Art On Cuba - - In This Issue - Lilian Mar­i­ana Boti Llanes

José Miguel Franco Co­d­i­nach (Pepe Franco) was born in Ha­vana in 1958 and he lived there his en­tire child­hood and youth. He went to the San Ale­jan­dro National School of Fine Arts where he started his stud­ies of art and grad­u­ated in 1978. That same year he be­gan his stud­ies in the High In­sti­tute of Arts (ISA) un­til he fin­ished them in 1983. In 1982, to­gether with Gus­tavo Acosta, Moisés Fi­nalé and Car­los Gar­cía, he cre­ated the group 4 x 4, to which he was united un­til 1987, the year in which they de­cided to con­tinue their work in an in­de­pen­dent way. The ge­n­e­sis of this group has to do with the in­ter­est they shared to re­turn to paint­ing as a means of ex­pres­sion be­fore the peak of the in­stal­la­tions in the art of those years.

José Franco took part in the three first edi­tions of the Ha­vana Bi­en­nial (1984, 1986 and 1989) and, in 1990, made his first solo ex­hi­bi­tion at the Castillo de la Real Fuerza in Ha­vana, which he called Ri­i­ing! Grrr! and marked a mile­stone in his ca­reer. Draw­ings, paint­ings and in­stal­la­tions, in­clud­ing chairs and other ob­jects, were ex­hib­ited there. And some of the paint­ings had that two-di­men­sional and three-di­men­sional mix­ture which has been a re­cur­rent el­e­ment in his ca­reer. In one of those paint­ings he added a tele­phone as an out­stand­ing el­e­ment of the com­po­si­tion, in a di­a­logue be­tween moder­nity and what is eter­nal in na­ture. This suc­cess­ful ex­hi­bi­tion al­lowed him to be the first Cuban artist who won the pres­ti­gious Guggen­heim Fel­low­ship in 1991 in Cre­ative Arts.

The schol­ar­ship made him live some months in New York and en­ter into di­rect contact with the pop­u­lar ur­ban cul­ture of those years. Those were the times in which NY was the cul­tural cap­i­tal of the world and its trends in­flu­enced the en­tire world. Pro­fes­sional artists, as well as en­thu­si­ast young­sters, painted all and each of the walls in the city; and the sub­way, to­day clean and tidy, was cov­ered with graf­fiti in all its coaches. This was the end of the time in which graf­fiti painters not only painted the wag­ons out­side, but also inside. It was then that Pepe Franco could see for the first time the re­main­ing mu­rals and works by Keith Har­ing, an artist he had al­ways ad­mired. Har­ing had died at the be­gin­ning of the 1990s and his works could still be seen in New York City. His graf­fiti, as well as his ob­jects, had al­ways in­ter­ested Franco and, see­ing them in the place for which they had been con­ceived, and in which they were made, was a very in­ter­est­ing and en­rich­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Har­ing had been a ref­er­ent of street cul­ture in New York in the 1980s and his graf­fiti and comic strips painted in the metro pan­els in­flu­enced many artists of fol­low­ing gen­er­a­tions. Har­ing had also made in 1986 a large 300 me­ter mu­ral on the Ber­lin wall, in what it was then known as the Check­point Char­lie. Franco had vis­ited Ber­lin in 1989 and, al­though at that time the mu­ral had been cov­ered by graf­fiti and works by other artists, and there was noth­ing in it in view, in the Ber­lin Wall there were many works which im­pacted him from the artis­tic as well as the political point of view.

In his years as a stu­dent of ISA, José Franco had stud­ied mu­ral paint­ing and street art, since this one was one of the sub­jects in his study cur­ricu­lum. It was there that he en­tered for the first time into contact with the tech­niques and the tra­di­tion of mu­ral paint­ing in the world. The pro­fes­sor of this sub­ject was mu­ral­ist Or­lando Suárez (who was also very well known be­cause, in 1962, he had cre­ated the Ex­per­i­men­tal Graphic Work­shop of Ha­vana). Or­lando Suárez had stud­ied Mex­i­can mu­ral paint­ing in Mex­ico and knew all the tra­di­tional tech­niques he be­gan to trans­mit to his stu­dents. But Pepe al­ways re­mem­bers that street art and the mu­rals al­ready in­ter­ested him since the times in San Ale­jan­dro School and he car­ried out his first ex­pe­ri­ence be­fore study­ing the history and evo­lu­tion of these artis­tic move­ments, when he joined a group of stu­dents in the San Ale­jan­dro School and painted the walls of his house, in D St., Vedado, which would be the first of the many mu­rals he has made through­out his ca­reer.

