By Regina Cano
HAVANA TIMES — To find out more about the “Erotic Art Salon” visual arts competition — a significant event here in Havana — I spoke with Miguel Roura. He’s one of the specialists at the Fayad Jamis Art Gallery, the institutional host of this event (underway until April 14 in the Alamar suburb of the capital), where he has worked since the gallery’s founding.
“It’s a space that has been around for 19 years and has included the Farraluque Erotic Literature Competition. It emerged as a free alternative without competition, but now it’s competitive,” he said.
HT: What is this “Salon” mean for the Fajad Jamis Gallery?
Miguel Roura: It’s the most important visual arts event on this side of the tunnel (East Havana) and it’s the only exhibition of its kind that has continued — uninterrupted — for so long here on the island.
The “Salon” is a program that the then director of the gallery, Pablo Rigal, and literature specialist Nancy Maestigue founded. The “Poesia Amatoria” (Love Poetry) competition was its precursor.
One day Pablo told me, “I’ll going to organize an erotic art exhibit” and he kept insisting “I’m going to organize an exhibit” – and he did. Two years later there emerged the Farraluque Erotic Literature Competition in fiction and poetry.
Displayed here are works by recognized visual artists, ones such as Mendive, Rene Peña, Aldo Soler, Pedro de Oraa, Paneca, Perez Rojas, Garcia Peña and others. So the Salon has been gaining in importance.
HT: Tell us about the call for artist participation.
MR: We’re looking for wide participation, especially on the part of young artists. Sometimes the logistics supporting these efforts fall through, although advertising on television and the radio is usually done. Also, in recent years the posters for the event have been designed by Jorge Martel, a fantastic designer and illustrator.
We’ve done good work in terms of organizing the event, even though our resources are very limited. Artists are asked to bring their works already mounted, so these can be better protected and conserved.
We receive all different styles of visual arts.
It’s not the same to convene a competition that grants cash awards as one that doesn’t offer money, since artists need incentives. This is what we started doing when it became a competitive event — in the third and fourth Salons, but we had to stop doing that about five years ago.
With the loss of the cash awards the Salon suffered in terms of attendance. We’ve also had some material difficulties. Still, even with this setback, tremendous numbers of works have been coming to us. This year we received 86 visual works of art and 57 literary works.
Currently, as far as I know, there’s almost no prize money offered at any event [here in Havana].
Conferences are held during the Salon, but sometimes there’s no transportation to bring in the speakers, critics or professors. Nevertheless, we’ve had personalities such as Gustavo Arcos and Mario Masvidal participate.
We used to have screenings of erotic films at the Alamar Cinema, which closed about five years ago. Sometimes, we have showings here at the gallery.
Recently, digital photography has played a greater role. Digital art is gaining momentum in Cuba too. Some people have differences with that, but we see it as art…as another art form. We don’t place limits.
For videos and performances, equipment is needed; many artists require certain conditions to be effective.
We’ve had to work like this, with resources becoming available intermittently. But as a rule, we believe the Salon has always been very successful.
Some people will occasionally disagree with the awards — like in all competitions — but so far word about it has circulated widely and it’s been well received. It’s been attended by as many as 300 or 400 people at its openings.
The location of this gallery has always posed a little bit of a problem for transportation, but many people come here, many artists involve themselves and they spend their own resources. This shows that the word has gotten around about the Salon and erotic art here in Cuba. And this is something we did.
HT: Do you organize other activities outside the gallery?
MR: Other exhibits are put on at the different sub-venues with the works of the finalists, who all involve themselves in the Salon.
The Mariano Rodriguez Gallery, in the nearby Villa Pan-Americana community, was a site that put on simultaneous exhibitions. It displayed sculptures and installations there. Two-dimensional works were exhibited here at our gallery.
Other sub-sites have been the Hotel Tropicoco, Melia Cohiba Hotel, Melia Habana Hotel and the Pan-Americano Hotel, in addition to the lobby of the Casa de Cultura and the Avenidas Theater in Guanabo.
We have to be — and we are — very careful about transporting and caring for the works.
There are items that generally are shown only here in the gallery, because it’s not a place where people just drop by and come in. Some are a little strong, from the point of view being very erotic or explicit, and those shouldn’t be viewed by children. Eroticism is very broad, and the work that’s perhaps slightly less explicit is exhibited at the sub-venues. We know that children are very susceptible to images, words, etc.
There are artists who have told me “If I can’t exhibit at the gallery, I’m not going to exhibit.” I’ll respond, “But you’re a finalist!” Nevertheless they’ll respond, “No, no, no. I want this gallery.”
HT: Tell us about the jury?
MR: There’s a selection jury for visual works that consists of the director and gallery specialists. Literary works are selected by the literature panel of the municipal cultural committee.
In addition to the selection jury, there’s an awards jury, which is generally made up of artists and critics. Their decisions are respected and complied with accordingly. People who have sat on the visual arts awards jury have included Pedro de Oraa, Antonio Fernandez, Hannah Chomenko, Camil Bullaudi, Mady Letamendi, Silvita Llanes, Villa Soberon, Jorge Braulio and many others.
HT: What are the standards for making the awards?
MR: I have two or three. My view is that eroticism is very wide, but it has to motivate things.
