By Ivette Leyva Martinez (Cafe Fuerte)
HAVANA TIMES — Currently in Miami, Pedro Pablo Oliva, one of Cuba’s best known contemporary painters, is preparing his first solo exhibition since being ostracized by the island’s cultural leadership.
This past Saturday, the artist timidly set foot in the Latin Art Core gallery located on 8th Street, the stage of an exhibition that gathers 22 works encompassing different periods and formats, set to open this coming 25th of October.
There, surrounded by family and friends, the talented painter enthusiastically speaks of his most recent of artistic obsessions, recounts his last years in Cuba with some pain and serenely addresses his personal battle with Parkinson’s disease, a condition he’s had since 2010.
“The most interesting thing that’s happened to me these past two years, from the artistic point of view, has been beginning to discover a new character, Utopito, a man from Pinar del Rio, Cuba, who doesn’t understand the world too well. Sometimes, he’s a dissident, sometimes he isn’t. On occasion, he suffers a temporary state of insanity,” the painter tells us.
A Character Who Doesn’t Know Where He’s Going
The artist explains that, with Utopito, he portrays the apparent stupidity often attributed to people from the province of Pinar del Rio, Cuba. “He’s a mixture of Cuba’s traditional characters of Salomon, the Bobo de Abela and the Loquito de Nuez: an ironic, mocking character who doesn’t know where he’s going – he’s a doctor one day and a carpenter the next,” Oliva playfully explains.
Utopito is the thread that connects a series of works titled “Utopias and Dissidence”, which the artist hopes to be able to exhibit next year, first in Pinar del Rio, then in Havana and, lastly, in Miami. He adds that “the works will not likely be exhibited in a Cuban gallery, because of censorship.”
In May of 2011, Oliva was expelled from Pinar del Rio’s Assembly of the People’s Power, where he was a delegate. His removal from the provincial parliament was brought about by a letter, published by dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez, which contained declarations critical of Cuban reality. Following his destitution, Oliva decided to close down his workshop (a kind of artistic epicenter of Pinar del Rio), turning the local into his private studio.
Since then, Oliva has been marginalized by the government and confesses he has started down a solitary road. He travels to Havana every two weeks to receive treatment at Cuba’s Center for Neurological Restoration (CIREN) and to frequent art exhibitions, rarely meeting with other artists.
Staying in Cuba
Despite the isolation imposed upon him, Oliva has not considered leaving Cuba.
“I worked in Panama for a long time and I noticed my work had a kind of unusual lightness to it. I realized my place is Cuba,” he says. “Leaving has never crossed my mind. The aim of my work is to reflect the place I live in, if I distance myself from that, I think my inspiration will go too,” he adds, smiling.
Fairy tale creatures somewhere between the tender, the grotesque and the humorous, make up Oliva’s magical universe and peculiar iconography. A member of Cuba’s so-called 70s generation, his works have also been characterized by visual allegories that essay a critical analysis of the island’s social problems.
Paintings such as El gran abuelo (“Our Lofty Grandfather”, 2004), Retrato inconcluso para un hombre atormentado por su tiempo (“Unfinished Portrait of a Man Tormented by the Times, 2003-2004), both about Fidel Castro, and El disidente (“The Dissident”), have never been publicly exhibited in Cuba.
In 2003, Cuba’s then Minister of Culture Abel Prieto visited his workshop in Pinar del Rio with a group of journalists. “He was looking at the paintings and, when he turned around I saw some showing Fidel Castro, he almost killed me,” Oliva recalls. “We had an argument about the creative process and the social responsibility of artists. He said Fidel Castro could not be portrayed in an irreverent fashion.”
Despite this quarrel, Oliva received the National Visual Arts Award in 2006 and, a year later, held his last, major solo exhibition in Cuba’s National Fine Arts Museum (where some of his works were censored). “That’s why Abel Prieto figures as the curator in the catalogue,” he explains.
Since then, his works have been virtually absent from most exhibition spaces in Cuba. In 2012, during Cuba’s 11th Arts Biennale, he exhibited some works from the “Utopias and Dissidents” series in his study in Havana. This year, some of his latest drawings, part of a series titled “Strange Studies for my Shaking Hands”, were on display at the CIREN’s Documentation Center.
Though Oliva’s experiences as an artist were once proof that an artist could succeed without having to relocate to the Cuban capital, Oliva tells us that painters residing in the interior face limitations of every sort. “Most try to flee to Havana, where they can come into closer contact with collectors and dealers that can support them.”
The Lost Workshop
64-year-old Oliva has not yet gotten over the loss of his workshop, which was once a gallery and library and housed a large film archive. He hesitates before speaking about potential plans to reopen the place.
“I’ve thought about it, because it was a beautiful project, created so people could read, think and enjoy art. But, despite a certain degree of flexibility which government authorities have shown, I still haven’t noticed any fundamental change of attitude towards me,” he explains.
Una melancolía más profunda, más oscura, permea varias de las obras que expondrá ahora en Miami, realizadas a partir del 2010. El pintor atribuye ese cambio en su iconografía a las consecuencias de todo lo que ha vivido este tiempo: la marginación y su lucha contra el Parkinson. Asegura, sin embargo, que aunque trabaja a un ritmo más lento, no ha dejado de pintar.
A deeper, darker melancholy permeates several of the pieces to be exhibited this year in Miami, which the artist has been painting since 2010. The artist attributes this change in his iconography to the repercussions of everything he has experienced in recent times: marginalization as an artist and his battle with Parkinson’s. The artist stresses that, though he works more slowly because of his illness, he has not stopped painting.
“It’s a mysterious thing…my right hand stops shaking when I start drawing. Perhaps it’s God, saying ‘enough of that’, letting me work,” Oliva muses.
Like Jackson Pollock
Oliva paints every day and, in the future, sees himself painting images in movement, or splattering paint on canvases in the manner of Jackson Pollock – but never walking away from his brushes.
The artist has also begun to produce sculptures, working with Cuban artist Osmany Betancourt (“Lolo”). He is also working in Miami next to Miguel Leyva, with whom he is already involved in four different pieces.
This is his second trip to the United States (the first was in 2001). The artist says that, curiously enough, he finds it easier to adjust to a different context and to make art away from his native soil now, when he’s older.
“I feel sculpture is a good option, given my limitations, but I have to get my hands dirty, I can’t simply direct others to do the work for me. If I do this, I think my work will lose charm,” he says.
Pedro Pablo Oliva will be at Miami’s Latin Art Core gallery, located on 1600 SW 8th St. on Friday, October 25, from 7 to 11 pm for the opening of the exhibition and to sign a limited series of silk-screens titled Las extrañas apariciones de Esterbina (“The Strange Appearances of Esterbina”), made especially for the occasion.