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Artist brings Cuban-American flair to northern Minnesota

Exploring Blackness in rural Minnesota subject of Yunior Rebollar's work

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Cuban-American artist Yunior Rebollar poses next to one of his 70-by-50-inch acrylic paintings. Entitled "Keeper of the Flame," the vibrant portrait features his wife, Jovan C. Speller. Rebollar describes his wife as “my guide. I love to float around her.”
Contributed/Nemeth Art Center
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PARK RAPIDS, Minn. — Cuban-American artist Yunior Rebollar recently relocated to Osage.

That’s right. Little, ol’ Osage of rural, northern Minnesota.

This summer, the Nemeth Art Center of Park Rapids was the first to showcase his art regionally. Rebollar’s exhibit, entitled “Foreshadows,” is on display through July 2.

An openness to diversity

Rebollar is from a small municipality called El Cotorro in La Habana, Cuba.

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They were the only Black family in his neighborhood. Revolutionists were neighbors with counter-revolutionists, but they spoke easily and openly with each other, Rebollar recalled.

His parents worked for the government; his father a telecommunications engineer.

“We’re talking Cuba in the ‘80s. There were a lot of things happening, politically speaking, and so coming into and out of Cuba, this was a privilege that you gained only by working for the government. We’re talking after the revolution, so all these limitations were already in play about Cubans not being able to travel,” he recalled.

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Rebollar experiments with digital art. "It Only Took Two Years," a 42-by-72-inch acrylic on canvas, began as a graphite drawing called "Disembodied."
Shannon Geisen/Park Rapids Enterprise

Rebollar said he speaks English because his parents traveled to embassies around the world. “English was the easiest bridge between them and the culture that they approached.”

His family’s openness to eclectic cultures would pave the way for Rebollar’s creative expression.

On the Nemeth’s Instagram account, he wrote, “That exposed me and my family to all kinds of information about what was happening in the rest of the world, which filled my imagination and gave me an uncommon sense of freedom.”

At his artist reception June 11 at Nemeth, Rebollar said, “We’re diplomats, as a nation.”

An island has a limited capacity for population, he continued, so its people must explore and migrate.

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Introducing Minneapolis

In 2015, Rebollar was part of the U.S. Cuba Artist Exchange, a non-political, non-governmental and nonprofit organization that supports artists in both countries to connect through art.

“I was a producer and translator for them, and I was also working as an artist, connecting people and going all over Cuba bringing up new art,” he said.

Rebollar received a five-year visa from the U.S. embassy to visit Minneapolis through the exchange program.

“That’s how I met my wife.”

Jovan C. Speller is an accomplished Minnesota-based artist and photographer. Her exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, titled "Nurturing, and Other Rituals of Protection," runs through June 26.

They have two children: Silas, 4, and Felix, 2.

“Being a dad has filled my life with joy,” he shared to Nemeth’s Instagram. “These kids keep my senses sharp and my mind focused. They are the strongest motivation for all of my work.”

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Between 2015 and 2020, Rebollar split his time between Cuba and Minnesota.

His solo exhibition at the Nemeth is his first personal show in more than a decade.

And moving to Osage was the beginning.

“It’s been a long coming and going,” he said.

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Women are the main subject of Rebollar's exhibit, inspired by their "love and knowledge."
Shannon Geisen/Park Rapids Enterprise

His artistic process

At a young age, Rebollar collected notebooks that his parents were using for agendas.

“I don’t know why I got so into that. All I wanted was to have one to draw on,” he recalled. “I started copying other people’s drawings and stuff. I realized I couldn’t stop doing that.”

To this day, Rebollar said he is “quietly obsessed with paper and pencil sets.”

Rebollar is a mixed media artist, primarily working in portrait drawing and digital art manipulation.

In his artist statement, he says his art “has been used as a tool to communicate and understand the world,” “drawing inspiration from music, cinema, fashion, dance and pop culture.”

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Inspired by the Cuban women in his life, Rebollar painted "Nostalgia." Shannon Geisen/Enterprise

In the Nemeth exhibit, the work “focuses on closing gaps and building bridges to both real and futuristic representations of Blackness.”

“Foreshadows” relates to “our Cuban beliefs in terms of the spiritual world,” he explained.

Rebollar said Cuban women – his mom, sister, aunts and grandmother – tended to have these “visions” that were “very descriptive.”

“For some reason, this dream world would always be about a character or a persona.”

They could be very accurate as well, so he grew to appreciate them.

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Rebollar's portraits have an almost abstract feel.
Shannon Geisen/Park Rapids Enterprise

Rebollar said this exhibit is largely focused on female subjects because of that.

“The women in my family were always a container of love and knowledge. I’m the person that I am because of the women in my family,” he said. “I’m really motivated by my wife, too. And her sister, too.”

His sister and mom still live in Cuba.

Moving north

Through Speller, they met Aaron Spangler, a Nemeth board member and Park Rapids artist. Spangler encouraged them to consider the Park Rapids area in their search for a new home.

When asked about living in Osage, Rebollar said, “It’s great.”

“I see human beings being human beings around me. I’m like, I don’t need you to accept me all the time,” he said.

Rebollar wants northern Minnesota to see his images of Blackness.

The vibrant colors in his family-friendly exhibit were inspired by his children’s toys.

“This is not in Cuba. I can’t see this in Cuba. Nobody makes this. Nobody celebrates Blackness in this way,” he said.

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Shannon Geisen is editor of the Park Rapids Enterprise.
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