Eduardo Roca «choco» (Santiago de Cuba, Cuba, 1949)

Eduardo Roca «Choco»

Eduardo Roca «choco» (Santiago de Cuba, Cuba, 1949)

Eduardo Roca «Choco»

– Virginia Alberdi Benítez –

– Art Critic –

Choco, the renowned Cuban artist, shines with his own light. Perhaps not all inhabitants of the Caribbean island know that his name is Eduardo Roca Salazar, but when you say Choco – the familiar name with which he signs his pieces – Cubans understand that you are speaking of a well-known artist. It is not necessary to be familiar with his work in detail or to frequently visit the spaces where he exhibits; in the public domain, beyond the specialized circles, Choco is someone whom everyone admires for contributing to the heart of Cuban culture.

That perception has been forged over time and is supported by the regularity of a consistent artistic output, duly accompanied by reviews and the media. The most influential Cuban critics followed the creator’s work attentively since the beginning of his career. The national television has dedicated programs to him, and a promotional video from a series on some thirty artists from the island has had a significant tenure for years in prime time.

In recent years, two documentaries on his life and artistic career have had notable impact: Choco (2014), by U.S. professor and filmmaker Juanamaría Cordones Cook, and El hombre de la sonrisa amplia y la mirada triste (The Man with the Wide Smile and Sad Glance) (2016), by Cuban filmmaker Pablo Massip.

But the most decisive recognition comes from the forms of interaction that reinforce group appreciation and statements of opinion, originating from Choco’s active participation in Cuban cultural life: not only in activities related with visual arts, but also in other areas of creativity and social events.

It is no coincidence that prestigious writers and intellectuals from various disciplines have issued appraisals of his work and published impressions that endorse a legacy they consider essential for the spiritual heritage of their fellow countrymen.

His participation in salons and biennials, the awards he has received, his mural paintings, the collaboration with dance companies, and the use of his images in shows have contributed to the notoriety of his work and granted visibility to his artistic mark.

To this must be added his early and subsequently growing recognition in international circles. Gallery owners and art collectors were captivated by the artist as he became known in Latin America, Europe, the United States, and Japan.

As if that were not enough, his work and life coherently complement the artist’s personality. The human being and creator merge in a sole entity. This was perceived in the early days by the great poet Eliseo Diego, who in 1976 wrote, “Eduardo Roca has stopped promising and is already a painter from head to toe. But although his feet are well placed on the ground – in his country – and the head is clear and held on high, it is from the heart that his painting emerges.” And it was confirmed in 1999 by novelist, essayist and politician Abel Prieto: “Choco, unlike others, turns a youthful fifty, without bitterness, with his smile intact, delivering his friendship and his work with the generosity of men; of true artists.”

To decode Choco and understand why he is a prophet in his land and in many other places, one must search into his roots, his aesthetic ideas, and the context of his evolution.

One cannot explain the artist without the social and cultural transformations that took place in Cuba after the change of regime in 1959. The opportunities for personal fulfillment for a Cuban of humble origin born in 1949 were limited. His first years were spent in Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second most important city, located in the eastern region.

As a child he would draw in the school notebooks. A teacher became aware of his skill and encouraged him to answer a call to train the first art instructors. A school had been opened in Havana that rapidly prepared young people from all over the island with the mission of teaching fine arts, dance, music and theater in cities and countryside, schools and factories, military units and fishing villages. That educational effort in 1961 coincided with the massive literacy campaign that taught tens of thousands to read and write in scarcely eleven months.

After two years Choco graduated as an art instructor in visual arts. He recalls his arrival in Havana with a wooden suitcase and the entrance to the school, located in a luxury hotel in the neighborhood that until a short time earlier had been inhabited by the national bourgeoisie. He was the youngest student, and because of the color of his skin his classmates began to call him “Chocolate”, which was gradually shortened to “Choco”.

Since he was only fourteen years old when he graduated in 1963 he was not legally allowed to work, so he was able to continue his studies at the recently opened National School of Art (ENA), in Cubanacán.

The ENA teaching staff in Choco’s day (he graduated there in 1970) included distinguished representatives of the Island’s artistic vanguard. One of these professors was Antonia Eiriz, who exerted great influence upon the first graduates to whom she transmitted the secrets of the craft and the encouragement to develop their own personalities. Another important artist who taught him was Servando Cabrera Moreno, of whom Choco has said, “Without Servando, neither I nor many of my contemporaries would have arrived at the conceptions on art we have today. Servando greatly widened our expectations as painters.” And although painting was in the center of the training, Choco had already come in contact with printing techniques. This, as we shall see later, was providential for the future development of his career.

