AN AP­PROACH TO

Art On Cuba - - Index - Llil­ian Llanes

It is known that Sosabravo stopped paint­ing to­wards the end of the 1970s and did not take up a brush again un­til the early 1990s, a fact that can­not be ig­nored given the con­se­quences it had not only for his ca­reer, but also for Cuban art. In short, it was his ded­i­ca­tion to ce­ram­ics in this pe­riod what in­stilled a di­men­sion not seen up to then for this man­i­fes­ta­tion in the his­tory of Cuban art.

A de­ci­sion of this sort is very dif­fi­cult to ex­plain with­out tak­ing into ac­count the cir­cum­stances that from the so­cial and per­sonal points of view prompted the artist to aban­don paint­ing for such a long time, an area where he orig­i­nally ex­pressed his vo­ca­tion and artis­tic tal­ent, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing that to­wards the end of the 1960s he al­ready had to his credit as a painter a visual dis­course by which he was ac­knowl­edged and iden­ti­fied.

I have of­ten heard some art crit­ics plead rea­sons of per­sonal na­ture to ex­plain that de­ci­sion, or re­fer the short­age of ma­te­ri­als due to the eco­nomic cri­sis of the 1970s.

It is true that still in that mo­ment his liv­ing con­di­tions were very pre­car­i­ous. A dif­fi­cult time when he, to­gether with his mother, lived in a small room in Cen­tro Habana where it was prac­ti­cally im­pos­si­ble to work. That lack of space, as well as the need to find ways to make ends meet for the fam­ily's sur­vival, per­haps had been the rea­son that took him to the print­ing and ce­ram­ics work­shops, where fa­cil­i­ties were of­fered in those times for the artists to de­velop their work. How­ever, it is not pos­si­ble to sus­tain a re­nun­ci­a­tion as that one based on rea­sons of that type when, after all, his life had been marked by many short­ages, although he had nev­er­the­less been able to find his own path as an artist.

In any case, we must agree that Sosabravo was not an iso­lated case. Quite a few pain­ters of his gen­er­a­tion, in­volved like him in the dif­fer­ent as­pects of new fig­u­ra­tion, stopped paint­ing and fo­cused on other artis­tic ex­pres­sions, in which each of them made im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tions to Cuban art. In truth, it is not pos­si­ble to ex­plain that phe­nom­e­non with­out men­tion­ing the po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion of the country, whose ef­fects on cul­ture has been an ob­ject of anal­y­sis by many ex­perts and, in the field of visual arts, left an im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore mark.

It would be enough to ask why An­to­nia Ei­riz stopped paint­ing and de­voted her­self to pro­mote pa­pier-mâché among her neigh­bors. Why Um­berto Peña con­cen­trated on graphic de­sign and, in the in­terim, cre­ated his “trapices”, just to men­tion some of the bet­ter known cases. If we look for the causes of such a be­hav­ior, they do not greatly dif­fer from those that made Sosabravo re­place paint­ing for ce­ram­ics, apart from the for­ays he made into en­grav­ing and other non-tra­di­tional sup­ports in which he left a very pres­ti­gious body of work in the course of those twenty years.

On other oc­ca­sions I have said that in Cuba, for a long time, cul­ture has de­pended on the ex­ist­ing re­la­tion­ship of forces be­tween or­tho­doxy and het­ero­doxy, be­tween what has been called “the hard line” and the lib­er­als. It is known that to­wards the first years of the tri­umph of the Rev­o­lu­tion, the cul­tural panorama of the country was quite di­verse. Although dis­agree­ments on cri­te­ria among in­tel­lec­tu­als and artists could ex­ist as a re­sult of old con­flicts among them­selves, the wish to give his­tor­i­cal con­ti­nu­ity to Cuban cul­ture pre­vailed and was pro­jected tak­ing into ac­count its roots and tra­di­tions. Of course, at the time the strug­gle of ideas be­came very fre­quent and great polemics ex­isted, some of which were pub­licly set­tled.

