NATALIA BOLÍVAR IN HER LABYRINTH
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.
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