From Havana he briefly returned to Santiago de Cuba where he worked as a teacher. He moved back to the Cuban capital in 1973, where he settled and dedicated himself to teaching, first in the San Alejandro Academy, and later at the ENA. In the mid-seventies he began to visit the Experimental Graphics Workshop at the Plaza de la Catedral of Havana, where he developed as an engraver until becoming one of the undisputed masters of the specialty.

The painter from the 1970s became well known for his canvases of popular epic themes shared at the time with several of his contemporaries: anonymous heroes of the sugarcane harvest, peasants tied to their land, landscapes transformed by human sensibility.

Regarding those avatars, two events should be taken into consideration. First, his stay in Angola in 1978 as collaborator of the Cuban Civil Mission in the field of culture, which enabled him to obtain direct knowledge of a reality interconnected to his ethnic origins. In addition, there was the beginning of his international career, particularly his emergence in the United States in 1981, when he shared an exhibition with the painter Nelson Domínguez in San Francisco. This is not fortuitous: Choco is one of most popular contemporary Cuban artists in the United States, even before earning the Grand Prize at the Fourth International Print Triennial of Kochi, Japan in 1999, which undoubtedly increased the value of his work.

Since the 1980s Choco evolved stylistically toward the definitive symbols that characterize his images. In general, a reference to take into consideration was the inevitable influence the New Figuration aesthetics exerted not only on him, but also on the early promotions of artists trained at the ENA.

It is worth mentioning that it was not the assimilation of the European criterion of this trend, which included Irishman Francis Bacon, Frenchman Jean Dubuffet, and Spaniard Antonio Saura, but the proximity to the Latin American trend, led by Venezuelan Jacobo Borges, Mexican José Luis Cuevas, and Argentinean Antonio Berni, among others. The latter, by the way, was promoted in Cuba by Casa de las Américas. In his expressionistic version, the neo-figuratism in the Island reached one of its peaks precisely in the work of Antonia Eiriz.

If our artist shows a connection with certain principles of the New Figuration to some extent and in a tangential manner, that is because when observing his paintings and prints one notices the importance of the recovery of the iconic representation and the relation between the human figure and the construction of the painting space itself.

Unlike the generation of artists who emerged in the 1980s, however, neither Choco nor his generational companions dedicated, even remotely, energy to theoretical discussions. They painted, drew, and printed according to their own expressive needs. And if initially they seemed to respond to a spirit of the times, they went on to choose their paths individually resulting from experiences and personal possibilities. In Choco’s case, these experiences nourished his creative impulses and extracted an essential connection that is present in all his work, which the artist has established with the Cuban nationality.

Choco thinks visually what the island’s major poet, Nicolás Guillén, called Cuban color. Neither African nor European, neither black nor white; the artist reflects the result of a new identity, qualitatively different from the ones supplied by the sources. As Guillén stated in 1931, “To begin with, the spirit of Cuba is racially mixed…” and considered that “From the spirit to the skin will come the definitive color; some day it will be called Cuban color.” From the late twentieth century into the present one Choco has faithfully and masterly interpreted the transition from that anticipation to a latent reality.

That is evident both in the physical features of his human figures and in the skin textures and atmosphere of each composition. To verify this, examine the repertoire of images displayed in ArteMorfosis gallery. The pieces exhibited there have been recreated in impeccable prints, his well-known collagraphs that are true masterpieces. People crowned by birds, fruits, and hats; faces of mineral consistency that glow with earthly colors; women distributed in space; a dancer of irradiating gesture; a Venus that is saved from original sin; each and every one of them on backgrounds of abundant textures. His painting, with figurations related to the ones in his prints show his mastery of this art form. The polychrome sculptures burrow into the wood for the mystery of plant fibers.

From a technical point of view, the viewer of the exhibited works could ignore the difference between painting and engraving, since what matters and impacts is the visual outcome. The artist actually assumes both lines of accomplishment without stopping in watertight compartments. The porous nature of the borders between one and the other form is due to the character and dominion of the collagraphic technique and internalization of the latter’s effects on the painting procedures.

Choco is conscious of that crossing. He admitted to Cuban journalist Estrella Díaz in an interview, “I learned about collagraphy, and when I started working with it I saw that I was actually painting, because the technique fitted perfectly with my way of painting. Collagraphy, because of its possible textures, reliefs, and technique of execution, was a very interesting and very contemporary painting form. Therefore, I did not feel I was printing – I felt I was painting.”

Painting, engraving, sculpture: Choco is one and indivisible. He summarizes ancestral wisdom and unyielding vitality. The Yorubas, one of the ethnic groups that contributed to the formation of the Cuban nationality, have a saying: “I am because you are.” That is the key – alpha and omega, beginning and end – of his work.

