At first, Jorge H. Santis exclusively acquired works by the most notable Cuban artists living in the United States, the long-exiled and the often less-politically-correct new arrivals who refused to make public declarations against the Cuban government. Then in 2002, working through dealers and collectors with Cuba connections, Santis began to acquire significant works by some of the most promising artists still in Cuba.
''I was aggressive. I was ruthless,'' Santis says of his efforts to build a collection for a public museum, despite no acquisitions budget for the project, but also without the straitjacket of Miami's exile politics. What a difference that county line made.
In Unbroken Ties: Dialogues in Cuban Art (Sin rupturas), which opens to the public today at the Fort Lauderdale museum, Santis constructs a moving narrative about what it means to be Cuban on both sides of the Florida Straits.
By pairing works of some 40 artists inside Cuba and in exile, he weaves a dialogue that encompasses the drama of flight from the island, the values and beliefs that endure beyond revolution and exile and, in the end, speaks to a national identity undergoing inevitable evolution.
''I call it a Greek tragedy in three acts,'' Santis says of the exhibit, which is divided into sections: Paradise Lost; Risking Life and Limb, and Unbroken Ties/New Reality. ``It's a very, very risky show -- melodramatic, passionate and a bit depressing. I hope it's an emotional experience for the viewer.''
It will be. Behind every piece, a distinctive facet of the Cuban story unfolds.
All but two of the works in Unbroken Ties, organized in collaboration with Nova Southeastern University, are from the museum's Cuban contemporary-art collection of 221 works acquired through Santis' pitch for donations to artists, dealers and collectors.
''Jorge was a gentleman. He got close to us, and he exhibited our work in Fort Lauderdale when no museum in Miami would do it,'' says Gustavo Acosta, who left Cuba in 1991 and lived in Mexico and Spain before moving to Miami in 1994. ``Donating a work to him was a good way to introduce ourselves to the art scene, and Jorge staged good shows.''
Acosta's oil on canvas, Viendo morir y matando (Watching Death and Killing), is a haunting tribute to survival -- an image of the wing of the pigeon he killed in Spain to eat because he had no money.
Unbroken Ties showcases a fascinating assemblage of artists with riveting art and storied lives. Some left Cuba as children, came of age in exile and developed careers in Miami, Atlanta, Chicago, New York. Some left Cuba at mid-career, as did most of the 1980s generation. Some are second-generation, born in the United States or Puerto Rico to at least one parent of Cuban heritage.
Some remain on the island. One, Kcho, who has a record of supporting the Cuban government, is considered the island's ''official artist.'' The work produced by most of the others on the island can be interpreted as critical of the Cuban regime but also of U.S. policy toward Cuba.
''I tried to balance things out,'' says Santis, who left Cuba in 1963 and never returned. 'It's not an easy show, but it has historical importance. Usually, you see one work here, one work there, or one show with one theme. This one tries to create a narrative using works of art. A Cuban will feel `That's our history. Good or bad, it's our history.' ''
The exhibition opens with a few paintings that reference the colonial period, most notably the spectacular wall-sized oil on canvas Orilla (Riverbank, 1995) by Tomás Sánchez. It depicts the lush Cuban landscape that colonial diarists wrote about between the 15th and 18th centuries.
''It is Paradise, and it is lost,'' writes Carol Damian, interim director of the Frost Museum at Florida International University, in the catalog for the exhibition's debut last summer at the Museum of Latin American Art (MoLAA) in Long Beach, Calif.
The 65 pieces in the Fort Lauderdale show include stellar works from prominent artists of the '80s generation, such as José Bedia, Gléxis Novoa and Rubén Torres-Llorca. There's a seminal piece by Arturo Cuenca -- De la serie, Ciencia e Idelogía (Ché), (From the series, Of Science and Ideology, Ché, 1988-93), a hand-colored photo montage that speaks volumes of the disdain that generation felt toward the revolution's icons and ideology. The photo depicts the dilapidated scene from behind a billboard with Ché Guevara's image, and an exhortation for ''the revolutionary'' to be ``an indefatigable worker.''
Surely, one of the exhibit's most controversial pieces will be Requiem, a video created by Cuba-based José A. Toirac from images of the dead Guevara. Toirac tortuously pans, inch by inch, Guevara's bullet-riddled body. The video is shown inside a mausoleum-type enclosure.
