Richmond Art Center features artists abroad and close to home

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Striking block prints illustrating scenes from the Cuban Revolution, pastel canvases full of memories from a childhood in Philadelphia, and a medley of photographs, sculptures and paintings from black artists throughout the Bay Area – in its first exhibitions of the year, the Richmond Art Center covers a lot of ground but keeps the connections local.

The Art Center opened its three newest exhibitions on Jan. 12. Its main gallery is host to The Art of Living Black, the 17th annual showcase of work by local black artists. In the Center’s Community Gallery, a solo show by Oakland artist Hilda Robinson features illustrations from her new children’s book, Didn’t We Have Fun!

The Center’s third exhibit, a set of 95 linoleum block prints by the Cuban artist Antonio Canet Hernandez, tells the story of the 1953 attack on the Moncada military barracks, the symbolic beginning of the Cuban Revolution. The series opens with a print quoting Jose Marti, a hero of Cuban independence: “Los grandes derechos no se compran co lagrimas – sino con sangre.” (“Fundamental rights are not bought with tears, but with blood.”)

“[Canet] really wanted the art to serve as a bridge so that people would understand some of what the Cuban struggle was all about,” said curator Tarnel Abbott.

The show is the result of Richmond’s sister-city relationship with the Cuban city of Regla, where Canet lived. Abbott, a retired Richmond librarian and member of the Richmond Regla Friendship Committee, met Canet on a trip to Cuba in the early 2000s. Canet died in 2008.

“He was a very short man, but he had this very big heart… everyone was welcome,” Abbott said. “He’d just open the door and you could come in. He was a very dear person.”

In 2003, Canet gave the series of prints “to the American people,” asking the Richmond Regla Friendship Committee to serve as its guardian. It took nearly a decade to raise the money to frame all the prints and find a space large enough to display them.

The series is as much history lesson as art. At its core is print #68, which declares, in Spanish: “The promise of the Moncada: End the exploitation of man by man.” The caption chosen by Canet is a quote from Fidel Castro: “…condemn me, it doesn’t matter, history will absolve me.”

“It’s overtly political and in support of the revolution,” Abbott said. “He was critical in some ways of the government, but in this piece he is definitely honoring how Fidel articulated what was wrong” with the Batista regime that preceded the revolution.

“Our relationship with people in Regla, they’ve always been extremely honest about the good of the revolution, the shortcomings of the revolution, the continuation of the revolution,” said Natalia Lawrence, a volunteer docent for the Canet show.

Docents are available to give tours every Saturday from 2-4 p.m. while the show runs. It was Lawrence who, while at a conference in Cuba, first spotted Regla across the bay from Havana and noted its similarities to Richmond – an industrial shoreline, an Afro-Cuban heritage mirroring Richmond’s African-American one.

As for things Richmond could learn from its sister city, “Arts are very well supported in Cuba,” Abbott said. “You ask them [artists] about a day job, they give you a really funny look.”

Most of the artists featured in The Art of Living Black do have day jobs. More than 50 local artists participated in this year’s show, the Center’s only non-juried exhibition each year, which accepts pieces from every artist who submits. Pieces range from Joseph Robinson’s solemn portrait of a Haitian boys’ choir (“Les Petits Chanteurs”) to Latisha Baker’s painting of a girl sauntering home from picking lilies (“Mission Accomplished”) to Lorraine Bonner’s sculpture of a head bound with barbed wire to $100 bills (“Benjamins”).

There are some unexpected links between the two shows. James Moore, from Oakland, had visited The Art of Living Black for years before he finally decided to submit a piece of his own – a photograph of children that he took in Havana, Cuba.

“There’s something about that island that’s different from any other island,” he said, as he stopped to admire the Canet prints.

Hilda Robinson’s show, Didn’t We Have Fun!, is tucked away in the center’s third gallery, but visitors who wander that way are rewarded with a series of large pastels dreamily depicting life growing up in a tight-knit African-American community in Philadelphia. “Paper Dolls,” a portrait of several girls dressed in their Sunday finest, carries the caption, “We made our own paper dolls and made boxes full of clothes. The shapes here remind me of those times.”

The RAC will host a public reception and panel discussions for both The Art of Living Black and Didn’t We Have Fun! on Feb. 9.

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