Angel Lara, an artist in Cienfuegos

By Irina Echarry

Angel Lara in Cienfuegos.
Angel Lara in Cienfuegos.

HAVANA TIMES — Somebody baptized him the “angel of the bandstand. He didn’t study at an arts school and hasn’t gone too deep into theology either, he’s a simple man who sings, composes and carves wood. His conversation is marked by spirituality and determination. It’s hard for anyone in Cienfuegos who goes to the bandstand in Marti Park, not to know who Angel Lara is.

While people connect up to the pay-for WIFI there, he sits on a bench, correcting a face that he’s been creating on a piece of jocuma wood; he accepted my interview request straight away.

Angel Lara: I belong to the Cuban Agency of Musical Composers. I only have a basic level, Havana didn’t authorize intermediate studies in Cienfuegos and that’s why I can’t play my music professionally.  Up until now, I’ve recorded a demo with ten of my own songs, but there isn’t somwehere I can play regularly, because all of the places that are more or less accessible ask for a list of requirements, and as I’m not affiliated to an artistic company, well it’s harder for me.

Cuba has one defining factor: here, even if you are a donkey, if you have the paperwork, you’re a bigshot. Now, if you are a person, a real person, but you don’t have the paperwork you need, you’re a donkey to the authorities.

I still don’t belong to the ACAA art association in Cienfuegos, even though I have the number of art exhibitions they ask for. I have the satisfaction of some critics who have written about my work, telling me that I have a very personal style: a mix of Picasso and Lam.

HT: A lover of open spaces, Lara recognizes the advantages and disadvantages of being exhibited in a gallery.

AL: I began to come to the Bandstand in March 1994. We used to have a band here but without the support of any musical institution, it only worked for a short time.

One of my carvings was mentioned in an exhibition entitled: Looking for Cienfuegos’ souvenir. Back then, the Benny More gallery gave a contract to those of us artists who had taken part in this competition. And this is my job now; sometimes we set up our exhibitions at the gallery’s entrance, as we work with the French Alliance. We never directly sell there, but if a tourist likes my work, they approach me and we swap contact information.

I wouldn’t like to lock myself in a gallery all the time. Of course, I’d enjoy the advantages the institution gives me, but I’d also have to deal with the ugly side of it too. There’s a lot of tension, conflicts between employees and artists, among artists themselves. Here at the bandstand, this doesn’t happen. Here, there’s peace.

HT: How do you create your pieces?

AL: I don’t know how to draw, I haven’t studied, and this comes about spontaneously. It begins in my imagination, when I’m cleaning the wood, I begin to see figures and I liberate them, without ever having a concept for the piece. That is to say, I start, but I don’t know where I’m going, although the piece always has a composition in the end.

HT: What kind of wood do you use?

AL: Let me explain that you can’t make windows or doors for a house with it, because it’s the wood that carpenters throw out. I only need a simple piece. According to my critics, I work with cubism in my work and I put what’s inside of me. It’s my neverending search for the truth of life and I include the female body in this.

I work with acana, mahogany; the materials I use come from colonial times when they used to make fences out of wood. This is caguairan, but a piece of caguairan that is nearly 300 years old.

HT: Caguairan?  But you were working with a knife… this is a very hard wood…

AL: Yes, I have my own technique, I’ve been making it up over time, I go with the wind and I don’t use a bench vice.

HT: Angel shows me his skill with a knife, and wood chippings fall onto a cloth he has laid out on his knees. The bandstand remains clean, while people come in and leave. At 2 pm., it’s the only place in the park where there’s shade. We asked him about how people receive his work and him being there.

AL: A lot of people come by here in the day, there’s a man who comes to talk to me about religion, natural philosophers come too and we sit and talk about the philosophy of life.  And some children come too.

HT: Do you teach them to carve too?

AL: Yes, just that because they are children, they don’t have a clear idea about what it is they want to do, it’s just messing around.

Sometimes I don’t come for two days and when I come back, people ask me what had happened; even people I don’t know. There’s a Socio-cultural Studies professor at the university here, he always tells his students that I’m part of Cienfuegos’ cultural heritage… painters, artists and even a Spanish TV crew came by here and interviewed me. They uploaded one of my songs onto YouTube, but I’m still going through some tough times, I don’t have access to the internet and I don’t have a phone either. I think to myself that when I do manage to get these things, I’ll have opportunities to be in touch with my audience. Look, some foreigners came years ago and they took home one of my carvings and they come back because they wanted me to restore it, fix it up , or clean it, etc. I have carvings across the whole world.

I work on a small scale because it isn’t good to do big carvings. There’s still contention about the use of wood, the ones they ban and the ones they don’t. Here I work peacefully, I play my music too.

HT: Today, you haven’t brought your guitar.

AL: No, because I live 3 kms away from here, in Oburque, sometimes it’s hard for me to get here with my guitar. Not all of the buses have space for me to bring it. When I do bring it, tourists come up to me: “musician, Guantanamera”; and I tell them: “no, no, Guantanamera no, I have my own songs.” I’m a trovador because I walk about with my guitar, but what I play are social songs, with romantic lyrics and a touch of religion.  Because I let the Creator loose; I let him loose thanks to the knowledge and the number of witnesses that have come to me along the path I’ve chosen.

HT: Any religion in particular?

AL: I think we are all Christian, that’s why Jesus Christ came to Earth, to establish Christianity. I think that a man’s piety should be in his heart. I dedicate songs to him using the knowledge that I’ve acquired from him, I’ve only passed ninth grade, but I don’t believe that academic years at school are the only thing that give you knowledge.

There had to be a Creator, humans can’t have come from an animal. We’re the only species who can make use of others, why? Any old animal couldn’t do this, there had to be a creative force behind this.

HT: How did you learn to carve?

AL: To be honest, God gave me my talent. I’m at the place I am now because the society in which I’ve had to live has manipulated my talent: “Not him, because he’s black, because he’s ugly…” However, at the end of the day it’s because I’ve always wanted to be me. I’ve wanted to make it on my own, if that was what was meant for me, if not, then no. I was sleeping on the street for nine years, I slept here in the bandstand for two nights and nobody helped me. I used to kneel down on my knees and beg the Lord to give me the opportunity to explore what was inside of me, to find something that I could do; there were times I didn’t even have shoes.

One day, somebody I knew gave me a scalpel and a bit of wood. I came to the bandstand, bang in the middle of the Special Period. At that time, I had less of an idea of what proportions were, but I sat down and got right to it and made some quite odd faces. The next day, I woke up and returned, some tourists took an interest in what I was doing and paid me a lot more than what I asked them for. I realized that these people didn’t know whether my work was worth more or less, they were just the way in which the Lord told me: don’t give this up. It’s the energy that I give off when I interact with other people, that’s why they search me out. I’ve also been cheated, for example, with a chess board that I’d crafted, but I think to myself: there must have been a reason; I lose, but I also win because the experience in itself is worth the while.