Trying to Create Art at All Costs

An Interview with Cuban Artist Gabriel Estrada Reyes

Yanelys Nuñez Leyva

Gabriel Estrada

HAVANA TIMES — This past October I had the opportunity to review the personal exhibit “Puzzle,” by the young artist Gabriel Estrada.

Now, I’ve returned to his birthplace and home of Guanabacoa, on the edge of Havana, to talk to him about the concerns that drive and motivate his work.

Upon meeting him, one quickly discovers some of his addictions: good music, friends, coffee, the city where he lives, the workshop where he creates, practicing religion and continuing his search for information. In short, these are a host of pleasures that blend and originate a certain attitude towards the culture that surrounds him.

HT: What motivated you to enter the world of art?

Gabriel Estrada: I know it might sound trite, but the fact is that ever since I was little I was interested in art. I guess it was because my father was a film and television director.

I took my first classes when I was 14. Those were at a modest yet magnificent workshop run by the poet and painter Jose Perez Olivares, an excellent teacher with whom I did my first exhibitions. Later, yearning to enroll in the San Alejandro School of Art, I prepared myself for a year or two with another teacher, one who introduced me a little more to academia, since the workshops with Olivares were dedicated more to encouraging creation.

I “struck out” in my theory exam, but then there appeared another alternative that I pursued initially as something temporary, as a stand-by until I could get into San Alejandro. Nevertheless it wound up being my true school. I’m talking about the “Art Instructors Project,” the result of the “Battle of Ideas” government program.

HT: What path did you take in your first artistic forays?

GE: My initial search was motivated more by class exercises, though I came to see that the aims of the school weren’t exactly to turn us into artists, but art educators. Therefore our efforts redoubled. This was because we students became in some way possessed by a creative fever, one from which none of us wanted to be cured. We critiqued everything, from the internal regime to the very system that created it.

So how would it be possible for us to teach something that we hadn’t completely mastered? I’m among those who believe that — in addition to the methods and educational practices needed to master content in order to educate — if it’s art then you need to feel it.
Luckily for us, some of the teachers acted on their own to teach us to develop those sentiments. Even so, that left us with stigmas that still weigh on us …the notion that “you’re not going to be artists.”

HT: You graduated in 2004 and then taught at a few schools in the capital’s districts of Alamar and Guanabacoa. How was your relationship with the students and how did this influence the way you understood your realities as a human being and as a creator?

GE: Working with children and teens is always a unique experience. For me it opened my eyes to what was happening in our society. You could clearly see the social differences, the loss of values ??and the crisis of the educational system.
Through this I realized that art needs to be consistent with its place and time. So, if involving myself in a community project could somehow change things, there’s no doubt that this is something I would do.

HT: Are there any significant cultural projects that you’re involved in right now?

GE: I first worked in the of Alamar community, where I learned about the Omni Zona Franca experience, since I grew up next to the headquarters of that project. So we had somewhat of a frame of reference as to what we wanted to achieve. In an effort to revolutionize the local cultural center where we were involved, several of us art teachers organized a series of workshops for our own improvement.

We also created new programs that attracted the public to the place. We organized meetings with neighborhood artists and festivals, but the responsibilities of elementary school and the everyday problems of undertaking each activity — coupled of course with our lack of experience — meant that all those efforts were diluted. Later, when I moved to Guanabacoa, there were other attempts, but those too were unsuccessful.

HT: In 2010 you had your first solo exhibit at the Concha Ferrant Gallery in Guanabacoa. It was titled “Otra fabula de peces” (Another Fish Tale). What concerns converged in this?

GE: Otra fabula de peces” is the summary of my years of study…a step, let’s say, that was pretty naive but one in which I was trying to say something, though I think in a rather superficial way, which is a self-criticism. Somehow I was flirting with the theme of insularity and our main barrier or border: the sea.
But those paintings were “pretty,” so people missed the intended message. I wanted to say something, but it definitely wasn’t the right method.

HT: So “Puzzle,” your second exhibit, represented a noted change in your way of approaching the visual experience. Why abstracts as the foundation for this new tact?

GE: “Puzzle” was a turning point. I went almost two years without painting. I would do an odd piece from time to time to sate my appetite, but nothing more. My life then took a 180 degree turn. Freeing me from a thousand and one ties, I began to do my first sketches.

Then I went into a possessed state, I suppose, in which I was interested only in achieving those atmospheres that I constantly saw around me. I don’t think I had felt so free in working since my school days, when I went through my expressionist stage.

I felt that I was somehow reflecting the great puzzle that our society has become. Something you can’t solve but which causes you to constantly keep looking for an answer.
The dark areas of these works represent the state of anxiety in which we’re mired in the absence of guarantees for the future.

HT: What other exhibitions have represented steps forward in the public’s recognition of your work, and therefore, in its maturation?

GE: I’ve made inroads in several group exhibitions, especially in events where we’ve created very happy works as a group, like the one titled “Esta es tu casa” (“This Is Your House”), which was a house made of sugar cane in which we crushed the stems and gave the juice to the audience. We also did the group exhibit “Fe de Vida” (Proof of Life). By the way, that latter one won second place in one of the editions of the “Salon of Ephemeral Art.”

That kind of experience taught me that art work has no limits and that all resources are valid depending on what you want to convey. In my humble opinion, what’s important is to not be pigeonholed in one way of creating art. I appreciate artists who have a defined a line of work and have easily identifiable works, but I believe that art can go beyond what’s called “personal style.”

HT: In addition to painting, you’ve dabbled in photography, video art, creating commercials, etc. What drives you to work in parallel with all these other art forms?

GE: As I already mentioned, all of these are tools that one has at hand, and these parallel works have come to enrich my arsenal. You never know when it will be more feasible to use a video or a painting or an installation or any other art form. That’s why I don’t consider myself a painter – this is simply because all forms have value to me.

HT: In the middle of this range of expression emerges an important theme in your work: the deterioration in the city of Guanabacoa, the place where you live and work. Do you think that art that approaches this social problem can cause changes in the thinking of the people and the institutions responsible for the preservation of our national urban heritage?

GE: I believe in the power of art over many things, but in cases like this, the momentum and controversy that an artistic piece is capable of generating isn’t always enough. Art can complain, argue, inform and even create a partial awareness of the issue of the deterioration of historic Guanabacoa; but without proper institutions, no transformations will be achieved. A work of art can make you realize what it takes to move a stone, but it can’t move it.

HT: Currently (since 2010) you work as a specialist at the Concha Ferrant Gallery and — at the same time — you MC at a nightclub called “Bazar,” located here in Guanabacoa. To what do you owe this dual existence? What other activities are you involved in?

GE: It’s not something that I’m ashamed to talk about. When I was a student, I always thought it was denigrating for people to paint in order to sell their works at the crafts fair. That didn’t go with our idea of ??being true artists. But after graduation, life sounded a deafening trumpet in the face of all those precepts. It taught me the need to survive.

In eight years I’ve participated in several activities with that desire. I painted for the fair, I made crafts and even I’ve become a bit of a nightclub entertainer…anything to survive.

Because it’s so difficult to do that work consistently, free of political restrictions and impositions, I prefer to do these alternatives activities in parallel and create art that’s dictated only by my principles.

HT: Do you have projects in line for the future?

GE: Yes. Right now I’m trying to create a space in Guanabacoa where artists can meet and show what they’re doing. I’m thinking of public spaces frequented mostly by younger people, something like a youth arts festival, where anything goes. In any case, I plan to continue living, which is resulting in further efforts to create art at all costs.