More than 10 years ago, while studying at the university I saw an image on a Cuban TV program that captivated me. Without any special knowledge of contemporary Cuban painting, but with a special sensitivity toward art and its messages, I set myself the task of finding out the name and creator of that work.
Soon I discovered that it was an oil painting titled “La extraña historia de un niño que dormia con un pez” (The Strange Story of a Boy Who Slept with a Fish), by Pedro Pablo Oliva – holder of the National Award for Visual Arts. Notwithstanding, I affectionately called the work El niñito (The little boy), and I didn’t rest until I had hung a reproduction of that painting in my bedroom.
Over the years, I intermittently followed Pedro Pablo’s career, attending exhibitions and reading press reports about him. From his statements I always considered him a straightforward Cuban with the gift of the good-naturedness of a pinareño [an inhabitant of Pinar del Rio] and the rare capacity to dedicate his work to Commandant Fidel Castro — at a time bereft of epic character or lyricism — with a visible degree of intimate and sincere devotion.
I contrasted his painting with the overly deferential made-to-order art that was strewn up as decoration for political “Open Tribune” ceremonies. These rallies used to be organized every Saturday in the provinces across the country during the heat of the “Battle of Ideas” campaign.
Such a combination of tenderness and ingenuousness gave rise to opposing reactions in me, but I was reminded of something Oliva once said: “Well, what I thought was that the artist cannot request a social treaty, and if the exercise of their creative freedom carries them to those ports, so be it.”
Today I read that Pedro Pablo has been stripped of his position as a representative in the Provincial Legislative Assembly of Popular Power in Pinar del Rio after being charged with a thousand serious and defamatory violations. The fact that his school/workshop will close —by decision made by his patrons — has a direct relationship to the atmosphere of institutional pressure that has been generated around him.
Hiding the reasons of the crisis
I reread the juggling of those who searched through the words of the painter for arguments to convert him into a dissident while they hide the essential reasons for the crisis and its outcome. I saw the comments that seek to drive the artist toward a thousand and one ideological embers of all sizes.
But Pedro Pablo has spoken, in the loud and clear voice of an ordinary Cuban, in a responsible exercise of freedom, insisting on his debt to the revolution but also on his right to think with his own mind, something that puts each fact (and conscience) in its place.
In cases like these, I can barely string together the words. I’m only able think about the people who surrounded the “maestro,” lavishing him with self-interested praise; his colleagues from the artist guild who surely wouldn’t abandon him in a moment of misfortune; the officials who organized ceremonies for this “Outstanding Personality of Our Culture,” but who are now contriving inquisitorial hearings (and gossip); as well as his neighbors, who will no longer be able to enjoy his community art but will continue looking at him as one of their own.
It alarms me to see how there now seems to be a trend to put those creators who encourage autonomous spaces of culture in the dilemma of becoming police officers who shut out certain “undesirables” from access to artistic space, as they are condemned to slow and degrading deaths. Like I’ve said too many times, it’s not possible to maintain a living forum of art and thought if one fears or blocks debate (intrinsically plural) from varying aesthetics, poetics and politics.*
In 2007, when several of us outlined the structural problems of the relationship between politics and culture in Cuba, we insisted that this did not involve the brilliant colors of a remote past but shadows that floated over a present full of uncertainties.
We made our demands (to use a formula in vogue in the Cuban bureaucracy) “in the place, manner and way” appropriate for us as intellectuals of the revolution and of socialism, while ignoring postmodern gestures, attention of the foreign press or calculations of convenience.
There were memorable moments at the Casa de las Americas and the Superior Institute of Art, where the transparency and the hope and will of the participants for dialogue with the authorities (with special merit for the minister of Culture, Abel Prieto) reached its climax…and its low point, because the following congress of the National Association of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC) became a sort of tournament of celebrities and speeches whose practical repercussions diluted everything to almost nothing. That situation has worsened up to today.
Any human community has among its basic goals providing its members opportunities for freedom, solidarity, development and mutual protection. If these are not fulfilled then the family, associations and unions would not have the right to exist, and individuals in any social system would be defenseless in the face of the wild and rampant forces of politics and the market.
With the sad news revolving around the painter Pedro Pablo and his project, I wonder if it will be possible for us to abandon — for the sake of the true autonomy of the Cuban intellectual arena — turf wars, mutual envy and silent accomplices. Perhaps the sum of all our fears will give us the minimum encouragement to stay together and firm, even if it’s only for an instant. I’m allowing myself to dream.
(*) See: La campana vibrante. Intelectuales, esfera pública y poder en Cuba: balance y perspectivas de un trienio (2007-2010) at http://www.uv.mx/iihs/documents/Cuaderno37.pdf