Yes Oui Si opened one of it’s most political shows to the public last Friday with their exhibition Cuba in which artists Enrique Floris-Galbis and Helena de Braganca explore notions of Cuban culture and identity.
Enrique Floris-Galbis and his family left Cuba to live in America in 1961 in response to Operation Pedro Pan. Throughout his lifetime Enrique Flores-Galbis has explored notions of cultural identity primarily through art and writing. His work in the Cuba exhibit effectively raises questions surrounding Cuban nationalism and the identity of Fidel Castro.
“Coming here, my parents were very anti Cuba and anti Castro. It’s a legitimate complaint. They supported Castro and were hoping for change but when he took over it went the other way. “
Enrique positions his paintings in a way that sets up a powerful narrative that truly propels the viewer to engage in the politics of Cuban history. His work is successful because he purposefully avoids polarizing the issues by remaining in an ambiguous space that offers multiple readings.
“I’ve had screaming arguments with people on the left and some just as loud with people on the right. You know if a Cuban in Miami saw these paintings he would be very suspicious of me.”
“Anyone who paints Fidel it might be because I like Fidel or whatever but it’s a very clinical way of looking at them. Someone on the right might say I was cartooning him or making fun of him. And these are just my way of presenting his qualities.”
His body of work in the exhibit includes other important figures besides Castro such as Camilo Cienfuegos and San Mardi. I definitely walked into this knowing very little about Cuban history, so Enrique was kind enough to fill me in on historical details that are important to understanding his work.
“Camilo Cienfuegos was one on the top with Che Guevara and Fidel and a couple others but he was one of the most popular Comandontes but then very soon afterwards, after they took over he was made the head of the army and mysteriously he was going up to Camaguey to arrest other Comandontes who supposedly didn’t want to go along with the ship to where the Fidel brothers were waiting.”
“So on the way back he mysteriously disappeared. Supposedly his airplane went down leaving his hat.But I wanted to put it in a modern context.”
“In Cuba you can go to Vanadero and there’s all these people bathing topless. But I wanted to get it so that you could read the painting in these different ways. I mean people go to these beaches and there’s so much history that’s there and then kind of bypass it and enjoy the sun. But to someone else that’s meaningful.”
Enrique effectively connects his own experience as a Cuban to the larger historical picture by positing incorporating both his own meaning and a more universal meaning into this painting.
“I remember being a kid and going out to the horizon to see over the beach and find his airplane.”
“And you can read one account that his plane did go down and that there were mechanical problems or the pilot got lost with the bad weather. And then another account reads that there were all these circumstances that kind of prove or say that he was shot down by a British fighter pilot who took off at the same airport and when he came back his machine gun magazine was completely shot out. Or there were people who saw the dog fight or reported it and then subsequently disappeared. But like I said you can read this or you could read that.”
His painting Riding Into History refers to the Campesino, which is the name for a cowboy like character in Cuban history. These peasant class Cubans are characterized as rugged with a stoic demeanor.
“This is a painting of the Cuban Campesino. Its called “Riding Into History” and its just about the Cuban peasant or the Cuban Campesino and they are fairly stoic people and they’re always very self reliant.”
“But they’ve had a big part in the Cuban revolution. But they’re eternal. The whole thing is that they are sort of always riding into history but they are trying to make due with what they have everyday.”
“Most of the paintings are about Cuban history and they’re very specific about something. I used to paint different but I decided that I wanted to communicate and idea and I wanted to be specific.”
“I think a lot of modern art is about being ambiguous and you can read it as this or that, and that’s great and it gives a great expanse of possibilities but if you want to communicate, well then it’s a different nut to crack. “
His painting La Cuna or The Crib considers the complexities of Cuba as a young nation. Perfectly marked in the front of the crib is the imprint of a Famous Poet’s face that helped shape the history of Cuba.
“That is San Mardi and he is the poet, kind of Martyr father, George Washington figure of Cuba. He was a young man when he joined the resistance against the Spaniards. He was jailed for pamphleteering and he was a poet. They gave him a deal and they said you can be exiled forever or you can stay here and serve your sentence and his parents convinced him to leave. In the United States his job was to raise money for the Cuban revolution against the Spaniards.”
“He worked so hard. He wrote the most beautiful and passionate poems about the land and he raised money while there was a revolution going on. And in I think 1897 he decided to return and there was going to be a meeting with all the generals.”
“His big idea was to have a revolution without the US jumping in. He was trying to be very careful as to do that. It’s an amazing piece of History but the important thing is that it repeats itself. We’re in Iraq and we’re doing the same thing and it was a failed nation building.”
“It didn’t work but he returned and I think it was the very first night that he was in the Country he was killed just by this fluke incident. There was an attachment of soldiers who were to guard him with their life. There was another line of Spanish soldiers that were also coming up across these hills and they recognized each other and started to run. One of the Spaniards took a shot off his horse and killed Mardi and he fell so from then on he was a Martyr and he has been quoted throughout the Cuban revolution. “
In addition to the imprint of Mardi’s face, a painted collage of images inside the crib present multiple understandings and instability of Cuban history and identity.
