AN APPROACH TO
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.”
Cazando al pájaro, 2011 / Oil and collage on paper / Private collection / Courtesy the artist