When fin­ish­ing his stud­ies in ISA, Pepe Franco be­came part of the staff of pro­fes­sors in the in­sti­tu­tion. But he re­mem­bers that at that time the mu­ral pro­fes­sor­ship had dis­ap­peared. And then, within the sub­ject of Art, in which he was a pro­fes­sor as well as Ed­uardo Pon­juán, there was a part in which they stud­ied the form of do­ing joint works with the stu­dents in pub­lic places and, there­fore, mu­ral paint­ing had rather re­mained as a work­shop prac­tice. The main idea was car­ry­ing out a so­cially “use­ful” work from the re­cov­ery of pub­lic places. So they faced the chal­lenge of find­ing walls on the city and cre­ate in them works in keep­ing with the en­vi­ron­ment. It is from this pro­fes­sor­ship, and as part of the study pro­gram, that he then led the re­al­iza­tion of the mu­rals the stu­dents were cre­at­ing. From that time is the mu­ral of the killer whales and the dol­phins that was lo­cated on the cor­ner of 1st Av­enue and 42 St., on a wall of the Cuban National Aquar­ium that to­day does not ex­ist. Many have also re­mem­bered the mu­ral in 1st Av­enue and 8 St. in Mi­ra­mar, in which there was a bi­cy­cle lean­ing against what ev­ery­one in Cuba knows as a “peerless fence” and the fa­mous wall in La Rampa that was joined by shoelaces.

Pepe Franco is a tire­less worker and is al­ready pre­par­ing his projects for the close future which will in­clude a book in which he sum­ma­rizes his en­tire artis­tic path.

His paint­ings, in­stal­la­tions, draw­ings, graphic work, and also the mu­rals, will be there.

José Franco has never stopped paint­ing and, in re­cent years, has con­tin­ued mak­ing mu­rals in pub­lic spa­ces. In 2014 he was in­vited to take part in the Sec­ond In­ter­na­tional Bi­en­nial of Mu­ral Paint­ing and Pub­lic Art in Cali, Colom­bia. This Bi­en­nial, or­ga­nized by MULI (Museo Li­bre de Arte Público de Cali) is an ini­tia­tive pre­tend­ing to give back the pub­lic space to the city. The sub­ject of this Bi­en­nial had to do with national rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, which in the case of Colom­bia is al­ways a topic of present time, but also with the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion of the per­sons with their com­mu­nity and with the en­vi­ron­ment in which they live. In that event Franco par­tic­i­pated with two mu­rals, one made solo and named Visión nat­u­ral (Nat­u­ral Sight), in the Cali zoo; and an­other en­ti­tled La con­stelación de la rec­on­cil­iación (The Con­stel­la­tion of Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion), in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Gabriel, Brazil­ian artist of the mo­saic, in which they worked in a grade cross­ing in the same city. This mu­ral was made with a mixed tech­nique, since Gabriel com­pleted part of the mo­saics and Pepe drew on the wall. In these mu­rals, Franco recre­ated his re­cur­rent the­matic, the ecol­ogy and pro­tec­tion of the en­vi­ron­ment but, in this case, in­spired on the birds and tex­tures of au­tochthonous an­i­mals of the Colom­bian fauna.

Pepe Franco tells us that he has been al­ways in­ter­ested in na­ture. As a child he lived near the coast and spent his days in the “Playita de 16”. He spent hours div­ing in the sea, looking at the colors of the fish, the rocks, the corals. To­day he is sure that this contact with na­ture in­flu­enced him for his en­tire life and that, united to the re­la­tion­ship of man with na­ture, that love-ha­tred re­la­tion that is also a con­struc­tion-de­struc­tion re­la­tion, are the el­e­ments that nowa­days have de­fined his work. What has been ac­tu­ally mod­i­fied is the use of color al­though the top­ics of re­flec­tion had con­tin­ued be­ing the same. With the ex­cep­tion of his grad­u­a­tion the­sis in ISA, in which the paint­ings all had colors, in the be­gin­ning they were mostly black and white, or in­cor­po­rated one color. How­ever, af­ter liv­ing in France, Franco be­gan, with much strength, to in­cor­po­rate color in his works, which can be no­ticed in the paint­ing, draw­ing and graphic work, as well as in his last mu­rals. In the case of paint­ing, he aban­doned the use of the air­brush and has be­gun to use the paint­brush again. It is a change of per­spec­tive too: be­fore, the fi­nal result was the most im­por­tant thing; now he en­joys more with man­ual work and the en­tire process of cre­ation.