Havana, September 2016

Virginia Alberdi Benítez (Havana, 1947) Graduate from the Higher Pedagogic Institute Enrique José Varona, 1970. Art critic, editor-in-chief of Artecubano ediciones. During more than twenty years she was a Specialist in Promotion at the National Council for Plastic Arts (CNAP). During five years she was a senior specialist at the gallery Pequeño Espacio, at CNAP. She has curated numerous solo and group exhibitions. Her texts appear as collaborations in La Jiribilla, Granma newspaper, the tabloid Noticias de Arte Cubano, the magazines Artecubano, On Cuba, Acuarela. She has written texts for catalogues of different artists.
Portrait of Alicia Leal

Alicia Leal

Portrait of Alicia Leal

Alicia Leal (*1957) courtesy of the artist

Catharsis and Authenticity


–Art Critic

A young woman flies along with a rooster whose wings have the colors of fire and the sky. One ignores where it comes from or heads to. The retina only fixes one and the other on the front plane, with a background of very light trees and waves (are they waves or bubbles?) that hardly support the painting’s main characters.

Another young woman hides her head in her thorax, accompanied by doves and illuminated by a sun of honey-colored rays, leaving a rain of fine spores suspended in the air ( in the air or on the earth?)

Rapto - Entführung - 2016 – Acryl auf Leinwand - 81 cm x 100 cm

Rapto – Entführung – 2016 – Acrylic on Canvas – 81 cm x 100 cm

Fables without morals? Stories without words? Narrations or metaphors? To what extent does reality mix with dreams and dreams with reality?

These questions are born from observing Alicia Leal’s work, in this case the latest one, the ones of recent years and even some made five years ago. But they might also emerge from a retrospective of her creation, at least from the moment when she defined an unmistakable art form.

Someone might say that Alicia is an artist touched by an elf. Others attribute her virtues to a kind of state of grace. I would say that we are in front of a personality that has succeeded in finding those magic strings that emerge from her visual repertoire with intuition, craftsmanship, persistent search, imagination, wisdom and communicational vocation.

Without stridency or sudden jumps, discreetly but decidedly, Alicia Leal has conquered both demanding specialists and simple spectators in Cuba and abroad. No one connects her with the topics of the Cubanness, but almost surely her work wouldn’t be what it is if she hadn’t been born and lived on an island that grants her experiences, challenges and revelations.

. . .

A first explanation of Alicia’s artistic profile is to be found in the family environment. Her grandparents arrived to Cuba’s central region from the Canary Islands. There, in that Spanish archipelago, they still hadn’t met. The relationship was born in Antillean lands. Her parents, first-generation Cubans, always honored their ancestry, but obviously assumed a new feeling of belonging.

Hacer el tiempo - Zeit gewinnen - 2009 – Acryl auf Leinwand - 38,4 cm x 37,3 cm

Hacer el tiempo – Make Time – 2009 – Acrylic on Canvas – 38,4 cm x 37,3 cm

Although Alicia moved to Havana when she was very small, she never lost her link with her peasant origins in a flat zone, south of the old village of Sancti Spiritus, where the soil is predominantly adequate for the cultiva­tion of tobacco. The place she was born in is called Las Varas. It is difficult to locate it in an ordinary map, on the borders of the Taguasco municipality.

In the first decades of the twentieth century, hundreds of Canary Islanders settled in those places and many of them never returned to the starting point. They contributed their customs, idioms, dishes, legends and idiosyncrasy to the Cuban material and spiritual culture, on the basis of an intimate integration that made them become an inseparable part of the Cuban identity in its rural component. Representative of that culture are the tunes, ten-stanza verses, ghost stories, wakes, parlor games, proverbs and riddles.

It was, and still is to a certain extent an oral culture – despite the reduction in the differences between city and countryside taking place in the last fifty years – where images are mainly constructed on the oral memory.

This is an important element – as we shall see later on – in order to understand certain codes that appear in Alicia’s work and the artist’s relation with a creative trend –the so-called naïf or ingenuous art, which I prefer to call popular art – which had extended in that region and become a tradition. Because, unlike other painters of that trend, from the canonic times of customs officer Rousseau to our days, popular painters and draftsmen from Las Villas (the Island’s central territory) have taken more interest in illustrating fables and inventing fanta­sies than in painting landscapes and customs-and-manners scenes.

As a child, Alicia traveled many times to Las Varas in her school holidays. She recalls having once seen “a blos­soming bougainvillea escorting the ghosts of her torn down house, where a certain midwife delivered her in hard la­bor”. Among her most recent memories is the day when the horse she was riding bolted and she ended in a stream.

