Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

/ARTS WEEKLY/CUBA: Camaguey’s Enchanted House of Art

Dalia Acosta

CAMAGUEY, Cuba, Oct 21 2003 (IPS) - Few cities in Cuba boast a house like that of artists Ileana Sánchez and Joel Jover, which is open all day to local and foreign visitors, and does triple duty – as an art gallery, studio/workshop and home.

But the most outstanding feature is not the frescos on the walls, the 19th century colonial architecture, the well and large earthen jars on the patio, or the windows, which are typical of Camagüey, located 570 kms east of Havana.

Visitors are struck by the works of Sánchez, Jover and a number of other artists, friends of these two representatives of the best of contemporary Cuban art, which cover the walls and every corner of the old house.

Four ”jicoteas” (land turtles) come out to eat when they see that the seven cats are being fed. ”These little guys receive a lot of affection,” says Jover, explaining why all the cats are friendly and sociable towards strangers.

The staircase, made of fine wood, doesn’t lead anywhere. The steps are full of books, and at the top hangs a sheet painted by Jover for the last Havana Biennial, an international art show where artists from Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and Africa show their works.

”We’ve been living here for around 10 years. We’ve been offered all kinds of options to move, because this is part of the national heritage, and it is also in a prime location. But we don’t want to leave this place, which is our home,” Sánchez told IPS.

The door-knocker is rarely silent. There are weeks in which Sánchez spends most of her time chatting with the tourists who show up to look around and ask questions. ”It is a rare day that I can sit down to paint before 10 or 11 at night,” she says.

The tourists come from all over, from other Latin American countries, Spain and the United States. The house is located off the grounds of the Camagüey cathedral, right in the centre of town.

The boom of private art galleries in Cuba began in the late 1990s. But most of them are more commercial in character, or are studios that the state has granted to a select group of artists.

”I was very surprised that you can see such good art in a spot that is so far away from Havana,” says Rafael Gutiérrez, a Spanish tourist.”Since I arrived in Camagüey, everyone has been telling me I shouldn’t miss the artists’ house.”

Novelist, poet and essayist Roberto Méndez wrote that the work of Ileana Sánchez, who was born in Camagüey in 1958, has grown enormously, although art critics have largely ignored it.

After several attempts by Sánchez to achieve what Méndez describes as ”a personal stamp or style resistant to the ups-and-downs of whatever’s in vogue,” her work made a ”definitive shift” between 1996 and 1997, and she began to embark on what the writer said could be called a ”reinvention of the tropics.”

”Black people, drawn with the same lack of inhibition that the artist learned from children, play, love, celebrate, and fly through the air with a limitless optimism. There is no traditionalism, not even reflections of local styles,” said the writer.

After saying mass in Camagüey on Jan. 23, 1998, Pope John Paul II was presented with a gift – a painting that made him smile, and which reportedly now forms part of the papal art collection.

The painting, by Sánchez, showed two little black children flying up to a smiling God from a city full of bell towers, which Méndez said recalled the profile of the buildings in Camagüey.

”In discussing her work, people have talked about art naif or primitive art, but there could be no more inappropriate classification,” wrote Méndez.

Sánchez’s art is as distant as can be, stylistically, from the work of the man who was once her teacher and is now her husband. Also born in the province of Camagüey, in 1953, Jover has enjoyed some recognition in Cuba, but as in the case of his wife, not as much as he deserves.

”Jover expresses a deep-rooted refusal to produce a prim, sweet, complacent or superficially pleasing painting. His works are not ‘pretty’ because he….loves humanity too much not to dare to criticise it,” critic Gerardo Mosquera wrote in 1980.

Méndez places Jover closer to the German expressionists than to the tradition of ”local Cuban colour.” In 1988, when he exhibited his ”Human Paintings”, it became clear that ”he has arrived at a very high point in his search,” he wrote.

The paintings ”are full of mutilated beings, couples between whom love is an aggression, children overwhelmed by the experience of a traumatic home, painted with a freedom of action that does not hesitate to use dirty colours.”

More than 20 years later, Jover continues to challenge with each new series of paintings. This year, he surprised Havana with a series in which he depicted reality by using white lines on a black background, and, once in a while, a flag.

Between expositions, Jover painted murals at the Park of Legends in Camagüey this year, and Sánchez produced paintings and engravings for a new inn that opened in the city.

Of course, they have also been tempted to move to the capital. ”More opportunities, more exhibitions, you’re in contact with everything that’s going on in the world of art. We know all that, but in the end we always decide to stay here. This is our home,” said Sánchez.

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