On the internationalization of Cuban art, the uses of engraving, and new art spaces in Havana
La Sexta Puerta, the studio-workshop of Ángel Ramírez (b. 1954, La Habana), could also be a time machine—or maybe an art history class. The artist himself could serve as a teacher, or he could let his works speak of the connection to Romanesque art and show how in history there are processes that are repeated or can be used in different contexts, even with centuries in between.
In the enforced quiet of his workshop, two large colonial windows separate Ramírez from the bustle of Obispo Street. From this hubbub, he has distilled the essence of the street cries, popular sayings, and the gossip of habaneros, transforming them into aesthetic impressions in various formats. These works shake hands with literature, because for Ramírez the relationship of text to image has been a constant—a clever way to combine sensations and mix them with the medieval imagery that is never absent from his art, and that helps him in explaining the context of here and now.
Ángel Ramírez, Llegas, preguntando por toda Cuba, 2014
Courtesy Ángel Ramírez
He acquired these aesthetic resources through his work as an engraver—a technique he studied by sheer chance, he says, but which has served as a linking element among all his works. Not even the latest technology can replace the taste for playing with wood and metal. "My work tries to communicate with an internal discourse that I enjoy while I’m creating it, but I know that once finished, it can fall on good or bad terrain," the artist remarks to Cuban Art News.
His works delineate the symbolic space of each stage of his life. So it’s possible to identify thematic groupings that define identity, the challenges of the diaspora, power, and hierarchy. But in all of them, the figure of man is highlighted, with his social processes translated into artistic motifs that provoke the viewer with suggestive titles: Darla Kara (2004), Marchar Unidos (2004), Todo está Kuadrao (2005), Paciencia mucha paciencia (2008) En su lugar descanse (2011), De noche y ciego, siego (2012). In many of them, the artist repeats motifs, going from woodcut to canvas and from sculpture to installation on a journey of great dedication.
According to critics, the exhibition Kafé de la bodega (2002) established Ángel Ramírez as a mature artist. But 13 years later, Ángel, who is unusually modest for an artist, still tells us that he is not yet established.
So, at what point in your career are you?
Right now, in a very sweaty one (laughs). I´ve worked hard for many years and I don’t think it´s time to jump ahead and consider the future, but rather to continue creating and to be true to myself, which is what interests me most.
My work has been steady, but I´ve gone through different periods. In my generation, we didn’t study to be artists, but rather to be art teachers. We were all teachers of teachers. When I graduated, the idea of the independent artist was just beginning, but it grew very slowly.
However, we cannot say that your work has been limited, the variety of media you use is proof of that. Do you prefer one medium over another?
I prefer not to be bored. I don’t like to repeat, or to produce too much. There are artists who put together a way to create and produce infinitely. That's not bad, it's what works with the market. But it doesn´t give me pleasure. I live on my creation and I have not starved.
What about the thematic groupings then?
The themes don’t vary too much: one is oneself, and also in context. My work is almost journalistic in that sense, because I reflect what is happening at the moment—what I live and what happens around me. That is the constant in the work.
How do you assess the new trends in contemporary art?
I think you cannot do everything. People have their time and their way of approaching creative work. These new trends will have to settle down, and then we´ll have to discard. Although one thing does not replace the other: throughout the world, people are still painting, making sculpture, and creating works of all kinds. Photography didn’t finish off painting, cinema didn’t end theater; they complement one another. The digital world has an impact on painting, for example, but painting continues. Art is a means of communication, and everyone invents his own story. Contemporary art is not necessarily that which is tied to technology. With new media, you can frame an old discourse, or vice versa.
But there are techniques, such as engraving, for example, which are often avoided.
Engraving has to do with a way of thinking, a way of predicting what will happen. And it also has the incentive of surprise, because in the end unexpected things occur. There have been different historical reasons for engraving. Right now, in Cuba, people are making works related to it but are not considered prints as such. Because right now the need for multiple images is not very important to Cubans.
Engraving is widely used to print copies of works that are very successful, to be sold cheaper in the market. But in Cuba it’s the opposite: if you make a printed image, you have to sell a complete edition in order to recoup the investment you make when you sell just one picture or other work. Engraving doesn’t make much sense. Great artists, such as Miró and Picasso, experimented with engraving, played with technique. But that is past; there is very little to do in this regard.
Nevertheless, for my work engraving was an important tool, because it has another side: the manual work, a taste for wood or metal—all that is in my work. Moreover, engraving teaches you to paint, helps you organize. What has happened is that many engravers continue selling the technique—that is, what you can achieve with it—and that is boring.
It’s what I was saying about video and new technologies: no matter how new they are, you can get bored with them, if we limit ourselves to video for the sake of video, or photography for the sake of photography. Right now, there is too much engraving for its own sake. The boom of the 1990s, with Belkis Ayón and Ibrahim Miranda, is very far from what is being done now, although there is the occasional interesting project.
However, these are boom times for Cuban art, thanks to the new social context in the country. Do you think the island could be identified as the epicenter of art in this region?
Very good art is being made in Latin America. We sometimes think we’re the navel of the world, but if we compare Cuban art with that made in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, or Colombia, we would see that our art is a little disoriented and preoccupied with looking outside, rather than looking at itself. Therefore, some works are empty, in the sense that the artists don’t look at themselves, at the immediate source that an artist can have.
The internationalization of art is a sign of our times. Anyway, there is good art production in Cuba and that is undeniable, especially because people can have good educational training. Now, Cuba is also in a boom, and people worldwide are very curious to come here before things change too much.
And that's largely thanks to the market…
In Cuba there is no art market. But the international market, now more than ever, sets out the routes to follow. Many young artists are guided by these commercial paradigms, and only think about what they can take from this, how to do it so it fits into the international market.
In Cuba there is also a boom in the so-called studio-gallery, which allows greater mobility of works. Could these spaces become some kind of competition for official galleries?
I couldn’t say. There are many artists in Cuba, and these studio spaces can’t cope with that. A serious gallery may represent 20 or 25 artists, but consider that most of those 20 or 25 artists already have at least an initial trajectory, some kind of preliminary recognition; there is not much to be done for the many artists who have to work individually. That is true throughout the world, but what happens here is that the galleries are not as aggressive, to the extent that they prevent an artist from moving on unless represented by the gallery. In Cuba, those officially represented can also work independently.
Although there is no legal framework for establishing private galleries.
No, but there is a space that nobody deals with. There are beginning to emerge spaces that are not run by artists, but by critics or curators independently, and who have a group of artists. For example, Factoría Habana is a gallery run by and curated by a foreigner. I think that's important, because a little competition doesn’t hurt.
Many Cuban artists were already exhibiting in the United States before December 17, and many interested people in the art world have been coming to Cuba. I don’t think anything spectacular will happen from now on. But there are some who are too optimistic and others who are overly pessimistic, which is ridiculous, because there is certainly a good chance that we will continue to move forward. In the 1990s, hardly anyone knew what was going to happen. Now at least there is a prospect of progressive movement.
Lianet Hernández (Artemisa, Cuba, 1989) Graduated in journalism from the University of Havana. She works at Casa de las Americas and often collaborates on Casa Contemporánea magazine.