From Camaguey to Peking: Cuban Visual Artist Chuli Herrera Storms China’s Skies
A young Cuban visual artist wins over the hearts of his Chinese hosts thanks to his creativity, the originality of his artistic project and the efficiency of the first independent China-Cuba cultural project.
By Isidro Estrada
HAVANA TIMES — Cuban visual artist Asniel Herrera Gonzalez, also known as “Chuli”, is taking in Peking’s incipient summer, fighting to overcome the “motion sickness”, that dizzying sensation that assails nearly all who leave the island for the first time.
“I am overwhelmed by so many skyscrapers, the high-tech gadgets everywhere…everything is massive here. Ah, I am also impressed by the beautiful legs of Chinese women!” the artist tells me on a particularly intense, dog-day afternoon in the Chinese capital, when the city’s women showcase their physical charms, reducing their season apparel to a minimum.
We are at Peking’s Latin American and Caribbean Cultural Center (LACC), a kind of private, joint-venture cultural project that Chinese entrepreneur James Wu and Cuban businessman Geovani Gonzalez, currently residing in the Chinese capital, have kept in operation and struggled to maintain, against all odds, for over a year.
According to our Chinese hosts, the organizational and financial contribution of the LACC was crucial in securing the artist’s trip to China. An art instructor, the 26-year-old visual artist continues to receive praise for his work from his Chinese hosts.
IE: Why China?
Chuli Herrera: The organizers of China’s annual “Meet in Beijing” arts festival were looking for a Cuban artist to put together a group of five Latin American artists (from Brazil, Peru, Mexico and Ecuador), so that each would submit a project for an arts residence (a short internship) in China’s southern city of Hangzhou. For a while, their search yielded no results, so they approached the LACC with their request. As of that moment, Gonzalez sped up the whole process, working with the Chinese Embassy in Havana. I sent them my catalogue, my resume, and, a few days later I was flying to Peking – my first trip outside the country.
Remarks on Chuli Herrera and the LACC by Bejamin Yin, director of the Third International Division of China’s Arts and Entertainment Group (CAEG).
– We feel truly fortunate to have discovered this young Cuban talent, who has given us a more than pleasant surprise with his singular artistic vision, presenting us with a new way of conceiving the relationship between traditional Chinese architecture and the sky.
– We would love it if he could spend more time working in China. Of the five artists invited, Chuli produced the largest works.
– We’ve noticed that Cubans express feelings in a psychologically singular manner that is very attractive to us. It’s a shame we don’t know more about this country, because of our distance. We hope to be able to hold more frequent exchanges from now on.
– I believe the LACC has been of singular importance for the development of our ties with Cuba. Efficiently and in a very short time, they managed to do what we’d been unable to achieve through traditional channels. We hope that the LACC and other private sponsors will continue to act as vehicles that are just as efficient for the building of contacts between our countries, because building cultural bridges is not the government’s obligation, but the heart’s mission.
IE: What is Proyecto Cielo (“Project Sky”) all about?
ChH: The invitation from LACC, which covered the costs of my ticket to China, got to me right when I had finished dismantling my personal exhibition, Proyecto Cielo, which was awarded the Fidelio Ponce de Leon award at the 2013 Visual Arts Exhibition organized by the Camaguey Provincial Visual Arts Council.
The exhibition was born when I asked different people on Facebook and other social networks to send me photos of the sky taken from the place they lived in at different times during the day. I received 76 photos, each identifying the place and author of the picture. Of these, I chose thirty and reproduced what others had captured with their cameras as oil on canvas pieces, putting together the series.
IE: What did you do during the eleven days of your arts residence in China?
ChH: The five invited artists traveled with the organizers of “Meet in Beijing”, all expenses paid, to the city of Hangzhou, the capital of the province of Zhenjiang, where we spent eleven days working on our projects and living next to the students and teachers of the local visual arts academy. Every day, we had a certain number of working hours. Then, we would fraternize with the Chinese artists. I set out to incorporate details of traditional Chinese architecture into my project, preparing five large canvases for this.
I worked like mad in Hangzhou, painting non-stop, so much so that I ended up with extreme shoulder pain and had to ask for lidocane to alleviate the muscle ache. I even designed the logo of the exhibition, which will display the works of the five Latin American artists invited on a permanent basis.
IE: How did you become a visual artist?
ChH: As a child, my brother, who was five years older than I was, would encourage me to draw. I didn’t have any serious artistic inclination at the time, however. Nothing changed until I was 15. Before enrolling in High School, out of pure curiosity, I took an entrance exam at the National Art Instructors School (ENIA) which had just opened at the time, and I got accepted. My life changed as of that moment.
There were more than 500 students in my graduating class, but only two of us have become professional artists. Since my graduation at the age of 19, I’ve been working as an artist and as an arts teacher.
I have exhibited works at joint and solo exhibitions since 2005. The most recent exhibition was held in Miami Dream Arts (Miami Dream Propertiea), in the United States. In 2012, I participated in Havana’s Arts Biennale.
IE: What aesthetic premises do you adhere to?
ChH: I am essentially a painter and all of my works are the result of an assumption of physical and spiritual reality. When I decided to do Proyecto Cielo, my most ambitious project to date, I did so on the premise that the sky is the first thing human beings question, and that it is a point of contact for all of humanity. The sky is always the same, even though there are borders that separate us down below. My project aims to dissolve those borders.”
IE: What has this trip contributed to you as an artist?
ChH: With the many things that made an impact on me in China, my conception of work has changed, it has become richer. It has been an incredible leap forward for me.