You don't even need to step inside the Studio Museum in Harlem to expect the unexpected. The red, black and green American flag waving high above its doors indicate you're in for something different.
The epitome of this resides in Cuban artist Geandy Pavόn's head.
Born in Cuba in 1974, Pavόn pursued street art with his group called La Zampana, or "The Bell," while attending Las Tunas Art School. Of course, in such turbulent times during the 80's in Cuba, rebelling against the established order wasn't welcome. Eventually he left Cuba for a better life in the United States, specifically New York, where he studied at the National Museum of Fine Art for four years.
That experience and education brought Pavόn to the Studio Museum's opening reception, where his visual installation is currently on display. Amongst the vibrant paintings and incredible sculptures showcased at the museum, Pavόn's TV screen makes one stop and watch a hand "painting" a clear solution over a blank sheet of paper, only to have a man's face appear in the liquid.
After speaking with Pavόn we learn the substance used is dextrose, a type of sugar, which Pavόn uses to paint over a projection of the face of Orlando Zapata, an Afro-Cuban mason, plumber and political activist who, in 2009, went on a hunger strike for over 80 days in protest of the Cuban government while imprisoned for contempt, public disorder and disobedience.
According to the artist, Zapata was imprisoned for speaking out against the designated prison garb and harsh treatment of the prisoners. Towards the end of his days, Cuban officials finally fed him dextrose to keep him alive--but it was too late. He died from kidney failure soon after.
Pavόn explains why he took interest to this kind of art:
“I started writing poetry, but I wanted to tell a story about the substances I was portraying in something related to them,” he says. “I project a video onto the ceiling, pour a small pool of the substance onto the canvas, and as I brush the substance you begin to see the ceiling’s reflection, like a mirror.”
Pavόn has done the same artwork for African-American man Troy Davis, who was convicted of and executed for the murder of a police officer in Georgia. In the piece, the American flag is mirrored in one of the liquids used for lethal injection (which is how Davis was executed), with Davis’s face in place of the stars.
Pavόn exhibition joins other pieces from the Studio Museum's Artists in Residence collection including Caribbean-centered pieces featuring the experiences of African descendants in the Americas, and photography from high school students in an eight-month program titled: "Illusions: Expanding the Walls."
"I feel like it [the Zapata video] is a piece made for that museum," says Pavόn. "It is ironic to me that is down the street from the Teresa Hotel, where 53 years ago Fidel Castro stayed when he came to New York for the first time as the head of state."
To see Pavόn's exhibition, head to the Studio Museum Harlem (144 West 125th Street, between 7th and Lenox Avenues, 212.864.4500). For more photos from the museum's opening reception, check out the collection below:
Photos: Diamond Bradley