HAVANA TIMES, Feb. 8 — Miguel believed that his being accepted into the National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC) would finally release him from the curse of being a self-taught painter, meaning someone who couldn’t exhibit his works for sale in authorized galleries.
He never imagined that once he was legally declared a “visual artist,” once his name was finally entered in the “Creators Register” and therefore once he was authorized to legally market his work, that other strange barriers would be erected.
After experiencing the joy of his work being valued by a jury of professionals of whom none were his “friends” or “partners,” nor with there being any relaxation of the selection standards (which, regardless of what one can say in favor of the honesty of any jury, will always be subjective), he was satisfied with having triumphed the basis of only long hours dedicated to expressing on poster board and canvas what he calls “his relationship with God.”
After completing the bureaucratic procedures to permit him to place his work in Havana’s few commercial galleries, he began his anxious scouring of the city with his official papers in his pocket and hope as his horizon.
In the first gallery, the specialist — after looking at the canvas he unrolled in front of her — told him to return at the end of December, after the conclusion of the FIART art fair in which they were immersed at that time. When returning in the indicated time period, and after having mounted the painting for presentation, that same specialist very kindly informed him, “In a meeting we were told that we have to begin returning works that have not been sold. Leave me your phone number…”
Everyone knows what a having a call put on hold means: something lost to the fleeting nature of time, or worse – to the immediate demands of survival. Refusing to look at any of the goods that attracted his gaze (and his stomach) along Obispo Street, which was overflowing with restaurants (the best in hard currency of course), Miguel made it to a second gallery only to find out that it was going to be converted into a jewelry shop.
“They’re going to keep showing some paintings, but I still don’t know which ones,” commented the indifferent specialist.
“So how long will it take to find out,” he asked.
For each answer, the specialist shrugged her shoulders.
But life is not completely gray if there’s still one gallery in the horizon. This was the third and last. Here, with a scornful expression, the specialist made the painter unroll his canvas. Hardly looking at it she said in a morose tone: “Bring me a disk with several images for me to choose a theme.
To Miguel, the idea of copying a painting to please the demands of a gallery didn’t particularly please him, but he could do it. In fact, he felt animated when he returned to Obispo. Despite the grumbling of his stomach that the light weight of an ice cream cone was unable to silence, he had invested his last pennies in a CD to copy the images of his work.
In their next encounter, after recognizing him the specialist said (in the same morose tone): “As I told you, we’re not accepting works because we’re going to remodel the gallery.
“You…you didn’t tell me that,” Miguel stammered. Though stunned, he showed her the CD and a copy of his resume. “You told me to bring back several pictures and that you would take care of selecting a theme.”
The specialist took the CD, looked at the curriculum (with an identically infernal indifference), and asked: “You put down your phone number didn’t you?”
Of course no one has called so far. But what seemed inexplicable took other unexpected twist when he recounted his experience to some friends who were also artists.
“The problem is that things just aren’t done like that,” they criticized him. If you want to exhibit in those galleries you have to speak “on the side” with the specialist, to give them “something” or to tell them that they’ll get a percentage for each painting sold.
“A percentage? – in addition to what the gallery already charges?
“Of course! What are specialists supposed to live off of? That’s how things work. If you want an exhibit in an important gallery, you have to come up with something for the specialist and then cover some other costs like printing up some nice catalogs and getting someone to announce the event on TV – and of course those contacts are also paid…”
Miguel found it extremely strange how his beginning was ending up, because if he had to exhibit out of necessity (for money and recognition), how could he pay for expensive catalogs? How could he learn how to bribe when he believed in sincerity?
I asked him if he was going to keep on painting angels after all of that, and he told me that he was. But if I were him, even for just a day, I’d paint a landscape where Havana was full of demons; or better yet, a Cuba being eaten alive by sharks.