Already in Havana, an adolescent, she matriculated a secondary school that prepared for the military career. Lacking the vocation to fulfill that destiny (her father was an officer of the Revolutionary Armed Forces), Alicia found refuge in a very unique inner world: she wrote, drew and narrated stories in the form of comic strips. A neighbor her age who admired that spontaneous creative ability, told here about schools where she would be able to channel those aptitudes. The girl succeeded in convincing her parents to let her try an art school.

She then matriculated in Havana’s San Alejandro Fine Arts Academy, the oldest institution of its kind in the island. Toward 1975 it was undergoing a gradual renewal of its teaching projections, in tune with the improvement in the country’s art teaching system. In the old days San Alejandro had been the bulwark of the strictest academicism, when the pedagogic line was based on the romantic aesthetics that became evident in the conventional landscapist art. It was a time when hedonism per se and distancing from all that implied aesthetic or social questioning were promoted as immovable ideal, while assuming as correct the imitation of the Barbizon and Fontainebleau French schools or the Spanish San Fernando’s. The foundation of the National School of Art by the country’s new authorities in the early 1960s established the guidelines of a system of solid and the same time free premises that very soon extended throughout the country.

San Alejandro was not only a period of technical training for Alicia, but in the first place a period of cul­tural initiation. She had arrived there as a ‘blank canvas’, if we may use that expression. The history of universal and Cuban art penetrated her eyes and pores together with the rigors of drawing, modeling and composition.

Among the teachers who oriented her were José Fowler, whose pedagogic excellence she recalls very well; in the final courses the already promising Roberto Fabelo, from whom she received drawing and painting lessons, and the venerable sculptor José Antonio Díaz Peláez, a full master in art.

In those days she learned to admire the painting and drawing of Cuban maestros Carlos Enríquez and Ángel Acosta León, developed a preference for Henri Matisse and was impressed by the life and work of Mexi­can Frida Kahlo. Another Mexican also powerfully called her attention: Remedios Varo, of Spanish origin and creator of images close to surrealism, whose human figures are symbolically projected. This element should be taken into consideration because of the influence she received from this artist, not from her style but from her attitude. Among current creators she has a marked preference for the work of one of Cuba’s most outstanding artists, Flora Fong.

The times she lived in an old mansion in Havana’s historical center, a few steps away from the Cathedral Square, surrounded by writers, artists and others prone to bohemian life, somehow influenced Alicia’s future.

. . .

Whoever appreciates the artist’s paintings will hardly connect her to the expressionistic style. It so happened that in the final years of her studies and early 1980s expressionism was the aesthetic trend that most interested her, but she did not feel comfortable in it. Poncito, one of the neighbors of the above-mentioned Old Havana mansion and son of Fidelio Ponce de León, a master of Cuban twentieth-century avant garde, compelled her at that moment: “Be yourself, search inside yourself and you will find yourself”, were his words.

Dentro de mi - In meinem Innersten - 2013 - Acryl auf Papier - 75 cm x 55 cm

Dentro de mi – Inside Myself – 2013 – Acrylic on Paper – 75 cm x 55 cm

She then had to solve quite a different equation: putting herself in front and responding to her interior voice meant distancing herself from what she pretended others to see in her work; it meant discarding the fash­ion rites and ceasing to see herself through others’ eyes. Feeling more than thinking? Trusting intuition and not conviction? No. It was more a question of thinking the feelings, of feeling new convictions.

The encounter with the popular tales collected by folklorist, draftsman, painter and poet Samuel Feijóo, one of the most restless and unclassifiable creatures of twentieth-century Cuban cultural life was a revela­tion. Restless walker, receptor of true or untrue stories told by peasants, agricultural workers and the humblest people he found in the island’s central region – the same where Alicia had been born – Feijóo played a role in the artist’s recovery of the memory of her original environment.

But that happened in oblique form. Neither was Alicia an artist like the ones Feijóo stimulated and spon­sored in one of his many promotional facets, recognized as popular painters and draftsmen from Las Villas (Duarte, Ñika, Alberto Anido, Aidaida, Aslo and a few others), nor was she interested in becoming one. She was not and did not pretend to be naïf like the painters from Trinidad and Sancti Spiritus, established from then on as icons of a paternalistically called primitive trend.

However, she did not approach this trend, either, as others have done, through parodic appropriation or ambiguous paraphrases. Italian semiotic Stefano Traini recalls how, from the second half of the twentieth century on, there have been those who “search the naïf lack of precision as cultured effect” , and mentions bad painters in the United States and graffiti artists who “deliberately seek carelessness”.

In Alicia Leal, the journey to her origins and the spiritual growth that has sustained her work are processes full of autochthony that respond to the sensibility of an artist whose emotional supports articulate organically with her intellectual perspectives.

