LIKE (PRIZEWINNING) WA­TER FOR CHOCO­LATE

Nel­son Her­rera Ysla

Art On Cuba - - Index -

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. ƒ

Coli­brí, 2008 Col­lo­graph 40 x 23 inChoco at his stu­dio, 2015 Courtesy the artist

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