of Ana Flores. Photographed by Kris Craig.

Equally playful in its political commentary, The Island Draws Me was a second show focusing on Cuba that exhibited at the Newport Art Museum in 2012. Rocking Rooster, a wooden sculpture reminiscent of a toy horse painted in rich reds, oranges, and yellows is one piece Flores created for the show. The vivid tones and expression bring the rooster to life, mouth agape and feet in motion. Roosters are integral to Cuban identity; the artist built these as thrones for dictators to pose for official portraits as a form of satire. “I thought, well, Cuban dictators just need a rocking rooster,” Flores jokes.

Rocking Rooster. Courtesy of Ana Flores. Photographed by Kris Craig.

Flores reflects on the prominent history of prostitution in Cuba with the series Havana Sirens. She explains its complicated place in Cuba, both in the past and present, “There was a lot of tourism because of prostitution. The Castro government always said, ‘we're not allowing prostitution’ but a lot of women had to turn to prostitution to pay the bills. The siren imagery is the women luring people into the island.” The oil paintings on paper feature sirens in rich aqua washes, the rough lines of their silhouettes contrasting with their collaged faces.

Havana Siren #1. Courtesy of Ana Flores. Photographed by Kris Craig.

Throughout her career, the artist developed a perspective on her homeland from afar, seeking for a distinct identity as a Cuban artist outside of Cuba.

Flores recounts the difficulty of making Cuban art from the safety of the US. “There was this great divide in the art world. ‘You're not a real Cuban artist because you were here, and you really have to be on the island,” she says. Making art in Cuba is dangerous. The Cuban government violently represses rebellion and blames dissidence on artists and their expression. Because of this, many artists in Cuba have either been in or are currently in exile or prison, and many can’t leave the island. Censorship has always been an issue for artists in Cuba, but has come to the forefront of Cuban politics even more so since the July 11th, 2020 island-wide rebellion that was sparked by the Cuban government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, among many other things. Specifically, the Cuban government arrested the artists involved in the making of the Grammy award-winning song, “Patria y Vida,” which the government claimed caused the rebellion. Flores’s distance allows her to safely tackle Cuba’s political climate, connecting it to her life in Rhode Island.

However, Flores was censored in the United States. In 1998, her sculpture Gaia provoked a controversy at a university library, where administrators requested to move the sculpture to a less prominent gallery. The artist had displayed a tree root with sculpted adobe legs shaped to evoke a woman’s body giving birth. Flores was inspired by the shape of the root. “I thought, this looks like it's almost like the womb of the earth.” Flores withdrew Gaia from the university and took it to other galleries, including the National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington.

After the experience with Gaia, Flores was inspired to turn to public art and community-based projects including Poetry Of The Wild, a series of birdhouse-like boxes planted on hiking trails throughout the country, connecting people with a sense of place. Hikers are encouraged to write poetry on notebooks inside the boxes as a way to connect to their environment.

Sitting on Flores’s balcony, I felt a sense of calmness, a connection to her place but also to my own. I asked Flores about how she felt about being in-between—being neither here nor there.

As she gazed out at the expanse of green fractured by sunlight, her arm resting on the ledge of her balcony, she said, “You carry the compost of your ancestors. Whether you accept it or not, that DNA is affecting you. The more you understand these places that made you, the better you’ll understand how you respond to the present. You will never know how all these things have shaped you, but it’s fascinating to dig in.”

After I said my goodbyes to Flores and Brody, I pulled out past the mailbox standing amongst the trees and left the forest oasis.


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