Toirac, whose work resides in the permanent collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art, was awarded a residency at Arizona State University years ago. He defines himself as a ''realist'' who examines history and mythological revolutionary figures.
Not far from Toirac's piece is another poignant video, José's Reunion by Baton Rouge-born Lisandro López-Rey. The work chronicles the emotional meeting of a Miami exile and the daughter he had left behind in Cuba 38 years earlier. The daughter was 11 months old when José fled the island, and when she arrives at Miami International Airport with her grown son, she is so weathered by time and hardship she seems almost to have become an old woman herself.
That piece is surrounded by other works that speak of family separation and sorrow: an installation of suitcases from the 1950s by Ernesto Pujol; memory and light boxes in which fading family photos, trinkets, jewelry and letters are stored, sometimes in drawers that can't quite accommodate their load.
The lightbox piece by Juan Carlos Ballester (Untitled, 1995) illuminates a letter from a grandmother who admonishes her exiled grandchild not to forget her or the mother he left behind.
Then, from inside Cuba, Miguel Florido paints En un rincón del corazón (In a Corner of the Heart, 2002), a crumpled piece of paper covered with writing to a loved one far away, the letter's lines stricken through as if the writer had discarded it in the midst of the most intimate act of self-censorship.
Some works are unapologetic darts aimed at Fidel Castro.
In the acrylic on canvas El opresor (The Repressor, 1993), exiled artist Julio Antonio, who left Cuba in 1985, depicts a figure emitting a continuous, thorny loop that entraps figures who end up imprisoned in coffin-like shapes or flushed out to a sea dripping blood.
In 1,2,3 se acabó tu conteo (1,2,3 Your Countdown Is Over, 2006) Miami artist Carlos Luna, currently resident artist at the museum, shows a figure wearing boxing gloves who looks part guajiro (peasant), part Afro Cuban, part miliciano (the boots), part athlete (the shorts) -- all groups Castro has used for propaganda purposes or that seemingly have benefited from his policies. The figure is giving Castro's falling image a final, deadly punch.
Most of the artists from Cuba -- including Ibrahim Miranda and Sandra Ramos, who have exhibited widely in Miami -- deliver work that can be interpreted as politically critical.
In Miranda's El Féretro (The Coffin, 1991), a map of Cuba is covered by an ominous black tarp. Is it a coffin or a cocoon? Does it imply death or rebirth? Or is it a reference to the famous blackouts Cubans often endure?
In La balsa (The Raft, 1998), Ramos draws the shape of the island with red logs, two oars facing south, a faded Cuban flag for a sail. The island/raft floats in the middle of shark-infested waters, which some viewers have interpreted as a reference to the U.S. embargo.
Cuban artists in exile also critical of the reality that surrounds them are represented by works that dispel the myth that U.S. streets ''are paved with gold,'' Santis says.
They tackle issues such as street gangs and the grittiness of life in Chicago, child abuse and the AIDS epidemic that caused the death of acclaimed Cuban artists such as Carlos Alfonzo.
Another of the exhibit's themes is the religious-like fervor with which the leading figures of the Cuban Revolution were once embraced.
In one surreal historical photograph by Raúl Corrales, a bride in white marries a miliciano in fatigues and walks through a court of drawn guns spewing flowers. In Alejandro Aguilera's wood sculpture, two revolutionary figures appear to have saint-like qualities.
Surely, Unbroken Ties goes farther than most such exhibitions in the heavy-handedness of its political topics. But, Santis asks: ``How can you do a Cuban art show and not represent the politics? Everything Cuban is touched by politics.''
Still, he has faced criticism. In Long Beach, some members of the museum's board thought the exhibit was too critical of the Cuban government. Now in South Florida, some early reaction has shifted the other way.
Two Miami artists, Arturo Rodríguez and his wife Demi, whose works are in the show, canceled their appearances at a Friday media-preview press conference, citing displeasure at Kcho's inclusion.
''It's my own personal discomfort with an artist who acts like a government official,'' Rodríguez says. ``I'm not saying he shouldn't be exhibited. This is simply my personal protest.''
Santis says he understands such concern, but ``I could not leave Kcho out. He's part of Cuba's art history.''