NATALIA BOLÍVAR IN HER LABYRINTH

Art On Cuba - - Index - NEL­SON HER­RERA YSLA

A lit­tle be­fore Natalia Bolívar be­gan to talk to me about her in­cur­sions into paint­ing and her pic­to­rial ca­reer as­sumed from dif­fer­ent parts of the world, given my cu­rios­ity and re­spect for her in­tel­lec­tual life, she warned me with ab­so­lute calm and so I would not ob­sti­nately search for some­thing that wasn’t there:

I paint to dis­tract my­self. So that I would not waste my time ex­plor­ing in her in­te­rior in search of the­o­ret­i­cal foun­da­tions or fam­ily mo­ti­va­tions that would jus­tify the many years of her life—in­ter­rupted on some oc­ca­sions for a long time—ded­i­cated to artis­tic cre­ation. Be­cause one thing is more true than many oth­ers that she con­fessed to me: she has not stopped paint­ing since she en­tered the Es­cuela Anexa of the Academia de Bel­las Artes San Alejandro back in 1954, taught un­der Floren­cio Ge­labert in sculp­ture and Baría in draw­ing.

Al­most since that decade of the fifties, her life also be­gan to be marked, per­haps more pro­foundly, by eth­no­log­i­cal and an­thro­po­log­i­cal re­search on re­li­gious and pop­u­lar ex­pres­sions of African ori­gin thanks to an early ap­pren­tice­ship with Ly­dia Cabr­era. Im­por­tant branches of knowl­edge and sen­si­tiv­ity, then, defini­tively in­ter­sected in her life, to try to un­der­stand the ori­gins of many ar­eas of our be­hav­ior as a cul­ture, so­ci­ety and na­tion since, in short, what has al­ways mat­tered to Natalia above all things is Cuba, sur­rounded since the six­teenth cen­tury by a string of mys­ter­ies, labyrinths, paths, magic, which she strives to de­ci­pher from the world ev­ery day.

She only spent a year and a half at the Es­cuela Anexa, as it was closed by the Batista gov­ern­ment in the face of es­ca­lat­ing stu­dent op­po­si­tion. She then took pri­vate paint­ing classes with Hipól­ito Hi­dalgo de Caviedes, who was mar­ried to a cousin of hers. In the sum­mer va­ca­tion of 1955 she de­cided to en­roll on some cour­ses at the very well-known Art Stu­dents League of New York (in which sev­eral Cuban artists were en­rolled on reg­u­lar cour­ses in those years) with none other than Nor­man Rock­well, thanks to her aunt Natalia Aróstegui, who lived in the city and steered her to­wards the im­por­tant teach­ing in­sti­tu­tion, as she did for other Cuban artists in the fields of mu­sic and dance (es­pe­cially Ali­cia Alonso, as she re­calls).

In the midst of that tur­bu­lent decade, the new head­quar­ters of the Museo Na­cional de Bel­las Artes (to­day the Cuban Art build­ing) be­gan to be built, un­der the im­pe­tus of sev­eral per­son­al­i­ties of the coun­try and es­pe­cially Oc­tavio Mon­toro who, im­me­di­ately, called her to work in the 1955 His­pano-Amer­i­can Bi­en­nial of Art and to train as a fu­ture ad­vi­sor of the event, thanks to those early cre­ative in­cli­na­tions, un­known and al­most for­got­ten, over the course of the fol­low­ing years. With­out doubt, the gath­er­ings in her cousin, the sculp­tor Rita Longa’s house, also con­trib­uted to her train­ing, in which ev­ery Sun­day a group of Cuban artists met: René Por­to­car­rero, Amelia Peláez, Víc­tor Manuel, Wifredo Lam; to ex­change opin­ions and tastes re­gard­ing paint­ing.