Throughout time, her work has been moving in four essential directions that in many cases intertwine and nourish reciprocally: the memory (never a copy) of nature; femininity (never feminism); fables (never topical narrative) and the ups and downs of daily life (never customs and manners).

Baño de Luna - Mondbad - 2011 – Acryl auf Leinwand - 72,5 cm x 60,5 cm

Baño de Luna – Moon Bath – 2011 – Acrylic on Canvas – 72,5 cm x 60,5 cm

One has to believe her when she says: “Nature inserts itself in my work, with its signals and winks of mys­tery and life, and this conscious language presenting leading role of the feminine body. I perceive the world as a house where nature is confirmed. The woman is in the center of an existential conflict, with all these references, where the apparent is nothing but a pretext to penetrate deeply and widen the generic sense of artistic percep­tion, adding new nuances to the representative universe of experience, but without estrangements, discovering mental feelings using a language with which I try to scratch the surface.”

It all depends of the tone, of the syntax that connects themes, motifs, animated and inanimate figures. On one side, the slight undulation; on the other, the glance in complicity. Eros sublimated and Orpheus on the flat lands of the Tropics. Deafened but audible rituals. Defined and at the same time caressing lines.

. . .

Alicia Leal arrives in Zurich with the results of her painting experience and at the same time as bearer of a vivify­ing content that grows with time. She has multiplied creation in other spaces. In book illustration she has left a perceptible trace, with a first stop in the editorial commission to accompany Iré a Santiago, a collection of poems by different authors dedicated to the city of Santiago de Cuba. Then she performed in the heights when she illustrat­ed chants from The Divine Comedy. She found challenges and affinities in the poems of her fellow countrywomen Lina de Feria and Olga Navarro and in Cuban Stories and The Old Mill, narrations of Belgian Philippe Calon, in addi­tion to fulfilling commissions of several literary magazines and publishing houses specialized in children’s books.

She has also dedicated efforts to photography. Her exquisite creations have been admired in several exhibitions. One of the most significant works in that field was the illustration of a book of poems by painter and poet Juan Moreira. The artist considers working with the camera as a certain extension of her aesthetic concerns, although in her opinion photography is condensation and silence, concentrated intimacy. She admits sharing a gender point of view in both artistic practices, but nothing else.

Glancing at her recent paintings confirms these words of hers: “The artist lives in constant catharsis. Mak­ing the work is nothing but liberating feelings, ideas, or one’s greatest secrets from the subconscious to the outer world – leaving the superfluous aside; finding the keys to creation, making the handicraft part of the work, of the modeling; translating the relations that surround the artist and the work to gradually create a network that will enable the transmission of a state of mind, whether from sexuality, rage, hatred or despair. Everything takes a meaning, a harmony; there are no ambivalences, because it becomes communication, discourse”.

Her constant dedication to the most pure exercise of art, which has placed her among the most re­nowned Cuban artists both in Cuba and abroad with a presence in galleries, museums and prestigious institu­tions, has not prevented her intense participation in charitable and social actions.

. . .

Everything said about the artist and her work is evidenced in the contrasted feminine figures – day and night? – in Tu nombre es soledad (Your Name is Loneliness), but also in a different way, because of the metaphysical connotations, in Hacer el tiempo (Making Time) and Mundos compartidos (Shared Worlds). Behind the exuberant filigree in La montaña y la ardilla (The Mountain and the Squirrel) one may sense the laby­rinths of fables in an opposed sense to the one shown in La novia del árbol (The Tree’s Fiancée).

From the lyrical evocation of Baño de luna (Moon Bath), Mi verso es un ciervo herido (My Verse is a Wounded Deer) and Dentro de ti florezco (I Bloom inside You), without the slightest deviation from her constructive principles, the artist goes to the enigmatic symbolism of Recurso natural (Natural Resource) or the hieratic attitude with which she oddly pays tribute to the great Cuban painter Wifredo Lam. Tes­timonies that are closer to daily reality, though deprived of the anecdotic and relevant, are the works Burbujas y una visa Americana (Bubbles and a U.S. American Visa), De La Habana a Berlín (From Havana to Berlin) and a vernacular piece that synthesizes allegorically the island’s productive and human landscape.

The traces of popular iconography irrupt in Lágrimas de fina lluvia (Tears of Thin Rain), Toda Cuba dividida en horizontes (All Cuba Divided into Horizons) and Todo cabe bajo el manto de la Virgen (Everything Fits under the Virgin’s Robe). They are works that reveal and recreate one of the main signs of religiosity of Cubans, who invoke the protection of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre, consecrated as patroness of Cuba, for human and divine, in joys and disgraces, with brain and heart, irrespective of the cults they profess. Even those who declare themselves agnostics cannot elude the gravitation of this symbol of national culture. In the pieces that make up this show there is evidence of how the creative maturity of this artist and her achievements reach subtly masked philosophical profoundness. Technically, one notes changes in the use of color, dripping and back­grounds that become complex in order to achieve novelty environments.