Also in 2014, and as part of the project Viví Arte (I Lived Art), he made a large mu­ral in the Bar­rio Florida Oeste in the Mu­nic­i­pal­ity of Vi­cente López in Buenos Aires Prov­ince. This im­mense mu­ral (com­posed by four walls, 50 me­ters long each) which he en­ti­tled

La jungla en el as­falto (The Jun­gle in the As­phalt) and was made with the tech­nique of syn­thetic enamel, in a low bridge of the lo­cal­ity, sum­ma­rizes his con­cept and the base of his artis­tic cre­ation since, with the use of nat­u­ral el­e­ments, he was able to trans­form a purely in­dus­trial and hos­tile place for passers-by and in­hab­i­tants into a friendly and pleas­ant abode for all those in­hab­it­ing its en­vi­ron­ment or us­ing it dur­ing their jour­ney on that area of the city. The project Viví Arte was cre­ated in that Mu­nic­i­pal­ity in Ar­gentina with the pur­pose of mak­ing cul­tural and touris­tic ac­tiv­i­ties to en­cour­age the in­te­gra­tion of the neigh­bors and im­prove their life stan­dards by beau­ti­fy­ing their en­vi­ron­ment of life and work.

The mu­ral not only demon­strated Pepe Franco’s ca­pac­ity as an artist, but also his tech­ni­cal con­trol, the abil­ity and power of work­ing in very large di­men­sions. It is part of his commitment with so­ci­ety and the place in which he lives. Al­ready in 2010 he had been in­vited by Mu­nic­i­pal­i­dad de Azul, a city in the cen­ter of the Buenos Aires Prov­ince in Ar­gentina, to take part in a so­cial project. In this case, Franco chose as an in­spi­ra­tion the spi­ral mu­ral of the Salón de Mayo in Ha­vana (1967) and, al­though he did not per­son­ally made any of the paint­ings, he was in charge of the co­or­di­na­tion of the project, in which in­hab­i­tants of that small city took part.

In 2015 he was in­vited by the Bird Road Art District (BRAD), in the Mi­ami Dade County, to make a mu­ral on one of the walls of this area, with the sub­ject of man and na­ture. The mu­ral that was made there was en­ti­tled El pro­feta (The Prophet) and takes up one of the walls of that cir­cuit of art and de­sign born in Mi­ami in 2000.

As part of his con­stant search and in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the var­i­ous tech­niques and sur­faces to do his work, Pepe has not only made mu­rals in pub­lic spa­ces. Al­ready in the 1980s he had been part of the Te­larte project for which he had pre­sented four de­signs of fab­rics. This project in­tended to give life to the tex­tile in­dus­try in Cuba and, be­cause of that, it joined the cre­ativ­ity of the Cuban vis­ual artists and the in­sti­tu­tional in­ter­est. Fab­rics used in the most di­verse ways by the Cuban pop­u­la­tion were made.

And the chal­lenge that he feels par­tic­u­larly close, be­cause of hav­ing been able to link his pas­sion for cars and his pas­sion for art, was to use some of them as sup­port. That is how in 2007, while liv­ing in Paris, he painted his first car: a red Fer­rari that, with its wings and black stains seem­ing to chal­lenge the ur­ban jun­gle. In 2011 he was in­vited by Peu­geot-Citroën au­to­mo­tive man­u­fac­turer to in­ter­vene a car as part of the cel­e­bra­tions for the man­u­fac­tur­ing of the first Citroën in the Ar­gen­tinean plant. But, in this oc­ca­sion, in­stead of con­cen­trat­ing in the out­side, he re­moved the doors to be able to in­ter­vene the chairs which are enor­mous cows graz­ing in a small space that is dis­cerned in the front de­fense. In 2012, as a re­quest of its owner, he painted an old Mercedes Benz car, kept in an area in Uruguay where the beach and the coun­try­side meet. Franco was in­spired by this fact and, in the friezes, on one side there are the el­e­ments be­long­ing to the sea and, on the other, el­e­ments be­long­ing to the coun­try­side.

Pepe Franco is a tire­less worker and is al­ready pre­par­ing his projects for the close future which will in­clude a book in which he sum­ma­rizes his en­tire artis­tic path. His paint­ings, in­stal­la­tions, draw­ings, graphic work, and also the mu­rals, will be there. And an ex­hi­bi­tion in the city where he was born and in which he has not ex­hib­ited solo again since 2000, is a project that will soon come true. That will be the oc­ca­sion to again en­ter into contact with his world, his re­flec­tions and his new paint­ings full of colors and (why not?) with a large mu­ral in one of the walls in the city. ƒ

Ar­gen­tinian cows roam in the first Citroën built in the coun­try, 2011 Acrylic on auto and other el­e­ments Buenos Aires De­sign Cen­ter, Ar­gentina El Ataque Chairs with soft sculp­tural el­e­ments and acrylic Vari­able di­men­sions Courtesy the artist

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