Laughing Seriously in Cuba

The work of artist Lazaro Saavedra

Armando Chaguaceda

El Coco (The Coconut, 2007): “If you don’t eat all your food, I’m going to bring out the Internet”

HAVANA TIMES, June 15 — I received his first drawings at the beginning of 2007.  This was precisely in the middle of the “e-mail war” that shook the conscious of a sector of Cuban academia and public opinion, though unfortunately for only a brief time.

Some irreverent people were surfing around on the web — to the point of even reaching our e-mails — looking for ways to silence and put in check the dogma of the censors and the opportunists.

But especially, in the simplicity of one person’s lines, he was undoing the damage caused to our society and culture by Stalinism so well reflected in the latest bestseller by Leonardo Padura (“El hombre que amaba a los perros”, a fictionalized biography of Leon Trotsky’s assassin.

Thanks to a journalism student, soon receiving them I found out that those drawings not only had a life but also a father, and that his name was Lazaro Saavedra.

Lazaro Saavedra (born in Havana in 1964 and graduated from the Superior Institute of Art in 1988) is a faithful exponent of the generation of visual artists of the 1980s.  This was the same group that was determined to dynamite the complaisance sowed in our citizenry during that decade, remembered and mystified today through the relative peacefulness of a socialist society whose consumption was subsidized by our East European friends.

(Untitled instalation, 1988): A critique of propaganda and “socialist” realism.

Those creators took seriously (with a good dose of humor included) the calls for “committed art” by taking their exhibitions to the street, (re)creating works with audiences that ceased being simple spectators, by coexisting in collectives of pedagogic reflection and the production of works and understanding.

Those young people set their sights on becoming the “organic intellectuals” of a renovated socialist system and a fuller society….  They ended up being so “organic” that one of them honored their “vital processes” by publically defecating on a copy of the Granma newspaper.

This gave rise to the slogan “(Re)viva la Revolu…” (Revive the Revol…) in congruence with the anti-establishment spirit to the so-called “Rectification of Errors Process” just before it was transmuted into a regrettable “Ratification of Horrors Process” (including the Soviet model) for the fear of perestroika and the inertia of the island’s bureaucratic class.

Simultaneously, that generation suffered the rigors of censorship while enjoying a relaxation in immigration policy negotiated by institutions with a part of the cultural field, whose “membership” in the 1990s was diluted in a confused mixture of the diaspora, the non-exile community and successful participation in global art markets.

“El sagrado corazón” (The Sacred Heart, 1995): Looking at the national being.

However Lazaro remained on the island, producing memorable works that stirred our national identity, shuddering from confessed loyalties and hidden nostalgia.

These are works that found a capacity for being widely circulated and received an enviable welcome among a good part of the Creole arts and intellectual production.

Recently I was able to “meet” Lazaro (online) through watching an excellent interview in which he explains important stages of his life, work and his creative vision.   In the last several weeks his messages (and drawings) have come to us in the form of a Kafkaesque saga, from the walls of an “asylum” where dementia and sanity seem to have transposed roles and characters.

Since then, every day I hope for the new signs presented to us by this lunatic with whom it is worth the trouble to laugh… seriously.

One thought on “Laughing Seriously in Cuba

  • An interesting article, Armando, but something inferred within it is troubling. You make reference to “the damage caused to our society and culture by Stalinism so well reflected in the latest bestseller by Leonardo Padura (“El hombre que amaba a los perros”, a fictionalized biography of Leon Trotsky’s assassin.”

    This is troubling because it infers that the blame for such damage goes exclusively to Joseph Stalin. This is factually incorrect. More important, it is detrimental to our theoretical struggle to rectify the mess that’s been made of the world socialist movement.

    Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Fidel and Raul all read the Communist Manifesto and other works and bought into the core concept of socialism as state ownership of all the instruments of production. That is, these 5 comrades all held or still hold the same statist view of how socialism ought to be constituted. The inference in this article that somehow Stalin single-handedly and nefariously inserted this dysfunctional statist concept into the socialist experience is simply incorrect.

    “State monopoly” as a core principle ought to have been put forward and/or taken by the movement as an experimental hypothesis, not as an ironclad principle. The 5 leaders listed above however did the latter, as did virtually everyone else. This sectarian error destroyed the ability of the movement to apply scientific experimentation in practice, and to make strategic changes in program and policy.

    Not to recognize that this fundamental theoretical error emanated first of all from Marx and Engels, rather than from Joseph Stalin, is a serious, movement-disabling mistake.

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