A look at Cuban identity through the eyes of three artists

Lester Campa’s studio overlooking San Juan lake in Las Terrazas, Cuba.
Photo by Sofia Bergmann

Story by Sofia Bergmann ·

He takes a hanging landscape of mountains painted on a piece of bark off the wall. When he turns it sideways, the strokes reveal the profile of Cuban national hero and historic icon Josè Martí.

Like many Cuban artists, Lester Campa uses a combination of national pride, critique and emotional journey to share the most important pieces of himself in his paintings.

Art is a “language of love and emotions, not only visual ideas of the country, of the nation but from the heart of the people,” says Campa from his studio in Las Terrazas. “Everybody loves, everybody laughs, everybody cries, everybody has problems, but what can it be without freedom, without love?”

With a fighting spirit that combats oppression dating back to Spanish colonialism and through the revolution, Cuban art today speaks volumes about a people who are in a constant pivot between patriotism and survival.

Art historian with a Ph.D. from the University of Havana David Leyua describes contemporary Cuban art as “a real explosion,” born from a period of censorship, starting with the revolution in 1959 and continuing through today.

Colors, textures and patterns symbolizing Cuba, its politics and its people are at the center of recent works of three artists whose art is currently on display in galleries in Havana and around the island. They proudly speak for their nation, exposing Cuban society in all its complexity. From Josè Oliva’s fierce cultural commentary, to Lester Campa’s display of sheer emotion in response to his homeland, and finally, to Aimèe García’s personal yet universal societal critique, these artists give a sense of what it means to be Cuban today.

Oliva and his roosters

Josè Oliva’s series “En la Pelea,” where roosters are symbolic of masculinity and the eternal “fight of the Cuban.” The large painting seen above shows a pork roast and women entertaining in the background to represent how common machismo is in Cuban culture, he says.
Photo by Sofia Bergmann

Up a narrow staircase, following arrows that promise a gallery and into a living room adorned with paintings, it only takes a moment to recognize a singular image that ties this series together: a rooster.

Josè Oliva, 53, uses cockfighting in an effort to “defend the position of the woman, break the machismo,” he says.

He has chosen the ubiquitous bird as his muse to highlight masculinity and also resilience. He uses cockfighting — a deeply entrenched and illegal sport in Cuba —as his medium for cultural commentary.

“Cuba is very masculine, as is the rooster,” says Oliva, referring to the ferocity of the fights as well as the rooster’s domination over hens on the farm. His work is on display in a new series called “En la Pelea” – translated to “in the fight”— currently showing in Estudio Taller Mercaderes gallery in Old Havana off Plaza Vieja. It is one of about 30 gallery shows he has done.

His fascination with the bird started in his childhood because he was surrounded by roosters on a farm outside of Havana, where he grew up. This has over time manifested into a conceptualization of the bird’s aggression as a metaphor for the  Cuban people’s instinct to persevere, and even, at times, to brawl.

“Whether in the ring or in the pens, roosters are constantly fighting,” he says, adding: “I am in a fight, I am always fighting. All of this is at the center of who a Cuban is.”

To Oliva, who has been a member of artist institution Fondo Cubano de Bienes Culturas, or Cuban Foundation of Fine Cultures, since 1990, this is the essence of the different challenges Cubans face. For him, the fight relates to his longing for freedom with a simultaneous love for his country.

Inside his apartment in the more residential district of Playa — away from the bustle of Old Havana — is a delicate collection of specific works that he says are very personal to him. They begin in his stairway and move into each room, taking visitors on a journey through what he considers his internal quarrels, desires and imagination.

For example, in the kitchen hangs a piece with two canvases of the sea — one calmly pristine and the other less so. Installed in a window frame, both are able to slide to expose a different painting tucked behind. Under the more tranquil piece, a brick wall emerges.

He explains it like this: “The Malecón (Havana’s seaside) is where my dreams lie: tranquility and freedom. When I wake up, [the brick wall] is what I see outside my window.”

The more turbulent half reveals behind it a man’s silhouette in front of another brick wall. Inside the silhouette is a boat escaping, but ready to face the stormy sea.

It serves “almost as a way to realize this dangerous dream that so many Cubans replay in their minds every night,” he explains. This is in reference to the thousands of Cubans who have attempted the dangerous emigration to Florida via the sea.

With vibrant acrylic strokes and bright red rooster-like scribbles, his messages are told through an abstract yet explicit message: “I give a part of myself and the Cuban in all of my paintings.”

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Cornucopia of emotion and color

Campa and the Lennon-Chè morphism portrait hanging in his studio-gallery.
Photo by Sofia Bergmann

Paintings are scattered on a table and hang on walls that overlook San Juan lake in the town of Las Terrazas — a humble eco-community of horse-drawn carriages and 1,000 inhabitants about an hour outside of Havana. An enormous black and white Chè Guevara portrait with Lennon’s face and glasses is what artist Lester Campa considers a sign of his time.

