Maria Brito: 1947—: Painter, Sculptor Biography
A member of "The Miami Generation" of Cuban-born artists who relocated to the United States after Cuba's communist revolution, Maria Brito has won acclaim for paintings and sculptures that evoke themes of displacement, loss, and the search for identity. Her work, praised for its intuitive appeal and its densely symbolic qualities, has earned national attention and is included in several permanent collections, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Born in Havana, Cuba, in 1947, Brito was sent to the United States with her younger brother in 1961 through Operation Pedro Pan, a sort of "underground railroad" that allowed children to leave the communist island. Brito, only thirteen years old at the time, traveled alone with her brother to Miami, Florida, where her family soon joined them. There Brito grew up amid a vibrant Cuban immigrant community that had established firm roots. The city remains her home.
Brito earned degrees in studio art and art education at Florida International University, and also did graduate study at the University of Miami. A course in ceramics sparked her interest in exploring what was to become her most characteristic avenue of expression, mixed media. The work that she did for her MFA, which she received from the University of Miami in 1979, already showed her growing fascination with the creative possibilities of found objects and mixed media installations.
Her inspiration, Brito told Miami Herald writer Helen Kohen, often comes from a suggestive word, or from objects that Brito picks up at flea markets. Everyday objects such as faucets and pipes, electrical cords, books, and household furniture are common elements in her installations. In her large installation "Merely a Player," for example, which was part of the "Transcending the Border of Memory" exhibit at the Norton Gallery in West Palm Beach Florida in 1995, Brito creates a living-room set that contains a comfortable-looking sofa and books. Though the set "appears inviting," according to Art in America writer Anne Barclay Morgan, "a narrow, salmon-colored passage quickly led the viewer into a labyrinth of tiny, claustrophobic rooms, evoking an agonized search for self-discovery and emancipation."
"The Patio of My House," part of the "Arte Latino: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum" exhibit, also evoked a domestic room. Los Angeles Times writer Scarlet Cheng described the piece as showing a "cutaway of a cramped kitchenette" on one side and "on the other side a crib, from which rises a stylized tree whose roots are cut into." The installation, critic Katherine Hough observed to Cheng, suggests the movement from innocence to maturity.
As Thomas D. Boswell and James R. Curtis acknowledged in their book The Cuban-American Experience, Brito is a leading artist among a new generation: "The Cuban spirit, tinted by recollections of the past, circumstances of the present, and visions of the future has been captured by a new generation of painters who have been able to live through the circumstances." These artists, according to Boswell and Curtis, "blend Cuban and American artistic traditions, yet in a highly individualistic fashion. Likewise, their subjects are frequently drawn from both cultures, as well as a mixture of the two." Guillermo Martinez in a Miami Herald article described both "touches of Cuba" as well as elements from Miami-Cuban culture in the work of Brito and other "Miami Generation" artists.
By the early 1980s Brito was showing her art in major venues and receiving significant national and international recognition. In 1988 she received a commission to create a sculpture for the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seoul, South Korea. Her work was included in "The Decade Show" in 1990, "Cuba Twentieth Century: Modernism and Syncretism," a show that traveled around Europe, and the Iberoamerican Biennal in Lima, Peru. Brito has received numerous awards, including two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, two Cintas fellowships, a grant from the Florida Department of State, and a Pollack Krasner Foundation grant.
In 1998 Brito had her first solo museum show in South Florida, "Maria Brito: Rites of Passage." The exhibition included sculptures, paintings, and installations created over a ten-year period. Critics noted the themes of entrapment, repression, and death that pervaded the pieces. "This exhibition," commented curator Jorge Santis in a critique posted by Traditional Fine Art Online, "exemplifies the sadness that many who left Cuba still feel as well as the struggle of trying to enculturate in a new country."
Critics have often noted the autobiographical elements in Brito's work. Many pieces recall the experience of displacement, entrapment, and physical suffering. In "The Traveler (Homage to B.G.)," another piece from "Transcending the Borders of Memory," Brito surrounded a portrait of herself with images associated with Christian martyrdom, such as the spiked wheel on which St. Catherine was murdered. A work completed in 2001, "Self-Portrait as a Swan," shows an image of a white swan with wings outspread. A much larger human hand holds the swan's right foot between thumb and index finger as the swan, with twisted body and neck, apparently tries to escape. In the background is a dark shape that suggests a box with a narrow opening. The piece conveys physical pain and captivity. "Feed," another piece from 2001, presents a doll-like image of a girl who lies flat on a shelf apparently suspended in mid-air. Above her hangs an intravenous bottle with a tube that apparently connects with the female figure behind her dress. The work, which creates an eerie tension by employing flat cutout forms, suggests themes of helplessness and exposure as well as external menace.
Brito was among several artists in 2001 invited to ceremonies with First Lady Laura Bush when the "Arte Latino: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum" exhibit traveled to the Terra Museum of American Art in Chicago. The exhibit featured works from 200 years of Latino art in the United States. When Brito is not on the road with her art, she is an adjunct professor of art at Barry University in Miami. She has two sons.
Boswell, Thomas D., and James R. Curtis, The Cuban-American Experience: Culture, Images, and Perspectives, Allanheld & Osmun, 1984.
Notable Hispanic American Women, Book 1, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1993.
Art in America, May 1995, p. 124.
Los Angeles Times, May 5, 2002.
Miami Herald, June 15, 1984, p. 25A.
US Newswire, September 4, 2001.
"Maria Brito," Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, www. bernicesteinbaumgallery.com/ (March 29, 2003).
"Maria Brito: Rites of Passage," Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art, www.tfaoi.com (March 29, 2003).
"Oral History Interview with Maria Brito," Smithsonian Archive of American Art, www.archivesof americanart.si.edu/oralhist/brito97.htm (June 4, 2003).
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