In the end, the observation of Alicia Leal’s work remits us to a perception that has been a milestone in the relation between the creation and its enjoyment from immemorial times, as resumed by the famous theorist Yuri Lotman: “Art is always a possibility to live what we did not live, to go back, to solve again and to do it in a new way. It’s the experience of what did not happen. Or of what may happen”.

VIRGINIA ALBERDI, Art Specialist, Havana, March 2016

Virginia Alberdi Benítez (Havana, 1947) Graduate from the Higher Pedagogic Institute Enrique José Varona, 1970. Art critic, editor of Artecubano ediciones. During more than twenty years she was a Specialist in Promotion at the National Council for Plastic Arts (CNAP). During five years she was a senior specialist at the gallery Pequeño Espacio, at CNAP. She has curated numerous solo and group exhibitions. Her texts appear as collaborations in La Jiribilla, Granma newspaper, the tabloid Noticias de Arte Cubano, the magazines Artecubano, On Cuba, Acuarela. She has written texts for catalogues of different artists.
Ernesto García Peña (Photo: Archive of Gallery)

Ernesto García Peña

A Vibrant Style of Dazzling Painting Motifs


Ernesto García Peña (Photo: Archive of Gallery)

Ernesto García Peña (Photo: Archive of Gallery)

Covering a creative period of approximately seven years of his powerful painting production, Ernesto García Peña now presents, in Zurich, a well-conceived selection of his artistic talent from his recent work to the present, in which voluptuous body forms are connected in a vibrant, unquestionably erotic style bursting with love. His style extends to zones of esthetic interest never before explored, such as the animal element of the horses in Poderosos (Powerful) and in the bullfighting magnificently portrayed in El último canto de la bestia (The Last Song of the Beast), or in music, present in Después de la siesta (After the Siesta) disguised precisely as bullfighting dreams…

Después de la siesta (After the Siesta)

Después de la siesta (After the Siesta)

Nineteen pieces in very diverse two dimensional formats are gathered together in Island Lyrics, the perfect title for an exhibition in the ArteMorfosis Gallery of Cuban art. The pieces contain the most representative characteristics of this great artist of color: blues, oranges and pinks, soft but with enough visual impact to make us shudder. And the apparent white, which totally covers the painting surfaces, in some of them as almost imperceptible element of subtleties denounced by the reality in nuanced themes that could likewise be ideal surfaces to discover his energetic and well-controlled drawing. Or the dazzling black (not value, but true color) that makes the figures fuse in daring abstract works Semilla (The Seed) and Tanteando el cielo (Testing Heaven). Likewise, two pieces of his painting production this year, heirs of this distinctive esthetic of smooth transparency that allows the union of bodies, are Devenir (Becoming,) and Enredos (Entanglements) with a range of colors of strong symbolic meaning.

Enredos (Entanglements)

Enredos (Entanglements)

Splendid iconography is presented to us as intimate and unique artistic confession. Here are the passions of Ernesto García Peña – his longings and pain captured in that, not in the least complacent, “lyricism” that denotes and connotes in significant representations, to take us to the plane of his inalienable identity. An identity that, also universal, certainly belongs to this other side of the world, to the islands bathed by seas whose reflections adopt the most astonishing shades to become resolutely Caribbean, Cuban. Those islands where the plentiful love of its inhabitants reigns – the love that has been so well captured by the creative genius of García Peña.

Havana, Sunday, June 21, 2015

Cuban Artist Flora Fong

Flora Fong

Cuban Artist Flora Fong

Along more than half a century of artistic experience – starting from the years of academic learning in the sixties up to the present – the coherence in the search and construction of an identity in her style has been the alpha and omega of Flora Fong’s vital career.

A first glance suffices to note her distinctive mark. In a group exhibition, in the midst of the most diverse repertoire of images, Flora is herself, unique and unyielding. It is not necessary to be an expert on her work, not even an expert on currents, styles and trends to state, or at least sense, in the face of any of her works, be it from one period or another, that that painting, that drawing, that engraving, that stained-glass work… is Flora’s.

In the end, artists of her kind do not create for groups of initiates, but seek to create a bi-univocal, reciprocally enriching relation between what they have to offer and the sensitivity of those who receive the work.

Her creation is accessible but not exempt from encoded keys resulting from the mystery of creation. Her images are sustained by a communicative vocation, which does not turn them into primary equations.

