Hanging inside Gilcrease Museum, less than 10 feet from John James Audubon’s renowned painting "The Wild Turkey," is a painting by Tulsa artist Jose Antonio Pantoja Hernandez called "Exodus."
Inspired by the millions of migrants fleeing the ongoing Syrian Civil War, the piece is part of the museum’s "Americans All!" exhibit featuring the works of 26 immigrant artists.
Hernandez, 47, was born and raised in Cuba, where he painted on the streets. After a chance encounter in Havana with Tulsa journalist Michael Mason, Hernandez made it his goal to come here. He eventually sought political asylum in the U.S. and settled in Tulsa.
He says he felt returning to Cuba was too dangerous and after condemning the Castro regime with his series "Errors of the Revolution," that he would not be allowed to leave the country again due to the political nature of his art.
"God put me in Tulsa for one reason, and it’s a great honor," says Hernandez, a full-time artist. Most of his paintings have political themes that draw on his experiences as a Cuban dissident. "I want to tell people stories about the wrong mistakes of stupid governments or politicians," he says.
Gilcrease officials say the museum’s goal for the "Americans All!" exhibit is to connect the museum’s collection with modern artists to address contemporary issues like immigration. The exhibit will be ongoing for the next 18 months. Works from Gilcrease’s permanent collection will be periodically rotated into the exhibition, which will feature new Tulsa-area immigrant artists every six months or so.
"I still can’t believe this," Hernandez says of his work being displayed at Gilcrease. "What am I doing here with all these masters? It makes my skin like a chicken every time I think about it."