School children in Cuba begin each day with a short pledge to emulate the storied revolutionary Che Guevara. Beginning at age five, artist Aurora Molina told Pasatiempo, students are known as los pioneros, or pioneers (in the service of communism). Molina, who grew up in Havana before emigrating to the United States as a teenager, remembers those mornings well, though not fondly. “As I got older, I started understanding that these were words I was made to say, but not words I meant to say.” In an attempt to psychologically process the experience, Molina created Los Pioneros, an installation of kinetic puppets that will be on display at Art Santa Fe. Molina is one of several Cuban artists exhibiting with Miami’s Conde Contemporary at Art Santa Fe.
In Molina’s installation, the identically dressed puppets in their shorts and kerchiefs salute in response to the phrase “Pioneros por el comunismo” (Pioneers for communism), and then call back, “Seremos como el Che!” (We will be like Che!). Molina generally uses fiber and sculptural elements in her work, which often has sociopolitical themes, such as the role of women and the elderly in society, but she doesn’t consider herself a political artist or activist. Los Pioneros is the first piece she’s made about the communist regime in Cuba. She chose puppets because she wanted to play with the idea of robotic manipulation. “It’s something that comes to mind when I think about those days,” she said. “You have to do the same thing every day at the same time, so it’s like you assume this automatic mode. I wanted to create the same dynamic.”
Molina was born in 1984. As a child she swore allegiance to communism on weekdays and went to Catholic mass on Sundays. When she was eight or nine years old, these two forces came into conflict when a communist march she’d been made to promise to attend fell on a Sunday. “As a child, you think you’re committing a sin if you don’t go to mass. I was very naive, and I told my teacher that I was unable to go to the march,” she said. At the time, her father, a painter with a public reputation, had left the country and was considered a deserter. “They called me up during the morning hour at school, took me out of my line, and said they were taking my scarf to make an example of me for choosing to go to church instead of the march. They were trying to go after my family. Everyone pointed at me because they knew I was the daughter of someone who had committed treason against the regime.”
The masks on the childlike figures in Los Pioneros are of older people, the age the first generation of students under Castro’s rule would be now. Molina wanted to work with the idea of “residue,” because being a pionero stays with you. She’s been showing the sculpture in Miami for a few years, and though she knew she’d get an emotional reaction from Cuban viewers, it was viewers from some European countries who have had the most curious responses. “I was only thinking about Cuba when I made it, where they brainwashed a generation. But people from Poland, from Ukraine, some of them have gotten very angry and irritated with the piece. I didn’t know other countries had pioneros. I would actually like to learn more about that reaction. For me the sculpture is catharsis.”