“The idea here is that there’s this young nation and this is the panel and the history of it is there and it’s been a fun place for Americans to come. And some of these images are from tourist posters. And then there are these leaders. There is a famous picture of Fidel playing golf. And so that’s the history and its contained in this very pure structure of a crib and the idea is that it’s still being formed is still isn’t one thing or another.”
What I found particularly interesting was Enrique’s different presentations of Fidel’s portrait. A portrait in itself is meant to portray the character of a person so by presenting Fidel in such an intimate context, Enrique is able to address the dictator’s humanity. Cuba has always been directly associated with the identity of Fidel Castro, so by manipulating the image of his face, Enrique presents the multitudes of Fidel’s character.
“And I talk about how leaders are looked at and you don’t really see them as people. If you demonize them or idolized them you’ll never understand how they got there.”
“So then the demagogue then repeats it, which is why we are always kind of innocent to it. A lot of these paintings have a white fabric painted over the faces and the faces are obliterated. And the idea is that there’s a community that cannot bear to see their face. So the white fabric is painted on with water-soluble paint. And so who ever gets them, when they are ready they can remove the veil and really start to look at it and really start to understand the painting.”
“We’re dealing with the idea that the complexities of it are not understood because unfortunately we see it through him. Its always Castro’s Cuba and it’s a very complicated very nuance thing that is obscured by that personality.”
“So I took those out to try to look past them and start to see what really happens when people pay too much homage to one person. I began to think about what would our history be without us always being followers? And if you look at history its mankind’s or the populations willingness to believe.”
By humanizing Fidel’s image, Enrique successfully positions Fidel outside of his role of leader and into a person capable of empathy. The painting could also be read as a satire based on the contorted face expressions.
Enrique’s work as a whole draws together similarities between today’s political struggles and those of history. By referencing similar struggles from the past, he hopes and even predicts the evolution of society.
“Even with this whole economic thing with Madoff. Somehow through all this I had this glimmer that we evolve. We evolve slowly and physically and we can’t always see it. They’re not so para middle. And the thing with Wall Street there’s this insistence on not having a leader.
It might be evolution or the baby steps in that direction. Its been attempted before but I think by technology and the way we were raised. I think there’s something in the air where the unthinkable might be possible.”
“It’s almost unthinkable right because we are taught about two sides and this is the way it is and that’s how it’s always been done. But I think there’s this leap of faith. I think the arts art the canary in a coalmine. You can see it in the arts.”
I realized how incredibly talented this family must be when I met Olivia Ives Flores, the curator and co owner of Yes Oui Si as well as Enrique’s daughter.
“The portraits of Fidel are all about re humanizing a man who has a mystique around him and then bring him back to reality. It’s a way of coping for a lot of people. Honestly I’m just waiting for a Cuban to walk in through the door and flip out over those portraits. He signifies so many changing moments in people’s families.”
“Before we put up the show I was talking to a Cuban and talking about the concept and they said ‘you better not put up portraits of Fidel on the wall he killed my family. I will absolutely not come.’”
She was able to give me some serious insight into how Enrique was able to begin his writing career in addition to his artistic work.
“When I was younger my dad used to tell me bed time stories so when I went to summer camp he began to write me bedtime stories and when I came back I dumped my trunk open and I had these letters spewing about. One of my good friends happened to be a publisher. She picked up the letter and started to read it and she was said ‘Enrique this is phenomenally written, what is this stuff?’”
“Because the whole story was about 15 solid letters. And so she gave him a forward based on hand written letters to camp and that was his incentive to do his first book. And so 90 miles to Havana is his second book and its based on 3 brothers and their time during operation Pedro pan.”
“Reading his books is like looking at a painting. They are some of the most beautifully written poetic books I have ever read. It doesn’t feel like you’re reading across a page. You really are watching images go by because he’s talking about the texture and the smell and you can get completely enveloped and you can really feel yourself there.”
“I’m very excited about this exhibition. This really drives close to my heart. It has been a very emotionally, historically and personally revealing show more than any other I think. It’s always kind of a cathartic experience every time putting on a show especially with solo exhibitions because I’m there with people 100%. And I’m really the conduit through which their work is experienced.”
“It’s already a huge thing to go through that exhaustion and outpouring each time but even more so when it’s your own father and it’s a very personal history. I knew it was going to be intense and different but I couldn’t have predicted what it really would have been like and I have to tell you it’s the most rewarding experience and its only the first night.”
Helena De Braganca was unable to make it to the opening show but her beautiful photographs from Cuba will be up alongside Enrique’s until April 8th.
YES OUI SI
MARCH 16TH-APRIL 8TH
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