Meet the Cuban-American Artist Who Has Made Fans of Beyonce and Jay Z

Kari Herrin
Artist Jose Parla

At his Art Basel opening, Brooklyn-based Jose Parla talks Cuba and Castro.

This Art Basel in Miami Beach, artist Jose Parla is going back to his roots.

For "Roots" — the artist’s Rolls-Royce Art Programme exhibition in collaboration with the Savannah College of Art and Design at the Jewel Box at the National YoungArts Foundation — the Cuban-American artist, who was born in Miami and spent his formative years living there, created a body of work that serves as a biographical narrative that pays homage to his Cuban heritage.

The Brooklyn-based Parla, whose opening was attended by Diplo and Miami Heat player Chris Bosh, and who counts Jay Z and Beyonce as fans, painted the large-scale mural on the grand floor of One World Trade Center. The exhibition, which was curated by the newly minted Detroit Institute of Arts contemporary art curator Laurie Ann Farrell, begins with “Nuevo Rumbo,” a six-foot-by-24-foot painting that traces Cuba’s history through an abstract landscape containing calligraphic script, pale yellows, deep greens, white and light blue.

“You can imagine all the turmoil from 500 years of slavery to the genocide of the tribes in Cuba, all the way through to the Cuban independence from Spain, to the next 50 years that would lead to the Cuban revolution of Fidel Castro somewhere in the middle, and then to world events like the Bay of Pigs invasion that led to Cuban Missile Crisis, and all the way to the point where Obama announces talks with the Cuban government,” explained Parla. “You see the paintings start to open up, sort of as the clouds are parting and it symbolizes this hope, and now as fate would have it, and history has placed us in a time where the elections here have been really difficult, and Fidel Castro dies.”

Parla asserted that Castro’s death last week affected the Cuban community at home, in Miami and globally. “In Cuba you have people who loved and admired him who are mourning him, and in the United States and in Miami, I saw people celebrating his death, dancing in the streets,” said the artist. “I don’t take part in either side. I believe that Cubans now more than ever have to really examine where we’re all going, and we need to collaborate with the Cubans on the island and they need to collaborate with the Cubans here, and Cubans all over the world.”

“Roots,” which runs through December 15, also traces the journey of Parla’s grandfather, aviator Agustin Parla, through a triptych named "Patria, Hatuey, and 24 de Febrero" (Cuba’s independence day), after three Cuban naval ships that were supposed to guide the flight of his grandfather and Domingo Rosillo to Cuba from Key West in 1912. “My grandfather taking off late, didn’t have the ships to travel the distance, so he traveled without them as a guide, and traveled with a compass under a storm, and he went further because he ended up in different changes,” Parla said.

The artist wants viewers to reflect on their own stories while looking at the works. ”They’re meant to be windows for everyone’s own biographical narrative, so it’s like putting yourself in someone else’s shoes,” he said.

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