Within this con­text, it is con­ve­nient to ac­knowl­edge that the in­sti­tu­tions es­tab­lished on the first five years of the 1960s ad­vo­cated for a com­mit­ted art, but were very far from ad­vo­cat­ing the use of so­cial­ist re­al­ism as a method, an is­sue on which mis­trust, not al­ways ground­less, soon arose among the in­tel­lec­tu­als. The ex­is­tence of a trend within the Pop­u­lar So­cial­ist Party re­luc­tant to cre­ative free­dom was known. By then, some of its mem­bers ex­tended their power to­wards the field of cul­ture and po­lar con­fronta­tions emerged which gave place to the fa­mous Fidel Castro's meet­ings with the in­tel­lec­tu­als in 1961, where he stated that the lead­er­ship of the country did not in­tend to in­ter­fere in the lan­guages artists pre­ferred and that the prob­lems to be de­bated didn't have to do “with the form, but with the con­tents” of the works.

Although after those state­ments the at­mos­phere of con­fronta­tion calmed down for a while, the ghost of or­tho­doxy con­tin­ued haunt­ing artists and in­tel­lec­tu­als, among other rea­sons be­cause of the in­creas­ing promi­nence the old com­mu­nists still had in di­verse fields of the country.

How­ever, within the cli­mate of rel­a­tive lib­er­al­ity that ex­panded for some years, visual arts en­joyed a par­tic­u­lar promi­nence: ex­hi­bi­tions mul­ti­plied, schol­ar­ships were awarded and many artists who years ear­lier had not been able to de­velop their ca­reers found ad­e­quate spa­ces to make them­selves vis­i­ble. This does not mean that con­tra­dic­tions did not become ev­i­dent but, for a long time, ef­forts had been made to re­duce the prob­lems of those times into a fight against ab­strac­tion when, strictly speak­ing, the con­tro­versy was con­fined to the ghost of Stal­in­ism whose im­ple­men­ta­tion was feared be­cause of the pre­ten­sion of some func­tionar­ies who ar­gued about the suit­abil­ity of so­cial­ist re­al­ism as a sin­gle form of ex­pres­sion of the Cuban so­ci­ety given the al­leged lack of his­tor­i­cal com­mit­ment of ab­strac­tion vis-à-vis re­al­ity. In fact, the cri­sis in the cul­tural de­bate of that decade did not be­gin in the field of visual arts but in lit­er­a­ture, since it was a dis­pute of ideas ex­pressed in di­rect, ex­plicit terms: a field in which the de­bate was pre­cisely re­opened in 1968, since Padilla's well known case.

It is con­ve­nient to re­mem­ber that in 1967 the lead­er­ship of the country had made a last at­tempt to rat­ify be­fore the world and the na­tion the gov­ern­ment's of­fi­cial po­si­tion reaf­firm­ing that all forms of ex­pres­sion had room within the field of cul­ture. It was then that the Salon de Mayo was brought to Ha­vana and visual arts ben­e­fit­ted from it, for the first time in the country, with a promi­nence never seen be­fore. Space and vis­i­bil­ity were granted to all trends, styles and cre­ations brought by the French and there was a cli­mate of re­mark­able lib­er­al­ity in the field of visual arts.

On the other hand, be­tween De­cem­ber 1967 and Jan­uary 1968 the cel­e­brated Cul­tural Congress of Ha­vana took place and, even when tinged by the Padilla's case, it still had the at­ten­dance of nu­mer­ous per­son­al­i­ties of the Euro­pean in­tel­li­gentsia and from other lat­i­tudes that con­trib­uted to air the at­mos­phere, some­thing that did not last for long. Be­tween 1968 and 1971, the de­bates on cul­tural pol­icy be­came red-hot once again and an­tag­o­nisms be­came greater in a con­flict in which the hard line won, whose most de­plorable ex­pres­sion was the Congress of Ed­u­ca­tion and Cul­ture that would take place barely two years after the first one was held.

There is an of­ten-re­peated ques­tion to the point of be­com­ing rhetor­i­cal: Where did the spirit of di­a­logue, the en­vi­ron­ment of cre­ative con­tro­versy which char­ac­ter­ized the cul­ture of the 1960s go—vi­cis­si­tudes not­with­stand­ing—in the 1970s? It could be agreed that the key to the en­tire process lies in the year 1970, when the lead­er­ship of the country won­dered whether it would be pos­si­ble or not to have a project of its own, be­fore the pro­posal of many to fol­low the Soviet model.