Interesting in her case is the fact that she has succeeded without concessions or moulds. There are artists who find a kind of gold mine and freeze their expression; others soon exhaust thematic sources and technical procedures. Flora places herself on the extremes of both phases. Today she is obviously not the one she was initially; she has developed, her language has evolved, she has even explored unsuspected meanders in daily challenges, but at the same time she has remained faithful to her origin, loyal to her glance, consubstantial with her lineage. Although it may seem commonplace to say, Flora has never ceased to be Flora, she has evolved without losing her best creative and human conditions.

About this quality, the outstanding essayist and art critic Graziella Pogolotti declared: “Her proposal transcends the form of doing, implies having defined a perspective and the self-acknowledgment of a personal identity, having assumed a heritage that is not only esthetic but cultural in the broadest sense of the word”.

An approach to Flora’s work must take into consideration both the context in which she was educated and began to develop her work and the saga of her individual growth.

The Camagüey where she was born in 1949 – one of the first villages founded by the Spanish colonizers in the vast plain that precedes the eastern region of Cuba – had not ceased to be the “region of shepherds and hats” sung by Nicolás Guillén, major poet of the city and the country. The traces of the colonial past coexisted with the stagnation existing during the republic set up in 1902; this did not prevent the emergence of certain cultural impulses that, with the political and social transformations that began to take place in the island in 1959, received institutional support.

Land of poets and troubadours more than of painters at the time – even though Fidelio Ponce de León, migrating, tormented and transgressor creator belonging to the vanguard is recognized today as one of its icons – the existence of the Provincial School of Plastic Arts in the early sixties channeled the artist’s original vocation.

She arrived at the school still as a child because of the ability shown in making a plaster mask. There were no formal artistic antecedents in the Fong family – as there weren’t either in the majority of the colleagues of her generation who throughout the island had the possibility to enter the first centers of artistic education opened as part of a new democratization process of culture – but there was indeed the trace of an exceptional sensitivity: that of her father. Francisco was the Spanish name given to her father once he had established himself in Cuba. He came from Canton, from the Taishan-Xié district, and was part of the migration from that vast Asian country that looked for work opportunities in the Caribbean island with the purpose of helping the relatives who remained in China and, if all went well, return home. In Cuba, Francisco, after a stay in Holguín, settled in Camagüey, entered the trading business and founded a Cuban family.

Flora recalls the exquisite manual ability of her father, who as a hobby fabricated kites that were true works of art, a fine display of imagination, made in a very careful way. Francisco never returned to China but kept in contact with his relatives.

In the school in Camagüey, Flora developed particularly her aptitude for drawing and her dominion of the principles of composition under the influence of a teaching staff that included Molné, Juan Vázquez Martín and Raúl Santos Serpa.

The inborn talent and education enabled the young girl to enter the National School of Art, the most important art teaching center of the 1960s. They were years of hard exercising and learning of the craft according to the personal expressive requirements and of growing in the work sessions with Espinosa Dueñas in engraving;

Fernando Luis, who transmitted to her the secrets of color, and of the notable poet and painter Fayad Jamís. Flora graduated from the ENA in 1970 and immediately started teaching at the San Alejandro Fine Arts Academy in Havana, the oldest in the country, where she remained almost twenty years, until 1989, an experience that marked her for her lifetime. It was not easy to alternate the rigors of teaching with the development of her personal work, overcoming material difficulties with ingeniousness and creativity, forming a family – in that period her children Liang and Li, both artists, were born –, organizing exhibitions and participating in salons. But the artist surmounted these challenges and in those very years began to make herself known as one of the creators with the greatest recognition and relevance in the art scene of the island and international renown.

Flora Fong’s first solo show took place in 1973 at Galería Galiano of Havana, but the second, scarcely two years later, revealed a line of great interest for her future work. In fact, it was a bi-personal exhibition: Ma- nuel Mendive and Flora, with twenty works from each one of the artists. It was presented in Bucharest and Prague and then was lost when sent to Africa because of lack of insurance.

Nevertheless, the presence of her work next to that of Manuel Mendive gained a symbolical relevance that cannot escape notice. Mendive started from the African heritage, from the Yoruba mythology trans-cultured in Cuba, from the mysteries of the woods. In painting he descended from the work of Wifredo Lam and Roberto Diago.

Flora represented the face that complemented the island’s identity, but she never did it in a topical manner. Hers is not a superficial Cuban-ness, but one from her roots. If in Mendive one hears drums, claves and chekerés, in Flora it is background music that flows in the complex harmony of the tunes accompanied by lutes and guitars. She is related somehow, rather obliquely, to Carlos Enríquez and Amelia Peláez, although at certain moments the contacts with abstractionism and the expressionistic stamp of Antonia Eiriz are filtered.