Sometimes there are awards that I disagree with, and other works that I believe have merit but shouldn’t have been awarded. There are also honorable mentions that I think should have been recognized – but those things happen in all competitions.
I’ve always respected the panel’s opinion, but like every jury they have their peculiarities. There have been very good and even magnificent jurors here. The juries are made up of creative artists, writers and/or critics.
One always doesn’t agree with the awards as a consumer of art. Maybe my tastes with respect to eroticism are conservative.
The honorable mention last year went to the “Cajita de Fosforo” (Matchbox). I loved it, it turned out well. It seemed like a concept that — in a minimalist style — that communicated with few resources. The photo is the size of a pack of cigarettes.
First you make a pre-selection. Taste is important, because one always makes value judgments when selecting something, be it a work of art, clothing, perfume, or whatever – that’s undeniable. But there are things that standout over others or that fit your lifestyle, your way of being, your way of thinking. At that point it enters the realm of the subjective.
That’s not just my opinion. This is what’s said by Roberto Gonzalez Echeverria, a Cuban academic, as well as Juan Hacha, Rufo Caballero, may he rest in peace, and any of those critics.
For example, I can’t technically evaluate a photograph from their specific parameters. But from what little I know about photography, I can tell you that there are pictures that have merited awards. Many things may seem or turn out to be erotic, but nudity isn’t always eroticism.
HT: Tells about hanging the show/setup.
MR: Setting up the show is another story. The assemblies in this gallery aren’t appropriate for the types of pieces that come to us. We’ve had an assembly for many years, including a green glass of exteriors, which isn’t suitable.
We work like that here, but at least we have an assembly. There are galleries that don’t have any. So we talk to the artists. They make the effort and ensure this.
Two dimensional works have to come mounted, on boards, like photographs. Fabrics come already-assembled by the artists.
HT: The design of the space?
MR: The space isn’t small, it’s a medium-sized gallery. It’s divided into three small rooms, but even with that being the case, there are artists who send us two or three works. They don’t seem to understand that we can’t fit 100 or 200 pieces in here. We’d have to set up things on the roof.
Given the design, things are placed in the most appropriate place — though not always optimally — within our architectural constraints, which we can’t change. We try to make a piece look as good as possible, at the discretion of the trustees and given the design of the exhibit as a whole.
Some artists need to paint or drill the walls, but that’s logical, because their pieces are the reason for our work as a gallery.
There was one installation, for example, that was a popsicle that ended on a tongue. It was heavy but it was wonderful. The artist, Rudy, tried to tell us: “But it’s only Styrofoam!” Yet we explained, “What you put up in here almost pulled down the gallery’s ceiling.”
There are a number of resources that you need to have in stock in a gallery, for when those types of things are needed. We have to come up with them on our own.
HT: What about the Farraluque Competition?
MR: Previously there was the “Poesia Amatoria Competition,” which stopped with the 2nd Erotic Art Salon, which didn’t have love poetry. It was held in February, for Valentine’s Day in almost all municipalities in the country.
This created open discussion — for one day — between artists and craftspeople and those with knowledge about the subject. I’m talking about people like Andres Mir, Ismael Gonzalez Castaner, Norge Espinosa, Juan Carlos Flores, Edwin Reyes, Grisel Hechevarria, Manuel Avila and others – all of them poets. Based on that, a jury gave the award.
Then Pablo decided to do this as a “Lema y Plica” competition – a pseudonym. It was a selection jury that makes eliminations (which is the panel of the municipal literary committee) and an awards jury that reads the works and awards them. Frank Padron was the first prize winner in this competition.
Now it’s perhaps more formal. What happened? Previously there wasn’t erotic poetry. There could have been eroticism in poetry, but generally there was love poetry — not the “I love you so much” stuff. It was poetry that had to have a high literary level.
HT: Tell us about the Lezama Dinner?
MR: This was an attempt to reproduce the famous dinners that Lezama Lima recounted in his novel “Paradiso.” Therefore the competition took its name from one of those characters. This dinner was to honor those who won awards at this literary event. There was an agreement with the Villa Pan American Hotel to put this on.
This went on for a number of years but ceased when Nancy and Paul left eight years ago to join the Cuban Book Institute. I don’t remember if it was held again. But those things are difficult to arrange, with the economic cut backs and all.
The costs were picked up by the municipality’s culture department and Hotel Horizons Pan Americanos.
Lezama’s food, like in his work, was like the cigars he smoked – irreplaceable. And yes, the food at the Lezama dinners here in Cuba was culturally very exotic.
HT: What about the publications in the Farraluque competition?
MR: Every year a small book was published containing those stories and poems awarded the previous year.
“Ruinos* Tales” was a compilation of several years of the Erotic Fiction Award winners. This came out in two small volumes, edited by Extramuros in 2003. The poet Karel Leyva collaborated on that.
HT: Does the gallery have other events?
There’s the “Los Puentes” (Bridges) Illustration Competition, which was also created by Pablo and Nancy. It includes fragments of any literary work and their confluence with the visual arts. Entries may or may published or not. It has involved recognized artists in Cuba.
Yes people! Erotic art here in Havana has had an authentic space for some years now.
(*) In Cuba, the word ‘Ruino’ refers to a person who has not had sex for a long time.