It is quite prob­a­ble that the fail­ure of the ten mil­lion ton sugar cane har­vest frus­trated a project of eco­nomic in­de­pen­dence whose de­sign at the be­gin­ning of the Rev­o­lu­tion was based on a swift in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion and di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion of agri­cul­ture that was then re­placed by an in­ten­sive sugar pro­duc­tion that, as is known, re­sulted into an­other fail­ure.

In short, the frus­tra­tion of all those projects left in the hands of the pro-Sovi­ets the man­age­ment of the gov­ern­ment which be­gan to adopt some of their meth­ods, above all in the field of econ­omy and po­lit­i­cal struc­tures, un­avoid­ably per­me­at­ing cul­tural ac­tiv­ity and markedly mod­i­fy­ing the sym­bolic spheres in which what was na­tional ex­pressed it­self. From then on, the val­ues of dog­ma­tism raised and the lib­eral trends de­clined: they could not be swept or put out, but they could be marginal­ized and si­lenced.

It was then that, be­cause of ap­par­ently dif­fer­ent pur­poses, many of the new fig­u­ra­tive artists, whose icono­gra­phies be­gan to be seen with much mis­trust by the au­thor­i­ties of the times, de­cided to leave the can­vas and look for other sup­ports and tech­niques through which they would de­velop their cre­ative ex­pres­sion.

Within this con­text, the short­age of paint­ing ma­te­ri­als that un­ex­pect­edly came after the eco­nomic cri­sis of the sev­en­ties can­not be ig­nored. It has also been bran­dished as one of the causes that made some artists stop paint­ing. How­ever, it was not a rea­son per se be­cause all those who wanted to con­tinue paint­ing did so, as Ser­vando Cabr­era who, when lack­ing can­vases, used wheat flour bags as a sup­port.

***

A qual­i­fied painter, print­maker, ce­ramist and drafts­man,

Al­fredo Sosabravo is first and fore­most an artist, ca­pa­ble of find­ing, when­ever he has had the need to ex­press a new idea, the most con­ve­nient ve­hi­cle for his visual for­mu­la­tion. Know­ing the par­tic­u­lar­i­ties of every me­dia he has known, as very few do, how to choose the tech­nique and the sup­port to use when ap­proach­ing some sub­ject mat­ter of his in­ter­est, whether in a for­mal or a con­cep­tual level.

This way of fac­ing the artis­tic process is what has al­lowed him to de­velop a work of re­mark­able plu­ral­ity, born from the dis­cov­ery he has made in the course of his ca­reer with the most di­verse ma­te­ri­als and tech­niques. As a mat­ter of fact, if some­thing dis­tin­guishes his po­et­ics it is the fas­ci­na­tion pro­vided by the use of such an amount of tools, be­gin­ning with his first ex­pe­ri­ences with can­vas and oil un­til ar­riv­ing at the frenzy of glass, go­ing through the apoth­e­o­sis of clay and the dain­ti­ness of pa­per, al­ways re­veal­ing the en­chant­ment that work­ing with so many dif­fer­ent el­e­ments has pro­duced in him.

When spec­i­fy­ing the el­e­ments be­stow­ing char­ac­ter and iden­tity to his work, we must be­gin by rec­og­niz­ing that his en­tire work stems from the ob­ses­sion to un­der­stand the re­la­tion­ship be­tween hu­mankind and na­ture: a prob­lem in which he in­cluded the topic of tech­nol­ogy when, in the di­a­logue he kept with the en­vi­ron­ment, he un­der­stood the ef­fects of its in­flu­ence on life in the planet.