Art critic and teacher Adelaida de Juan summarized the artist’s career, from her initiation up to maturity, as follows: “Flora has worked untiringly creating worlds that evoke her immediate surroundings. Unlike Amelia, who found plenitude in her family world, Flora looks outside from her interior: from the near and daily figures she moves to the landscape, first to the one inhabited by palms and malanga plants that portray the happiness existing in the gardens still surrounding her, and later to the woods and mountains, the forces of nature shaken by cyclones and darkened by storm clouds, until reaching the sea that surrounds the island”.

But it would also be necessary to say that, unlike not only Amelia but certain esthetic approaches that are common to the Cuban vanguards of the 20th century who sought to validate identity with modern discourses, Flora has gradually stripped herself of gestures and references associated with the essential evolutionary line of Cuban painting.

With his customary sharpness, in the eighties, critic Alejandro G. Alonso already defined that characteristic of Flora’s: “Since she does not copy or describe, but neither is she on the sidelines of the roads marked by international trends, so she freely takes advantage of the resources that find an echo deep in her way of understanding painting. Hence, she does not leap into the void; rather we witness the logical development that connects with previous whirl- pools and cyclones, to give definitive steps toward her affirmation as a creator”. An affirmation that overflows the borders of painting, drawing and engraving and shows also in murals, stained-glass works, volumetric constructions and sculptures, like the ones set up at the University of Computer Sciences in the outskirts of Havana and in the courtyard of the National Museum of Fine Arts.

In her work it is impossible to establish dividing lines between lyrical content and dramatic reason, nor between iconic and narrative. This does not mean that conflicts are absent, but these are solved by means of an amazing power of synthesis, an ability that distinguishes her among contemporary Cuban creators.

That long and consciously cultivated virtue is what accounts for the unrepeatable wealth of her thematic variations; gardens and coffee sieves, tobacco leaves and landscapes, sunflowers and storms, seashores and banana plantations. All of it conceived under the prism of a very precise spatial distribution, a strict chromatic display and an admirable dynamic balance, which remit us to two dominant elements in her iconography: the hurricane and the palm tree.

A portrait of Flora is not complete if one ignores the creative line that remits her to her fatherly ancestors. The influence of her Chinese origins was present, as we have already mentioned, since the initiation times, but were definitely substantiated in the mid eighties, when she researched on the art of her father’s country, and much more when the artist traveled to China for the first time in 1989 and met her relatives.

The universe of calligraphy and ideogram construction nourished her esthetic experience. This last ele- ment becomes perceivable in the conception of the landscape, the use of color and the projection of the structure in the composition. Something that powerfully drew her attention was the way in which in China the study of painting goes from the parts to the whole, whereas in the West it goes from the whole to the parts. In her work presented at the 1st Havana Biennial one appreciated the calligraphic gesture, which reappeared in many other later works and which are part of private and institutional collections and of environmental decorations of public places. During the 2nd Havana Biennial she conducted a workshop on kite construction together with two Chinese specialists.

But more than calligraphy, the Chinese heritage reflects on the spirituality that emerges from Flora’s work. A spirituality, however, that is not deprived of passions or tensions.

Poet Miguel Barnet noticed it when he wrote: “In the face of a work by Flora Fong one may perceive multiple sensations: the intricate nature of a woodland scene, the presence of ancestral elves trapped by the green of gigantic leaves, the white that balances the strong shades and grants a perspective of infiniteness, so familiar in her lineage. The truth as personal experience appears in this painting in the fashion of Eastern tradition. It is an ineffably suggested truth. The keys lie in nature and not in the philosophical language of signs. The Tao without words and the good offices of Eleggua mix in this succession of images to form a whole that reveals the poetic grace”. East and West in Flora’s work are not a dichotomy. Nor are they a complementary couple. It is an organic fusion, intrinsically articulated, in its creative individuality and live transit. Because before and after everything, in the crossing of realities and dreams that amalgamate in her visions, this Flora of universal scope is substantially Cuban.

VIRGINIA ALBERDI, Art Specialist, Havana, February 2015

Virginia Alberdi Benítez (Havana, 1947) Graduate from the Higher Pedagogic Institute Enrique José Varona, 1970. Art critic, editor of Artecubano ediciones. During more than twenty years she was a Specialist in Promotion at the National Council for Plastic Arts (CNAP). During five years she was a senior specialist at the gallery Pequeño Espacio, at CNAP. She has curated numerous solo and group exhibitions. Her texts appear as collaborations in La Jiribilla, Granma newspaper, the tabloid Noticias de Arte Cubano, the magazines Artecubano, On Cuba, Acuarela. She has written texts for catalogues of different artists.
Cuban Artist Flora Fong

Flora Fong