Campa displays his art as an embodiment of powerful emotions that stem from a combination of his coping with censorship of late 20th century Cuba, his fixation with the Beatles, Cuba’s natural beauty and his vast imagination, he says.

“I’m always trying to be more simple and honest to do my work from the center of my heart, which is Cuba,” says Campa. He was born in 1968 in the neighborhood of Guanajay, Havana, but his family moved to the rain forest village of Las Terrazas where he spent his childhood learning and playing in nature. He studied art for three years in the city of Piñar del Rio, and soon became an independent artist.

Campa’s artistic methods have evolved from abstractions during a time of political and emotional turmoil and experimentations with water color portraits to his now more visually specific paintings that also strive for universal interpretation. His method consists of making between 10 and 20 iterations of a painting until he has displayed the exact message he wants.

One example: a natural landscape in a formation vaguely resembling female genitalia embodying “the most beautiful woman I have met.” He is referring to Mother Nature, “creation, fertility and the moment of birth of life.”

Historian Leyua prescribes Cuban art of the last 30 years as a “rebirth” of expression and a testament to this “social drama experienced in Cuba” after a time of oppression.

Campa is the proof of this change and freedom.

The Lennon-Chè morphism portrait, as an example, “is my tribute to three, four generations who were not allowed to listen to [The Beatles] on the radio,” says Campa.

He is referring to Cuba’s Ministry of Culture’s censorship of expression created in the 1970s and ‘80s. In this time, Campa’s art was more abstract because it epitomized his difficult experience as an artist:

“I used to cry way in the forest over there and sit for hours and hours, but now I have more control at 50 years old” showing art that’s both visually specific but universally interpreted, he says.

“It’s important that art be universal—art is for everybody,” he says. His dedication for sharing art is apparent in that printing his work for others requires a $5,000 investment, and a trip to Florida.

All of his pieces come from his mind; he never takes photos or uses models to work from. His own inspiration and emotional journey through society’s winding road guides the art he shares, he says, adding: “art is something I do for people.”

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Through her eyes

Aimèe Garcìa in her home. The attention to small detail displayed on a massive scale reflects her artistic process of dissecting large concepts just as closely as she sews over the minuscule words on the papers. Her artistic process is manifested in works hanging around her home seen behind her, where photos of herself have sections of newspaper collage.
Photo by Sofia Bergmann

Towering collages of American and Cuban pieces of newspaper hang from high white walls, the words perfectly sewn over with different colored threads. From a distance, it looks as though she has used a marker.

They tickle at the viewer’s eyes, leaving just enough to make some words out. This is deliberate, her aim: to let a viewer’s imagination drift from the world’s chaos.

Artist Aimée Garcia pushes the envelope to share “personal experiences, what I’m living and my society,” which to her is an attempt to overwhelm a deceptive media that she is trying to silence by sewing over each word.

Her series, “Time of Silence,” is showing in Factoría Habana in Central Havana until June 29. From the outside, the gallery seems like a warehouse in a narrow but bustling street, with little to no indication of what lies behind the massive metal garage-like door. She intended this specific series to mute the clamorous media and misinformation circulating about world affairs, and more specifically, between the United States and Cuba, she says.

“Sometimes you’re overwhelmed with too much information, too much manipulation,” says Garcia, sinking into the sofa in her Apabei home — a quiet and wealthy Havana neighborhood. She is 46 and studied art at the Vocational School of Art in Matanzas, the Professional School of Art in Camaguey and the Superior Institute of Art in Havana. Her works are featured in public collections in Havana, the United States and Europe.

“[The series] was during the time of that [loosening of the embargo] with Obama, no? So I found this to be perfect way to speak of both realities … my work doesn’t speak directly of one single Cuban theme. It is concepts that can be applied to any society.”

She had seen how American newspapers at the time greatly differed from those of Cuba, and now comments on the swamp of information that circulated in both countries. Garcìa says she has no plans for artistically interpreting the shift from Obama’s era to the new presidency.

Instead, sewing over the words aims to create a space of silence because “the rest of the world works in such a hurry, but [in Cuba] everything is much slower.” She explains that Cubans are a patient people that prompt a culture of indifference and respite. “[These two things] are factors of silence,” she says.

“Cuban art is very political…even if it is not political, it always somehow is,” she says. “It’s difficult because you always have to reinvent yourself, re-find yourself.”

These collages are a distinct assessment of Cuban-American culture that to her, is ever intriguing and constantly developing. Garcìa describes her series laughingly as “’simple-complicated,’ because it is a complicated work that is still sensible.”

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