Art Can Transform Small Aspects of Society

Ivet González interviews Cuban artist RENÉ FRANCISCO RODRÍGUEZ

Rene Francisco Rodriguez. Photo:

HAVANA TIMES, Feb 15 (IPS) — For the first time, Cuba’s National Fine Arts Prize was awarded to a member of the country’s “80s generation”: René Francisco Rodriguez, whose work crops up in the most unexpected places in urban communities, and who finds it hard to relinquish the “utilitarian character of art.”

The generation of creative artists that arose in the 1980s “believed strongly in the role of art as an engine and a tool for transforming life. I experienced this very intensely,” Rodriguez says.

There is no doubt the movement stamped its seal on Rodriguez’s philosophy of art, as well as his vocation as a teacher and experimentalist. He graduated in 1987 from the Higher Institute of Art (ISA), where he is now a professor.

In 2000 he won the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Prize for his artistic project incorporating alternative teaching methods, “Desde una Pragmática Pedagógica” (DUPP – From a Pragmatic Pedagogy), also known as Galería DUPP.

Rodriguez sat down with IPS to talk about the many facets of his career and the historical period it covers.

IPS: The terms experimentation, pedagogy and community intervention describe your work. What is your concept of the relationship between artistic creation and society?

René Francisco Rodriguez: Art has always been a way of transforming spaces and influencing society’s consciousness. I have a longstanding discussion about this with artists of my generation and younger, who are trying to escape from this kind of art.

Art is a tool for social and spiritual work, because its energy is capable of changing spaces and persons — but not the whole of society, as that would be a utopia.

I do not associate art much with the market, although I work for galleries and festivals, and I do what is needed to install art in different parts of society. The market is one of them, and its opposite is doing art in the barrios (low-income neighborhoods), or in conjunction with pedagogy.

By making pedagogy a tool of art, one is working on the transmission of knowledge and the transformation of young people, who become professionals in a more effective and faster process.

Q: What challenges does your communitarian, horizontal perspective pose to your role as an artist?

A: I feel quite comfortable and relaxed going into a shantytown to work. At that point, art takes on the attitude of action, and includes elements of sociology, psychology and dealing with the public in real life. Doing this in a real context means becoming apparently insignificant: the artist turns into a laborer, just one more person in the barrio.

Q: To what extent have you transformed social spaces, in your community interventions through DUPP?

A: In stepping outside the traditional scope of art, and in modifying its language, I have found confirmation that yes, one can change spaces and people, and transform small aspects of society. For example, in 1990 my students and I carried out a project titled “La región de Ismael” (Ismael’s Region).

Ismael Vantour, a trumpet player who lives in Old Havana, had never painted anything, and we persuaded him to express himself on canvas. We spent time with him, and he even gave my students classes about what he did not know about art. In this way we experimented with relations between creative individual, authorship and message.

In time, Ismael became a painter, and even had a gallery in London.

In community work like “Casa de Rosa” (Rosa’s House), “Patio de Nin” (Nin’s Courtyard) and “La casa nacional” (The National House), I have confirmed that it is possible to mould reality.

But I have also seen places I worked on regress to their initial condition. In “Patio de Nin” there was a complete transformation, including the inner life of the person involved (the late Marcelina Ochoa, known as Nin to her friends, who lived in El Romerillo, a Havana shanty town). However, after about five years, the place was back to the same dilapidated state it was in when I first saw it.

Q: What were the major influences on you when you created your participative artistic and pedagogical experiment?

A: I did not carry out a scientific study of the subject. I arrived at it through art, at a time when there was a great deal of debate about its nature, function and usefulness.

The period when I was studying (1982-1987) helped me greatly, as I had a group of friends who shared a common aim. The system of voluntary work in Cuba during that period was also an influence. We grew up with the values of volunteering and collectivism. As a solitary individual you achieved nothing; you needed others.

Q: Cuban writer Leonardo Padura described his fellow-countrymen aged between 45 and 55 as “the hidden generation.” What would be the equivalent for visual artists?

A: It was a frustrated generation which no longer exists in Cuba. They believed in the role of art as an engine and tool for transforming life. They worked on this with great conviction, but they clashed with the authorities when it came to discussing the direction art should take, and the participation Cuban institutions and powers should have in that transformation.

It was a tragic time: exhibitions were closed; there was censorship and immense disappointment. An entire generation left the country, leaving empty spaces where creative work had taken place.

Those of us who stayed, or returned, made teaching our way of recycling the energy of the 1980s for our students, so that they would know about émigré artists whose work is of significance, like Carlos Rodriguez Cárdenas, Glexis Novoa and José Bedia.