Yanelys Nuñez Leyva
HAVANA TIMES — Watching him put together one of his “stick and rag” sculptures one is amazed at how quickly he completes each piece, small or large.
Wielding a machete like a Mambi Cuban independence fighter, he tears apart, cuts and divides pieces of wood found at street corners and dump sites and, using tattered strips of old clothing, puts together an animal, an international pop icon or any other type of object.
Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara (Havana, 1987) is more than a sculptor: his concerns are given voice through different forms of artistic expression, such as performances, net art, drawing, urban installations and other manifestations where the limits between genres dissolve.
His background as an athlete helped him develop discipline, impetus and a persistence that today helps in his endeavors as a self-taught artist.
HT: Why did you start with sculpture?
I don’t exactly recall when I started working with wood, or how I came upon the ideal tools and creative methods I use, but I believe that being constantly exposed in my family to manual trades such as the blacksmith’s trade and carpentry had the greatest say in my choice of sculpture. Also, even though I didn’t dislike painting or drawing, I felt more interested in volumes than planes.
At the beginning, I was locked up in an imaginary world, as my parents wouldn’t let me go out much because of how dangerous it was – and still is – to live in Havana’s neighborhood of Cerro, and it was that world I would pour onto my wooden sculptures. It was an exercise that proved very easy for me.
In 2011, you held one of your first solo exhibitions at the Teodoro Ramos gallery, in the neighborhood of Cerro. Why the title Los heroes no pesan (“Heroes Are No Burden”)?
For that series, I worked with burnt wood, concrete and corroded metals. My intention was to represent the war-wounded with all of those materials. The characters were missing arms and legs, but, beyond the physical mutilation, my intention was to reflect people’s psychological mutilations.
The work actually stemmed from conversations I had with a great friend of mine, Nicolas Alayo. In his anecdotes about his involvement in the Angola war, he would show a certain degree of pride, but one could also see how the experience had affected him as a human being.
The title, Los heroes no pesan, comes from one of the pieces, in which a female figure, which represents a mother, holds a child and an injured character, which represents a father within the composition. War veterans always come home with some trauma, and, many a time, they become a burden for their families and for society. Though one could infer some kind of statement from the title, it implicitly aims at prompting questions in the spectator.
HT: Your work is quite peculiar. Your animals, objects and other representations built out of wood and rags are familiar to many people. Where does this aesthetic come from?
LM: It came about like the previous series, through aesthetic experimentation. The idea of wood, thrown out after an object has been chiseled, always interested me, and the use of fabric to hold together the pieces and sticks also seemed very interesting visually. Everything gradually came alive, in step with my concerns.
HT: Your 2011-2012 series Resistencia y reciclaje (“Resistance and Recycling”) has this aesthetic and also occupies public spaces to explore artistic phenomena developed by cultural institutions.
For instance, the two-meter-high elephant you built is clearly an ironic reference to the elephants that circulated through different spaces of the capital during Havana’s 10th Arts Biennale. You set it up without any kind of authorization outside the Capitolio building, inviting many people via email. Why did you take to the street?
LM: I was interested in urban installations as a means of making my work visible. In Cuba, art institutions are very much focused on promoting those who have graduated from art schools, and someone who is self-taught, as I am, has to work very hard to get any recognition. In addition to promoting my work, these installations served to question the institution. I work mostly on gut-feelings, on the basis of intuition, the senses. The things that bother me, such as the fact that someone who didn’t graduate from an arts academy or wasn’t established in Cuba or abroad isn’t allowed to do a public installation, are behind these types of gestures.
HT: You had two projects for the last Biennale: Mikilandia and Regalo de Cuba a EEUU (“A Gift to the USA from Cuba”). The two played with the images of internationally recognized icons (Mickey Mouse and the Statue of Liberty, respectively), and they also took to the streets. How did the public react to these two installations, and how did the institutions where you set up these sculptures react?
LM: What’s common to these pieces is the “tied-stick” aesthetic and the fact they question these icons from a “Third World” perspective.
As for the reactions, there were very different kinds. The framework of the Biennal created a response different from those of institutions, as the works were not destroyed so quickly, as on previous occasions.
On the other hand, I ran into curators who, even though they knew my work, would take some of the pieces out of circulation because it simply contradicted their preconceived notions for the Biennale.
HT: Other projects of yours, the series Con todos y para el bien de unos cuantos (“All for One and Some for a Few”) in particular, deal with the issue of popular religious sentiments. Why are you interested in these issues?
LM: When I use the image of patron saints, such as the Virgen de la Caridad or Saint Lazarus, I try to circumnavigate this social imaginary, loaded with myths, symbolism, codes, attitudes and, through dynamic interaction with the public, try to prompt reflection.
Poverty, racial issues, violence, human sexuality and religious sentiments are issues that allow me to question everything.
HT: Are you planning any projects for the upcoming Havana Biennale?
LM: Yes, I will be taking part in a collective exhibition to be held at La Madriguera. I am also part of the Primavera de Amor (“Spring Love”) project being promoted by Canadian curator Catherine Sicot, an initiative that includes Cuban and foreign artists. I will be exhibiting two works there: one titled “Tropical Chic”, which consists in the staging of a Diversity Beauty Contest in December, and another which consists of an itinerant performance, in which I cross-dress as a Tropicana ballerina. This way, I will be able to visit all of the venues of the Biennale, all the while handing out my card.