LIKE (PRIZEWINNING) WATER FOR CHOCOLATE
Nelson Herrera Ysla
In late 2017, the National Prize for Visual Arts was awarded to Eduardo Roca Salazar, an artist extensively known in the Cuban cultural field since his beginnings in the 1970s, and which led him to form part of that generation “of the true hope” (in which Nelson Domínguez, Pedro Pablo Oliva, Roberto Fabelo, Zaida del Río, Ernesto García Peña, Gilberto Frómeta, among others, participated), as it was described by an outstanding intellectual on the island.
More than 40 years of intense work have allowed him to carry out a diverse two-dimensional work although, essentially, his greatest achievements and recognitions, and his legitimacy in and outside of Cuba have been with engraving. If through a work we would decipher, even discover, the artist that produces it, in the case of Eduardo Roca Salazar (Choco or Chocolate, as he is wellknown in the territories of Cuban contemporary art) it isn't easy. To the simplicity and clarity of many of his pieces (especially in drawing) other more complex and dense works are juxtaposed, like the case of the collagraphs, which he has vigorously developed and enhanced in recent years due to the great variety of materials and mediums he uses in them, and to the diversity of colors, lines and forms he enjoys in his process of creation and where, I believe, he seems to feel fulfilled.
Those works transit between dualities, at times hidden, and subtle ambivalences in meanings, and in them one observes a delicate expression of figurative ascendance in which faces and hands call the tune. However, in his recent sculptures and objects, even his installations, he resorts to different universes since he points more to creating atmospheres of color and textures of great material density above any other intention.
In his beginnings, in the 1970s and ‘80s, he embraced the portrait genre where he placed each subject over backgrounds of Cuban nature (sugar canes, tree leafs) and later on he went to great extents in subliming the image of the black woman with symbolic hairstyles and profiles proper of the different ethnic groups of Angola, a country in which he worked and lived for several months. Other trips to Africa and to western European countries, and to the Far East brought him deeply close to the passionate universe of the popular religions in other contexts, while studies and research in Cuba served to familiarize him with the traditional rites and customs that underlie in the depth of our culture. Thanks to those dissimilar experiences and meetings here and there, his work underwent transformations in its form and content.
Established in his studio on Sol Street, in Old Havana, since the 1990s, which is also his workshop and gallery, he is surprised every day with the wealth of languages and lifestyles that surround him in that intense urban microworld. Since then, his spirit gets restless and excited while he works there, and he lets the wealth of his ancestors who centuries ago arrived to this island penetrate him: thus his approach to such deities as Elegguá, Ochún, Our Lady of Charity,
Our Lady of Regla, Changó, which he expresses through a pictorial synthesis and an austere figuration. Despite so much formal simplicity at moments, he did not allow the lyrical abstraction, refined and nongeometric, to become the center of his work. What came out was an integration of surfaces and unprecedented stains in our visualization, in contrast to the realism that almost always accompanies the representation of those religious images. The flame of a candle, for example, a restless eye, a cooking pot, all of a sudden became an important sign of his engraving and painting to produce, along the way, a singular mixture of figuration-abstraction.
These are the reasons why Choco did not become an abstract artist since the figuration accompanied him since his beginnings and seems to always accompany him, like his buddies from the old days and classmates who, in their long and profitable careers, have remained faithful to it. He seems to tell us that nothing is pure in the world, and everything is new and old at the same time, and everything can be mixed or is already mixed, perhaps in a secret
The flame of a candle, for example, a restless eye, a cooking pot, all of a sudden became an important sign of his engraving and painting to produce, along the way, a singular mixture of figuration-abstraction.
homage to Nicolás Guillén. Choco replicates Guillén, yes, but also Bola de Nieve without us barely realizing it. And he reminds us for moments of the magnificent voices of Lázaro Ross, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Milton Nascimento, and the trebles of Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, and even Uncle Sam's urban, neighborhood compositions in his Havana dominion.
On the one hand he paints, on the other he engraves. And he jumps to other volumes to propose an enormous column or a cylinder, from where he expresses the tridimensional with great strength. Choco belongs to that lineage of creators educated in the tradition and history of Cuban art, and in the fundaments of intellectual modernity that established the bases of contemporary culture throughout the 20th century and without which today we would not recognize or identify ourselves in the midst of the global and postmodern scenario we are living. His rich artistic culture and sensitivity allow him to enjoy a portrait of Fayum and the anguished beings of Francis Bacon, as well as Da Vinci's drawings and sketches, the minimalism of Carl André and the intense graffiti of Keith Haring and Basquiat.
His body of professors from the former National Art School of Cubanacán, in the 1960s, inculcated in him that universal, ecumenical way of appreciating the world, of perceiving creative gestures and actions of any great talent on the planet and alien to all notion of fashion or tendency favored by the art market.
That is why we see him working bending over a metal plate, or recycling used clothes and cardboards to extract the maximum use from the precariousness he and numerous creators face in Cuba. We also see him thinking for hours on end before an empty canvas, having doubts about the color to use or the stroke that will define a figure while facing the excess heat in Cuba. Barefoot on occasions, he goes to the kitchen he has in his studio to taste the seasoning and dishes he prepares with beans, rice, fried chunks of pork, potatoes; for his enjoyment as well as for that of anyone visiting him, with his fingers still smeared in oil paint, acrylic and turpentine, linseed and gum Arabic, biting acids and sponges dripping water over the thick stone.
Thus he projects, without intending to and spontaneously, a familiar, affable image of a common man, close to that of many artists of the Cuban avant-gardes, some of whom he got to know and even celebrate around a cup of coffee.
The streets of Old Havana, and the rest of the city, daily assail him in his imagination with their spirit and their letter just as his friends do, Cubans in general, the country. He harbors and exudes infinite loyalties to all. He has a wide smile that he expresses with his big teeth and his enormous mouth. And he keeps in his head very clear accounts to underline that popular and old saying that proclaims: chocolate…the thicker the better it is.
Colibrí, 2008 Collograph 40 x 23 in
Choco at his studio, 2015 Courtesy the artist