In 1959, the lead­er­ship of the Revo­lu­tion­ary Gov­ern­ment as­signed her in prac­tice to take the reins of the Museo Na­cional, al­though An­to­nio Ro­dríguez Morey had of­fi­cially served as its di­rec­tor for decades. As such, her cre­ative life changed due to such high re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, and partly also to her in­ter­est in tak­ing lo­cal cour­ses in museog­ra­phy and pre-Columbian art, and be­yond our bor­ders to at­tend train­ing of­fered by the cu­ra­tor of the New York Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum of Art at the Lou­vre Mu­seum, on top­ics of muse­ol­ogy, cat­a­loging, con­ser­va­tion of col­lec­tions, and East­ern Span­ish and Inuit art. Mean­while, Julio Lobo en­trusted to her in “a stor­age ca­pac­ity” his col­lec­tion of art to be ex­hib­ited in the new and re­struc­tured museums, es­pe­cially that re­lated to Napoleon Bon­a­parte—as well as English and French por­traits that he pos­sessed—which served as the ba­sis for the found­ing of the Museo Napoleónico in De­cem­ber 1961, with Natalia serv­ing as its first di­rec­tor.

Dur­ing the years that she headed the Museo Na­cional, she es­tab­lished a pro­gram of trav­el­ing ex­hi­bi­tions with works of the in­sti­tu­tion in sev­eral ci­ties of the coun­try, which were al­ways ac­com­pa­nied by a guide and a cu­ra­tor, de­spite the lack of the best spa­tial con­di­tions in some ci­ties. She tells me that there were cases in which the works were hung in lo­cal fu­neral par­lors, in the place where flo­ral wreaths are usu­ally placed for the de­ceased dur­ing the wake; such was her in­ter­est in bring­ing Cuban art to the en­tire pop­u­la­tion and si­mul­ta­ne­ously of­fer­ing con­fer­ences and talks. Since those early years of the 1960s, Natalia re­luc­tantly aban­doned paint­ing due to her com­mit­ments to cer­tain cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions. In the mid­dle of that decade, she was abruptly re­moved from her of­fi­cial posts and re­lo­cated to un­der­take the most di­verse oc­cu­pa­tions, from gravedig­ger in the Colón ceme­tery, to car­ing for ducks on a farm, var­ied forms of agri­cul­tural work, in the jew­elry sphere, work­ing as a pro­mo­tor of the Na­tional Theater and found­ing the Museo Nu­mis­mático... un­til she de­cided to def­i­nitely set­tle in her own home and de­vote her­self en­tirely to her for­ever beloved oc­cu­pa­tions: re­search and paint­ing.

It was at the be­gin­ning of the 1990s that the pas­sion to paint once again took hold of her, which has not stopped un­til to­day and for which she is also known along with her nu­mer­ous pub­lished books about our roots and tra­di­tions of African ori­gin. In that come back from the 1990s she as­sumed with force and unique­ness the abun­dant im­agery of re­li­gious prac­tices and the un­fath­omable uni­verse of images, forms and signs that they en­tail, a fo­cus which she de­cided not to ex­hibit dur­ing that decade. It was not un­til 2005 that she par­tic­i­pated in a group ex­hi­bi­tion at the Sal­vador Al­lende memo­rial in El Vedado, as well as in an ex­hi­bi­tion along­side Moisés Fi­nalé at the Galería Habana, in the same Ha­vana district. In 2007, she held a solo ex­hi­bi­tion in Se­govia, Spain, un­der the ti­tle Memo­rias del Cal­abar (Mem­o­ries of the Cal­abar), which she later ex­hib­ited that same year at the Casa de África lo­cated in Old Ha­vana.

In 2012, she ex­hib­ited a set of small-for­mat paint­ings with the ti­tle Re­cuer­dos (Mem­o­ries) in the An­to­nia Ei­riz house mu­seum in Ha­vana. In 2016, she took part in the col­lec­tive ex­hi­bi­tion which of­fi­cially in­au­gu­rated the “Taller Gor­ría” gallery in Old Ha­vana, to­gether with renowned Cuban artists. In Septem­ber of that same year she held an­other solo ex­hi­bi­tion, Leyen­das afrocubanas (Afro-Cuban Le­gends), with more than 30 medium-sized paint­ings in the “El reino de este mundo” gallery of the Bi­b­lioteca Na­cional de Cuba, which served as the ba­sis to il­lus­trate a book she had writ­ten with the same ti­tle, pub­lished in Mex­ico.