The enigma that the in­ter­ac­tion of these three com­po­nents has had for him, along with the sys­tem­atic in­ter­est main­tained in its for­mu­la­tion, is one of the dis­tinc­tive fea­tures of his per­son­al­ity as an artist; and, pre­cisely, in the man­ner of vis­ually trans­lat­ing those con­cerns lies a large part of that orig­i­nal­ity as­cribed to his work, whose for­mal and con­cep­tual plu­ral­ity has much to do with the per­spec­tives from which he has an­a­lyzed that com­plex plot; gen­er­ally em­pha­siz­ing the hu­man as­pect, oc­ca­sion­ally in what is so­cial and not a few times from the an­gle of cul­ture, fun­da­men­tally in its pop­u­lar di­men­sion.

It is worth­while to keep in mind that paint­ing is his way of ex­pres­sion par ex­cel­lence. Its prac­tice al­lowed him to make a start as an artist, ac­quir­ing a trade and mas­ter­ing the tech­nique in an un­beat­able way, which he trans­fers as a per­ma­nent as­pi­ra­tion to every cre­ative project in which he is in­volved. This has al­lowed him to achieve that per­fect con­clu­sion char­ac­ter­iz­ing his works, in any of the man­i­fes­ta­tions in which he ex­presses him­self.

No less im­por­tant in the devel­op­ment of his pic­to­rial pro­posal has been the search for tex­tures to which his ob­ses­sion with the mys­ter­ies of color is as­so­ci­ated. He has de­voted a large part of his ca­reer to master it in a jour­ney ex­tended from his ini­tial ex­pe­ri­ences with paint­ing to the chro­matic ex­plo­sions of the glasses, pass­ing through the glaze of the earth­en­ware.

As to en­grav­ing, his first ap­proaches have much to do with the at­mos­phere sur­round­ing the prac­tice of this ex­pres­sion in Latin Amer­ica and in Cuba in the six­ties. It is nec­es­sary to high­light that it was in en­grav­ing where, in his case, so­cial per­spec­tive first found space, es­tranged from the old rhetoric of re­al­ism and nat­u­ral­ism. How­ever, we must take into ac­count that for Sosabravo the so­cial topic never be­came an ab­so­lute mo­tif of his cre­ation. In fact, his con­cerns within this field have been cen­tered in univer­sal and ex­is­ten­tial prob­lems of per­ma­nent in­ter­est for him, as an artist and as a hu­man be­ing.

Within that con­text, it is con­ve­nient to point out that, as se­ri­ous as his con­cerns may be, the tone with which he ob­serves re­al­ity has never ended up as apoc­a­lyp­tic. He has al­ways kept, as he has so aptly put it, “a meta­phoric dis­tance, as is proper of art”, what­ever his reg­is­ter may have been; “ap­peal­ing to hu­mor” as a re­source that has saved him “from that an­chor­age with what is pedes­trian” he has wanted to avoid all his life.

In any case, faith in the fate of hu­mankind and its con­quests, as well as in the un­shake­able power of na­ture, has al­ways tinged his per­spec­tive of anal­y­sis. It is that view of the world loaded with op­ti­mism what has made that even the fan­tas­tic be­ings to which he ap­peals to de­velop his ideas, do not cling to an ide­ol­ogy linked to de­struc­tion or to that dev­as­tat­ing dra­matic qual­ity com­mon in other fig­u­ra­tive pain­ters. In prac­tice, his re­fined sense of hu­mor has pro­tected him from the neg­a­tive charge re­flected by some of the prob­lems he has dealt with.

Many have been his in­flu­ences, many the visual stim­uli, but his ad­mi­ra­tion for the pro­pos­als of his na­tional or in­ter­na­tional col­leagues have never left a di­rect mark in his works. Be­long­ing to that gen­er­a­tion that re­acted in the world against the pre­dom­i­nance of ab­strac­tion in paint­ing, Sosabravo, on his own right, de­serves to be con­sid­ered one of the most gen­uine rep­re­sen­ta­tives of that move­ment in an in­ter­na­tional level.

He is en­tirely right when he says, “I am happy and I have rea­sons to be, I have ar­rived to this age mak­ing art. After some time I know what I am do­ing, where I want to ar­rive with my work… I hope to be an artist al­ways.” ƒ

Cazando al pá­jaro, 2011 / Oil and col­lage on pa­per / Pri­vate col­lec­tion / Cour­tesy the artist

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