“My Aim in Life is a Mystery”
By Yusimi Rodriguez
HAVANA TIMES — Eliecer Guerrero Napoles is not known to most, but those who visit the El Cobre sanctuary in Santiago de Cuba cannot overlook the many kiosks selling copper pieces, candles, flowers and small, wooden Caridad del Cobre virgins sold along the city’s main street. Eliecer was one of the first to make and sell these items. He is also a disciplined practitioner of Yoga.
When someone says they’ve been to El Cobre, they are usually referring to the main street and sanctuary. Eliecer was waiting for me there to take me to his home, in the heart of El Cobre. As we walked, our surroundings began to change visibly. The damages caused by hurricane Sandy two years ago, and the recovery efforts people have been making since, were evident everywhere.
Eliecer: Since before starting at school, my brother and I had been chiseling bits of wooden planks using a knife and making drawings on the floor or walls with a small stick. At school, I would fill up my notebooks with drawings. I was slow at taking notes and the teachers would scold me for it. I was always chosen to be class monitor for art class. Art is the loaf of bread God put under my arm. All I want to do is to grow to the limit of my abilities, to exhibit my work. I don’t want to be better than anyone; I only want to be better than what I was yesterday. I have learned to trust the inner teacher and to let the art I have inside me flow. Yoga helps me a lot in this.
HT: No one taught you about composition, proportions and other aspects of drawing?
Eliecer: I took a basic course at a school in Santiago de Cuba. The classes were Monday to Thursday from 7 to 11 at night. Six months into the course, I was drafted by the military. I submitted a letter so they would let me finish the course first, but it didn’t work. The six-month course gave me the basic knowledge I later developed. I believe I always had it in one way or another. When you aren’t born in the right place to develop your potential, everything is harder, there’s no one to guide you.
My main obstacle now is lack of tools, even though I’ve been learning how to make them myself. I’m also mastering the preparation of my own paints. There is an incredible variety of colors at the copper and gold mines.
Eliecer is a painter, sculptor, artisan, poet and music lover. He has a crafts stand on the main street of El Cobre, where he sells his work next to his brother, a Rastafarian.
Eliecer: I sometimes sell my crafts at the Festival del Caribe (“Caribbean Festival”), if they let me participate. I didn’t this year. I am constantly moving. I travel to Baracoa and other cities to sell my crafts. I don’t sell my artworks, unless someone who’s extremely interested in buying a piece shows up. Artist Manuel Mendive has commissioned some sculptures from me.
HT: I see an overwhelming number of crafts on sale, including statuettes of virgins. You started all that. How?
Eliecer: I came out of the military in 1992. Some friends of mine and I had always dreamed of setting up a cultural workshop and market in the city’s cultural center. But there were no funds and no means to do it. I chiseled the first virgin statuette, which was 12 centimeters tall, out of a type of wood known as “jovo” here. I showed it to the friend who was the head of the cultural center at the time and he offered us his support. He told us we could use it to request the funds we needed. I sculpted other statuettes, but they all stayed in the cultural center.
I joined the people selling copper stones in 1992 because of the economic crisis. I was sure the virgins would sell. Holding dollars was illegal at the time. If they caught you with just one dollar, they put you away in jail for a year, but one didn’t have a choice but to risk it. I wasn’t the first person to sculpt them, but I was the first one to go out and sell them. I asked my brother-in-law for help. He was afraid because he had been imprisoned for three months (he had been sentenced to six, but had been released earlier) for possession of five US cents. He took me to the sanctuary. That day, the police were there looking to catch anyone selling things. We had to get away from there quickly. Later, I sold some pieces and stones to a Mexican, for something like five dollars.
HT: If holding dollars was illegal, what benefit was there in selling your pieces in dollars?
Eliecer: My brother-in-law had contacts with foreign students. They would purchase what we needed [at the dollar stores off-bounds to ordinary Cubans] and keep a part.
HT: What could you get with such small amount of money, part of which you had to give up?
Eliecer: A bottle of cooking oil, a pair of pants, a T-shirt…
Later, they started giving out licenses to sell these crafts products. People saw there was a market for them and came to learn from us. We explained to them the aim wasn’t merely to sculpt virgins but to create a market along the main street, where all kinds of arts and crafts would be sold. It was something ideal for people who had no official employment. You depend only on nature to make crafts. But people were only interested in selling. After they learned to make the crafts, they took out their licenses and what you see here today started. Even with the license, we weren’t authorized to sell anything in dollars until 1993, when the US dollar was legalized.
HT: You have tried to join the Cuban Association of Artistic Craftspeople (ACAA), to no avail. Why? Are any vendors at the sanctuary members of the ACAA?
Eliecer: No, and I understand why. The ACAA demands artistic crafts, and what people sell at El Cobre does not meet that requirement.
HT: And your work does?