Since the mid­dle of that decade, she had con­cen­trated her pic­to­rial vo­ca­tion on in­ter­pret­ing the uni­verse of deities and mytholo­gies learned from her time work­ing with Ly­dia Cabr­era. The de­gree of in­ge­nu­ity, spon­tane­ity and hon­esty that each work trans­mits elim­i­nates any at­tempt to cri­tique their use, thus when ap­proach­ing them we must do so stripped of the­o­ret­i­cal prej­u­dices but sup­ported, ra­tio­nally and log­i­cally, by the aes­thet­ics and his­tory of art. In honor of the truth she does what she thinks or wishes, what she feels and what ex­cites her, with­out en­trust­ing her­self to any­thing other than her instinct and her im­ma­nent cre­ative na­ture. I do not per­ceive for­mal as­sim­i­la­tions of im­por­tant artists (Cha­gall, Rousseau, Miró, Frida Kahlo, Tamayo, Tar­silia do Amaral, Volpi), but in­flu­ences of their gazes, ap­proaches and points of view sur­round­ing pop­u­lar cul­tures and their con­texts. Es­sen­tially, her work is based on a frank, can­did sense of beauty and aes­thet­ics, of her sen­si­tiv­ity forged in in­tense re­la­tion­ships with Cuban artists and in­tel­lec­tu­als and in her trips to dif­fer­ent re­gions of Africa and the Caribbean (es­pe­cially Haiti, the coun­try that has moved her most in re­cent years).

As few other artists she makes graphic, pic­to­rial an­no­ta­tions, in the “diaries” that ac­com­pany her wher­ever she goes or trav­els, and in her own home. I have had the priv­i­lege of see­ing some of these var­ied vol­umes (as she fills the pages in short pe­ri­ods of time), and they are true artists’ note­books, unique pieces ca­pa­ble of re­veal­ing in­ten­tions, se­crets, the di­rec­tions of a per­son, much more than the works that artists usu­ally un­der­take to ex­hibit. Natalia’s works have an ex­traor­di­nary, uni­fy­ing use of color, in which it is pos­si­ble to ad­mire the style of some­one who knows how to draw a fig­ure, a face, and at the same time at­mos­pheres close to the nat­u­ral land­scape. She wields a to­tal ab­sence of aes­thetic prej­u­dice, sim­ply noted in the cho­sen medium: if she must stick a but­ton onto fab­ric or card­board, or some pa­per flow­ers, or ex-vo­tos bought in pop­u­lar stores, or se­quins, or old pho­tos, threads and nee­dles, she does so by link­ing them all to­gether with her draw­ing and her stains. She does not feel at­tached to any­thing other than pure and sim­ple cre­ation.

Un­in­ten­tion­ally, this sug­gests a line of con­ti­nu­ity that Ben­ito Or­tiz, Julio Br­eff and Gil­berto de la Nuez have, some of the best ex­po­nents on the is­land. But she lacks fa­mil­iar­ity with them for­mally and struc­turally. Natalia’s thing, speak­ing frankly, has no name, al­though for a greater en­joy­ment and ap­pre­ci­a­tion of all that she does we should fa­mil­iar­ize our­selves with that pop­u­lar knowl­edge, those deities, mytholo­gies, le­gends, to which she al­ludes with­out rest, be­cause for her all cre­ation orig­i­nates in the best un­der­stand­ing of these an­ces­tral cos­mogo­nies, ex­ist­ing in a large part of our ge­o­graphic-cul­tural re­gion.

Natalia Bolívar has man­aged to in­te­grate her in­tel­lec­tual and cre­ative uni­verses with­out up­heavals or con­tra­dic­tions. Her pic­to­rial work, her draw­ings and ob­jects, are cre­ated when­ever she wants to ex­press some­thing in­ti­mate, some­thing that af­fords her sat­is­fac­tion, and al­ways dis­tanced from ex­hi­bi­tion and mar­ket con­cerns. Her work flows like her life it­self. ƒ

Agenda o diario de trabajo, 2014 Crayon, printed me­dia, tem­pera 13¾ x 19¾ inches Natalia Bolívar work­ing in her home in Ha­vana, 2015 Pho­tos: Natasha del Río

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