The painting I have chosen to describe and interpret is Éxodo Cubano (Cuban Exodus) by Asilia Guillén. It was completed in 1963 and is oil on canvas. According to the painting’s formal description, Guillén had been an embroider all her life before turning to painting at the age of 63, encouraged by the Nicaraguan poet Enrique Fernàndez Morales. The formal description relates that initially Guillén translated her embroidery projects to oil but later began painting historical and social objects and events.
The painting, which is very colorful, features an island – the viewer could safely assume it is Cuba – in water. A crescent moon shines brightly in a rather cloudy sky. The island is surrounded by several other smaller islands or rocks. One of the smaller islands features a fort with cannons; the fort is painted red and yellow. There are seven boats and rafts in the water surrounding the big island, as well as a barrel. The biggest raft features the Cuban flag. There appear to be all kinds of people in the boats and on the floats, adults and children. Some people seem to be rowing the boats and rafts. The water doesn’t appear to be too rough, but it also doesn’t seem very calm either. The water seems to shine in the moonlight. The wind seems pretty strong, based on the sails and flags, as well as the waves.
The main island features what seems to be a church painted yellow. There are seven houses on the island – one painted blue in the middle part of the island, three houses painted pink on different parts of the island, one house painted orange on the left of the island, and one painted a kind of salmon or melon color on the upper part of the island. The houses are surrounded by different kinds of trees, including palm trees, and fields full of growing crops. The island is very green. There are also several people on the island – it is more difficult to determine how many individuals there are on the island. Some are walking along the shore of the island. Others seem grouped together. In general brush strokes are not evident.
In terms of interpretation, the simplest meaning is that the painting is about Cubans leaving Cuba to seek opportunities elsewhere. The boats, rafts, and houses are very simple though not quite primitive, which suggests that Cuba was not very modern. The fact that farming seems to be the biggest thing on the island also suggests that Cuba was not very modern. Of the buildings on the island, the largest is the church, suggesting the significance of religion. Though a quick review of Cuban history reveals that Cuba was considered an atheist state during the time the painting was created, the presence of the church either suggests the importance of religion to the Cuban people anyway, or the importance of religion to the artist.
The many farm fields might also suggest that the artist may be familiar with farming. The formal description indicates that the lack of people is evidence of people fleeing from Castro’s death squads, though unless one knows Cuba’s history that would not be clear from the painting. The colorfulness of the painting seems a stark contrast to the desperation that the artist intended to convey. However, the two people on the barrel in the water point to that desperation – who would take such a chance? Out on a barrel in the ocean at night, in the dark? Though the moon is painted brightly with many rays and the water seems to gleam, realistically this would not be the case – only a full moon would provide sufficient light, though the journey would still be dangerous.
One might also ask why people would leave an island that appears so lush and full of food. This closer look hints at the desperation that the formal description states. There also appears to be children on the boats, which also makes one ask who would risk their children’s lives? People who were fleeing Castro’s death squads and people who were seeking more opportunities for themselves and their children would risk their lives, leaving behind their homeland.