Reynier Leyva Novo, a prominent participant and documentarian of what has become known as the 27N movement – a demand among Cuba’s younger generation of artists for freedom of expression and identity – is also an internationally recognized conceptual artist whose elegant minimalist works expose the hidden machinations of power in Cuba and the USA.

Novo has been represented by Lisa Sette Gallery since 2014 and his works are in the public collections of the Hirshhorn Museum, Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Perez Art Museum, Walker Art Center, Pizzuti Collection of the Columbus Museum of Art, Bronx Museum, Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation, Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, and Phoenix Art Museum, among others; he was featured at the 2017 Venice Biennale and was recently awarded the Pommery Prize at the 2022 Armory Show. Opening this May, Lisa Sette Gallery will exhibit The Flowers of My Exile, a selection of new and recent projects that trace Novo’s journey as a dissident artist in Cuba to his current status as an artist in exile in the USA.

Experience additional artworks by Reynier Leyva Novo at Phoenix Art Museum, placed in conversation with the exhibitions Juan Francisco Elso: Por América and Lo que es, es lo que ha sido/What It Is, Is What Has Been: Selections from the ASU Art Museum’s Cuban Art Collection.

Phoenix Art Museum will also feature Novo’s digital artwork Methuselah (2021-2022) which tracks the 6,000-mile migratory journey of a single monarch butterfly across the Americas as part of its reproductive cycle. The work was created during the artist’s own process of migration out of Cuba.

On November 27th, 2020, over 300 Cuban artists and intellectuals converged at the country’s Ministry of Culture, marking an ongoing protest among Cuba’s young artists against ever more pervasive censorship, political repression, and human rights abuses. Novo has been an active representative of this movement, photographing the protests and publicizing them widely. Seeking refuge from increasing political retribution in his home country, Novo left Cuba in 2021.

Humor and an irrepressible sense of imagination infuse each of Novo’s endeavors, even against the background of repression and exile. In Blank Check, a series of “miniperformances” documented on celluloid film, Novo acts out the ephemera of daydream in absurdist black and white tableaus, each with a simple text description: To walk backwards in front of a Cuba Libre! sign; To pee in the corner of the National Bank; To sweep the Cuatro Caminos supermarket. Set throughout the city of Havana in the months directly prior to the pandemic, Blank Check’s images capture the artist’s fleeting associations and ideas as he navigates this city, but they also become a metaphor for operating as an artist within a circumscribed urban topography. Novo extended this series to his experience living in New York City in the year directly after his exile, and has plans for the cities he’s traversed since then. Novo remarks: Society shapes many of our thoughts even unconsciously. We often discard ideas because they do not fit adequately into the social, political or moral life of our communities. This series of performances is about externalizing these fragments of thought designated as garbage in our minds. They are actions that see the light.

Describing his title work of the Lisa Sette Gallery exhibition, The Flowers of My Exile, the artist comments: The Flowers of My Exile is a series containing color photographs of wildflowers that I’ve found since I left Cuba on July 2, 2021. The collection includes the entire route of my trip, starting with Spain, then Mexico, and finally the United States. The series is a way of telling my journey of exile through the flowers of the road.

Novo’s botanical chronicle of exile exemplifies the artist’s ability to distill the complex dynamics of personal experience and political pressure into eloquent metaphorical objects and processes. In another of Novo’s works, S.O.U.P. (Survival Objects Under Pressure), gleaming columns of spoons are engraved with the writings of international political dissidents throughout the 20th century who have participated in hunger strikes as a means of protest. Implemented in part to honor Novo’s friend and fellow artist, Luis Manuel Otero Alacantra, who nearly died while striking in Cuba, the piece is deceptively simple and poignant in its portrayal of the struggles and rewards of individuals who stand up to impersonal and often violent regimes, with statements of protest occupying the depressions in the spoons where food might have been. “Between my love for freedom and my love for my friend, I decided to make this piece,” Novo remarks.

In Novo’s work, the elision of people and cultures by political force is countered by unexpectedly revolutionary acts of social connection. This may take place on Facebook, where Novo defies government decrees by posting images of protests occurring in his home country, or in the broadcasting of his individual graphic mark. In a wry and compelling work included in The Flowers of My Exile, a neon sign in the shape of the artist’s own handwriting reads: “I declare under protest that I am free.”

An artist of the digital generation, Novo employs artmaking tools that range from traditional crafts to bespoke software, devising unexpected graphic connections. He recently invented a program capable of formulating the weight, volume, and area of ink used in printed documents. Manifest Destiny: The Weight of the Land, exhibited at Lisa Sette Gallery, depicts two stark cartographic versions of the USA: the first shows the contiguous collection of twelve states at the time of the Constitution’s signing in 1787; then, following a series of black squares depicting the amount of ink contained in the five territorial treaties signed from 1803 to 1898, a second map reveals the sprawling geography of American imperialism as it encroached westward across the continent. Between maps, in the slick lacunae of the five intervening black squares, we see the subsumption of peoples and cultures whose bodies and habitats became objects of commercial exchange for colonial powers, apportioned out through measures of ink.

Reynier Leyva Novo hones the tools of open exchange toward a questioning of monolithic political powers and their insatiable urge for homogeneity and control. Novo’s works speak to the individual lives that comprise a thriving creative society, and the evolving, revelatory processes of delineating that freedom.