Eliecer: When I submitted my application the first time, I took with me a finished piece and one that was half-finished, as they require. I assumed they requested this to see us actually work the piece and determine whether we had actually made it. My unfinished piece was very complex – it was a ballerina. It was hard to sculpt it on my lap, sitting on the floor. A tourist who walked by fell in love with it, actually. The jury’s verdict, however, was that there was too stark a difference between the finished and unfinished pieces. Later, a friend wanted to take away the unfinished piece with him for an exhibition. It was stolen at the end of the exhibition. The finished piece was bought by a Colombian who had come looking to buy a virgin statuette. When he saw the piece and an abstract one, he decided to buy it. But I would rather let my works do that talking for me.
HT: How many times have you tried to join the ACAA?
Eliecer: Several times, when they’ve called for submissions to expand the ACAA membership. They’ve promised to let me know when there are vacancies, but I’ve found out there have been in the past and they haven’t told me.
HT: Why do think that is?
I can’t say exactly. I’m a rebellious person and that makes people uncomfortable. I also think you can neither be too good or very bad if you want to get in. If you’re very bad, then you go unnoticed. If you’re very good, you make people worry, for others may fear you’ll upstage them. That’s my conclusion after having a look at the work done by the people who run the ACAA. They’re not bad, but I could do better. There’s a lot of competition there and that’s exhausting for me.
HT: But you’re also a bit competitive.
Eliecer: With myself.
HT: You speak in terms of “doing better” than others.
Eliecer: They’re the terms commonly used to judge others, but I don’t criticize anyone’s work. I’ve arrived at the awareness that no one can express your inner world better than you can. Therefore, if you feel you’ve been able to express that world completely in a piece, to me it’s already perfect. The existing canons are another thing entirely. The important thing is that being rejected by the ACAA didn’t stop me. It actually encouraged me to continue working and looking for options.
HT: You’ve mentioned Yoga several times and I can see it plays an important role in your life. How did you come into contact with it?
Eliecer: I practiced Judo in primary school and karate later. In some way, these disciplines are related to Yoga. They are Japanese martial arts. Buddhism is one of Japan’s main religions, but Buddha was born in India and was a Yogi, the Enlightened One. When I was 16, I ran into an article about Hatha Yoga published in Cuba’s Alma Mater journal. That’s where my interest began. Recently, while meditating, I remembered that, as a child, I would play with a book about Tantra Yoga. I didn’t know what it was at the time, nor did my mother. Currently, I practice Raja Yohga and Jnana Yoga, the Yoga of knowledge. I practice Hatha Yoga to keep my body healthy.
My inner voice has taught me not to look for anything elsewhere. Everything I need will come to me. I wanted to know what a master of Yoga looked like. Some Rastafarian brothers of mine brought over an Ethiopian girl and an Israeli. He wanted to give me a postcard with an image of Shirdi Sai Baba. I didn’t want to accept it because someone had given it to him as gift. He replied they had given it to him so he would give it to me, that he didn’t believe in that. Shirdi’s appearance is very similar to what I had imagined a master of Yoga to be.
HT: As we were coming over to your house, I saw traces of the damage done by Hurricane Sandy (2012), though everything looks much better on the way to the sanctuary.
Eliecer: Things were also damaged there, but more efforts were devoted to fixing that part of town, which is the city’s facade. No one had anything fixed here. It was all sold to us, they’re still selling construction materials in warehouses. You can only buy these things if you have the money.
Eliecer tells us those materials are donations from abroad.
Eliecer: The zinc roofing, supposedly donated to Cuba, are identical to the ones sold by the State. What could that mean? Also: what about all of those food packages sold on the street, the ones that had labels that said they were donations from Venezuela? I bought packages of lentils that had that label.
HT: Perhaps the donations didn’t reached all those affected. It wasn’t just El Cobre. There were damages in Santiago de Cuba, Guantanamo and other provinces.
Eliecer: Hurricane Sandy entered Cuba through the Mar Verde beach. The eye of the hurricane passed over El Cobre, but the city was never in the news. It’s shameful that someone should offer to solve your city’s problems and that you should sell those donations. The State is duty-bound to guarantee the people’s wellbeing, even if that means emptying up its warehouses. The only time they gave some things away here was because the foreigners who made the donations were present at the time, to make sure they were delivered.
For Eliecer, the only acceptable explanation for still having people without roofs over their heads is if the State warehouses are empty. He tells me that a conga line of people went through Santiago de Cuba, up to the Provincial Party Headquarters, protesting, saying what people felt about how construction materials for damages caused by Sandy had been handled by the government. Nothing similar has taken place at El Cobre. “Some people have complained here and there, but nothing massive or organized has been seen.”
Even though he is not a well-known artist, Eliecer has been the subject of several Cuban and foreign documentaries. He feels that art is merely a means of communicating with the world, not his aim in life.
Eliecer: My aim in life is a mystery.
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