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Colour and rhythm of Cuba

Review by Penny Cole

“Almost everything I have learned about art is in the title of this show,” the Cuban artist Eduardo Roca Salazar explained at its opening (he is generally known by his nickname Choco, acquired because of his resemblance when young to a famous Cuban boxer of the same name).

The colour and rhythm of Cuba certainly leap off the walls as soon as you enter the gallery from the grey streets round Smithfield.

Me canto y me celebro 2005

Choco is an accomplished leader amongst the artists of Cuba’s first post-revolutionary generation, trained in the 1960s.  As part of its sweeping political and cultural changes, the new Cuban state set out to find and teach artists from the masses. Choco learned engraving and lithography as well as oil painting but it is as a master of collography that he is most famous, a technique that has a political role in Cuban art.

The shortage of materials in the 1980s, caused by the US boycott (imposed in 1962) and the economic crisis in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, led to its development. The artist makes collages from a range of complex materials, from cane chair seats to doilies, fabrics and wood, sand and earth, to form the basis of prints.

Choco explains:

It is an innovative technique and mainly pictorial. At the beginning, when working on it, I felt like I was painting, doing wide brushstrokes and placing all the colours on the printing plate as if it was on canvas. It was a major discovery, an ideal alternative to painting.

Colibri 2007

Many of the collographs are almost defiantly colourful and the technique gives the prints a 3-dimensional and textured feel, as if they are moving on the walls. This movement is continued in the subject figures themselves, who are never passive, but reaching and bending – dancing or working – grinning or frowning.

And these figures deliberately reflect the ethnic mix of Cuba, so a face may have an African mouth, oriental eyes and skin the colour of earth. Choco says he wants to portray “a person that is in ascendancy all over the world”.

Throughout the 1970s his main subject was the Cuban peasants, and they and the products of their labour sometimes appear as merged into one, so that a pineapple may emerge from a head or a melon form a mouth. They are fun images, but at the same time, there is nothing trivial about these paintings, which portray some fundamental human relationships. The many black lines seem to expose the interior of the human being as well as its lively and colourful external relations. Even thoughts are portrayed as when a mind seems to plot the flight path of a hummingbird, or perhaps the course of its song.

Bemba colora 2007

“When you look at my human figures, if you look closer at their faces, you see an amalgamation of elements. From a face, let’s say, I can extract any object: vegetation, for instance, or landscape. I am comfortable, formally and conceptually, painting man as the centre of everything,” Choco explains. He continues today to work with the same subjects - though now able to get hold of oils and canvas.

The generation of the 1970s has been criticised in Cuba for their engagement with the revolution and inevitable connections to the Castro government and its bureaucracy, but Choco is just as connected with the artistic life of today, working on projects with some of Cuba’s artistic avant-garde who are critical of the status quo. He says:

I hardly ever pay attention to the critics. They’re never aware of what goes on in the inner world of an artist. The artist thinks of something and the critic adorns the whole thing because he has the gift to speak. However, both the artist and the critic are on opposite tracks of thought most of the time. Our creative process back in the 70s when we started was completely in tune with the revolutionary transformation happening in the country. The interesting thing is that this much-criticised generation is still around, doing a lot of deeply important things in and out of the country. When a generation is aware of what it does and continues to create and participate in the cultural process of its time, it is difficult for it to lose its way or go backwards.

Choco, colour and rhythm of Cuba at the Chambers Gallery, 23 Long Lane, London EC1A 9HL (nearest tube Barbican) until 9 November.
(The quotes are from an interview with Cuban art critic David Mateo, included in the guide to the exhibition).

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