Do NFTs have the power to right a historical wrong?
The Amelia Pelaez Foundation is about to find out
The life of a political exile is not easy. No matter how well you’re doing, surviving authoritarianism always has its inescapable price. For me that price has been paid in the shattering of our family, dealing with generations of trauma and the theft of my great aunt Amelia Pelaez’s artwork.
A pillar of the Modernist art movement, Amelia is considered one of Cuba’s greatest artists. Her work is often regarded as the visual expression of Cuba itself. As our family fled Cuba, they deposited their Amelias back at our matriarch’s house,Villa Carmela, where Amelia’s sister, Ninita, their surviving steward and greatest defender, would keep them safe until we could return. But that ‘return’ never happened. The best I could do was visit Ninita, and spend a few days in the past surrounded by the artwork whose value went far beyond what money could buy.
Upon returning to the States, I was always asked if I ever snuck anything out of Cuba. With every single item in the house inventoried by the Cuban government, that would’ve been impossible, the name on my passport always insured my bags got thoroughly checked at departures. Insult to injury is common revolutionary practice.
Upon Ninita’s passing, it was always understood that Villa Carmela would be converted into a museum. Like Frida’s Casa Azul, it was a historic cultural center for generations of Cuban artists. But the government placed a security guard outside of the house and eventually saw fit to confiscate all the works, furniture and personal effects saying they were too valuable to be left behind. They split up the collection, sending things to different cultural institutions in Havana and assumed five hundred works for the Museo de Bellas Artes collection, without providing attribution that they were from the Pelaez family collection.
Taking what belongs to others is what the regime does, but acceptance of that which we cannot change, is not an option, not for the Pelaez family, or Amelia, not for another minute. This is where the NFT’s come in…
Amelia Pelaez is often portrayed as a matronly, quiet person. Someone who lived with her sisters and elderly mother and captured the details of daily life with a palette and line that fearlessly burst from the canvas, but one that was at odds with who she seemed to be. What people don’t know is that the ferocity with which she painted was the same with which she lived her principles. Unapologetically independent, democratic and deeply in touch with the most vulnerable among us, Amelia the woman was as bold as Amelia the artist.
As a woman in the lion’s den of male egos that was the art world of Paris and Havana, she would watch others hustle while calmly knowing that art was to be made, not maneuvered. Letting her oeuvre speak for itself she quietly solidified her place in the pantheons of Cuban and International Modernism. Her work ethic meant she was in her studio every day, always finding new possibilities and exploring new mediums, mastering everything she set out to learn while teaching art to night school students until her death in 1968, but her politics always had a way of making their presence known.
In the 1930’s she supported the Republic fighting Franco in Spain, later participating in exhibitions to assist refugees from that civil war. She watched in disgust as Nazi’s suited up and started taking over Europe before she was forced to flee back to Cuba. When the participation of Black Cuban artist Diago in the MoMA Cuban Painters Exhibit came into question because he hadn’t studied in Europe, she promised to withdraw from the historic exhibit if he was not included. In 1953, she refused to participate in an exhibition of homage to Jose Marti’s centennial because it was the illegal government of Fulgencio Batista. Democracy was in her DNA.
Because she was older and sick when the Revolution came to power, she was not able to leave Cuba. The one time she considered exile while in Switzerland for an eye operation, she got a call from a minister promising her that if she sought asylum, her sisters and elderly mother would be thrown into the street and her artwork destroyed. She had no choice but to return.
After her death, they defiled her memory by using her as a Revolutionary symbol, used her confiscated works to reward their thugs and even flooded the market with fake Amelia’s to fill their coffers. She would be sickened to know that the regime was falsifying her work and selling it to collectors that want a little piece of Cuba for their homes in the diaspora.
But Amelia never belonged to the revolution. Amelia will always belong to Cuba and Cubans wherever they may find themselves. Were she alive now, I know she wouldn’t stand by quietly as the dictatorship jailed artists, poets and innocent Cubans demanding their freedom. She would do whatever she could to support them. For Amelia, life without integrity was nothing at all.
This is why we are launching AMELIASNFT. Not only do we think Amelia would be excited to work in a new medium in which art would find new homes. But we know she would want to make sure their sale would benefit a great cause.
The proceeds from this sale will go fund two endeavors. One, they will help create the definitive Catalogue Raisonné of her work which will effectively wipe fake Amelia paintings off the market, shutting off a financial resource for the most cynical in the dictatorship’s art market. And two, they will support groups such as Miami Freedom Project and Cubalex in their democracy and legal initiatives for a democratic Cuba free of political prisoners.
We chose the NFT space for this project because of a shared understanding of the corrupting influence of centralization, a shared passion for art as a vehicle for change, and a shared aspiration that NFTs can be the David to many systemic Goliaths. We hope this NFT collection will liberate, in more ways than one, Amelia’s art.
The Amelias NFT will be recognized by the Amelia Foundation via the Catalogue Raisonné but more importantly it will give people a chance to take back what is rightfully theirs.
Art has always been Cuba’s saving grace. This time, we are betting on the artists to deliver the Cuba we have all hoped for.