Juan Francisco Elso: Por América offers a captivating retrospective of the brief, yet significant career of the late Cuban artist. The exhibition features over 70 works by Juan Francisco Elso and a multigenerational group of artists like Glenn Ligon and Belkis Ayón, and introduces new commissions from Tiona Nekkia McClodden and Reynier Leyva Novo. Por América presents the largest survey of Elso’s career to-date, showcasing the evolution of his practice, from his experimentation with new materials to incorporating Indigenous traditions, Afro-Caribbean beliefs, and post-colonial perspectives.
From the Curator
Juan Francisco Elso (Cuban, 1956–1988) was an artist active in Cuba and Mexico during the 1980s who rose to international prominence in the 1990s following his untimely death from cancer at age 32. Using natural, earthen materials, his sculptural practice examines the complex formations of contemporary Cuban, Caribbean, and Latin American identities. His artistic philosophy is grounded in the rich, Indigenous histories of the Americas, as well as the impacts of centuries of colonial oppression and the Transatlantic slave trade. As reflected in his works, which contest and reconceive inherited narratives and mythological traditions, Elso’s América is a transnational cultural imaginary. It proposes a worldview that crosses the northern and southern hemispheres and a history that is still being shaped and rewritten.
Based in Havana, Elso was part of the first generation born and educated after the 1959 Cuban Revolution. He married the Mexican artist Magali Lara in the late 1980s and lived briefly in Mexico City in the years leading up to his death. The artist’s modest artistic output—some thirty sculptures and works on paper produced between the mid-1970s and 1988—has continued to resonate across the globe. His best-known sculpture, Por América (For America) (1986), is considered an icon of late 20th-century Latin American art and a precursor to art today that restructures knowledge and power through decolonial perspectives.
Despite Elso’s influence, his artistic production has had very little exposure in the United States since the early 1990s. The fragile nature of his art, coupled with the complexities of U.S.–Cuban political relations, has made the loan and display of his work challenging. Confronting such limitations, this exhibition brings together nearly all of Elso’s mature works, including newly discovered drawings and works previously believed lost. Presented through a contextual approach, Elso’s visionary artwork is positioned at the center of a multigenerational dialogue of artists active in the Caribbean, and throughout North, South, and Central America.
Organized into interrelated thematic sections featuring works by more than 30 artists, the exhibition offers vital crosscurrents between Elso’s art and the creative output of close colleagues and others who, despite having not known him, demonstrate parallel affinities. Together, Elso and this polyphonic cohort reflect a reorientation of Western attitudes towards the Americas and open new possible alternatives centered there.
Artists in this exhibition include:
Belkis Ayón. José Bedia . Ricardo Brey . Tania Bruguera . María Magdalena Campos-Pons . Luis Camnitzer . Los Carpinteros (Alexandre Arrechea, Marco Castillo and Dagoberto Rodriguez) . Albert Chong . Papo Colo (Francisco Colón Quintero) . Maria de los Angeles Rodriguez Jiménez . Jimmie Durham . Melvin Edwards. Carlos Estevez . Scherezade García . Silvia Gruner . Karlo Andrei Ibarra . Graciela Iturbide . Magali Lara . Reynier Leyva Novo . Kcho (Alexis Leyva Machado) . Glenn Ligon . Rogelio López Marin (GORY) . Ana Mendieta . Lorraine O'Grady . Marta María Pérez Bravo . Gustavo Pérez-Monzón . Michael Richards . Alison Saar . Leandro Soto . Renée Stout . Gerardo Suter . Ruben Torres Llorca . Tiona Nekkia McClodden