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Artist's life permeates his paintings

By Liz Balmaseda
--Published Saturday, April 11, 1998, in the Miami Herald



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Memories come in mosaics for artist Xavier Cortada. The fragments of his childhood surface like swirls of colored glass in shapes only a kid from Miami would recognize: The little Cuban hexagon at the shrine to Our Lady of Charity. The wannabe-blond quinceañera waltzing in a hoop dress on her 15th birthday bash. The Miami frat boy's juxtaposition of kegs and café.

His art is a kind of eyewitness account of the culture clash that defined his formative years. But its message goes beyond the cubanito identity cliche. It's about memory. What Cortada remembers in his 33rd year is what has shaped who he is, an artist whose star is soaring.

Who he used to be is what shaped the exhibit he launches tonight at Art Center/South Florida, at 1037 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach. To his Spanish-challenged Miami High buddies who always stumbled on his last name, he was ``Cubaba.''

It was a nickname that stuck and took on a life of its own well into college. He wore it like a toga at Lambda Chi Alpha parties, creating a Taco-Bell-meets-Animal-House cartoon. As a jab to
those who thought Cubans and Mexicans came from the same place, he'd sometimes throw on a Mexican hat over a toga and whoop it up. He even made up a ``Cubaba'' dance, a cross between The Wave and the guaguancó. And it was all in jest, back in the years before multiculturalism was an expressed concept.

Taboos questioned

Behind the punch lines, the guy in the Mexican hat was processing some pretty huge cultural stuff. The Miami-raised boy, born in Albany, N.Y., was beginning to question some of the taboos of his Cuban culture. He began to bristle at the streaks of racism, radio demagoguery, political manipulation, homophobia.

His sometimes jarring repertoire of memories is exposed in this exhibit, which he calls Cubaba. There is a painting titled Los Verdes, The Greens, an indictment of racism that refers to the term some uppity white Cubans used to describe black people. The stately figures in his painting rub a finger on their forearms to stress their point in characteristically racist code.

Then there is Radio Bemba, Radio Mouth, a portrait of a radio hate monger. ``You see, no ears. It's all about mouth,'' he notes. There's also a flashback from Citrus Grove Middle School, where Cortada first danced the conga in a talent show. And, of course, there's Cubaba, a self-portrait from the frat years.

Conflicting forces

One of Cortada's most striking pieces was inspired by his first trip to Cuba, a one-day jaunt for Pope John Paul II's mass in January. It reflects the clashing forces he sensed that day in the plaza, where he stood in a green University of Miami shirt shouting ``Libertad!''

Cortada's range of subjects tell the story of a local renaissance man, a muralist whose works hang in cities around the world, a social worker with a law degree who dabbled in local politics. Plus, like any good cubanito, he has a website:

That is how Nike found him last year and commissioned two 24-foot-tall murals of glass mosaic at its upcoming megastore on U.S. 1.

For this project, Nike contracted an Italian tile company, Bisazzi, to magnify Cortada's paintings into stained-glass murals. Now that company promotes the ``Xavier Cortada Line,'' tile amplifications of his oil canvases.

Not bad for a Miami frat boy.