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The joys and sorrows of El Malecón

By David Horta

Every harbor city has its own sea wall, which its citizens either turn their backs on, as the edge of an abyss or foreign menace, or flock to, seeking horizons to dream about. In Havana, El Malecón, the sea wall that protects the city from the wrathful waters of the Atlantic is a meeting place from dawn to dusk for all kinds of people running away from ennui and melancholy, or looking for peace, or perhaps looking for themselves. The place attracts troubadours and fishermen, joggers and policemen, tourists and pimps, jineteras and housewives, transvestites and boozers, divers and lovers, peddlers of peanuts and poems and songs– you name it.

Estudios para El malecón
From the series Alegrías y tristezas del Malecón.
Oil and acrylics on canvas

On El Malecón they all share a sort of symbolic free-trade zone, where friendship and enmity can be confused under the glaring sun or under the stars, while the waves break endlessly. No more powerful image of the sea spilling in angry waves over the wall has been captured than in Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s legendary 1968 film Memoirs of Underdevelopment. The main character, Sergio, walks along aimlessly, haunted by the omen of an imminent cyclone.

Still from the film Memoirs of Underdevelopment (1968), directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (Titón)

El Malecón is more than the most photogenic spot in Havana. It has also been a place of open confrontation. As with the annual Havana summer carnivals, some of the most conspicuous pro-government demonstrations on the island have taken place there. But the seawall and its promenade were also the site of the so-called El Maleconazo of August 1994, the largest, boldest anti-government uprising in half a century of revolutionary rule. Though just for a few blocks in the promenade, the delightful idleness of El Malecón is tinged with a feeling of tautness. Harried and eroded by the ceaseless saltpeter, the breeze and frequent hurricanes, three key symbols of the stubborn cold war and post-cold war hostility between Cuba and USA used to face up to each other: the naked columns in the monument to the sinking of the battleship Maine, stripped of the imperial eagle that crowned it until 1959; the Tribuna Anti-Imperialista (Anti-Imperialist Platform, or Plaza); and the U.S. Interests Section headquarters (whose function has now been superseded by the reopened U.S. Embassy). This confluence of various forces is probably why Oliva, with his usual mixture of earnestness and irony, considers El Malecón to be “the most democratic place in the country,” the Tower of Babel rebuilt.

Pepito Malecón.
From the series Alegrías y tristezas del Malecón.
Oil and acrylics on canvas, fishing rod, kerosene lamp.

By the same token, El Malecón has served throughout the years as Cuba’s dance floor and its defensive rampart, its crow’s nest, prison warder, and Wailing Wall. Oliva understood this well when he started, around 2005, a long series of paintings, drawings, watercolors, prints, and sculptures entitled Alegrías y tristezas del Malecón (Joys and Sorrows on El Malecón). He wanted to capture and celebrate the spot’s combination of cosmopolitanism, tolerance, and yearning. But instead of depicting the outward look of the sea wall, standing out against the Havana skyline and sprinkled with strollers and those camera-friendly almendrones (old American cars), the artist sets himself about doing what he does best: looking inside the soul of the place and chronicling the stories that unfold there, unearthing whatever they may reveal about our beauty, our fragility, our humanity.

From the series Alegrías y tristezas del Malecón.
Oil and acrylics on canvas

Here, the long, winding dike and promenade are seen generally in close-ups, reduced to segments that only in the first works of the series show a likeness to the actual seawall. As the series develops, the structure is gradually condensed to a vertical strip that towers over the water, made out of thick brushstrokes or a collage of cardboard strips.

This new presentation, generally seen projecting from a dark or foggy patterned background, clouded by a dense netting of dots, splashes, and scratches, isolates the figures that are seated by the sea, ready to breathe deeply, dream, remember, or ponder over their daily joys and sorrows. These contemplations may range from private delights to essential national concerns, whether in the minds of ordinary folks or in those of key political players.

Martí, el frío y el mar.
From the series Alegrías y tristezas del Malecón.
Oil and acrylics on canvas

An example of the latter is found in the poetic Martí, el fríoy el mar (Martí, the cold and the sea), in which the poet and national hero appears squatting on the edge of the dike, naked and shivering, surrounded by a swarm of fluttering fireflies. El Gran Flautista (The Great Piper), in turn, shows the Cuban Commander in Chief levitating as in a painting by El Greco and, like a snake charmer from the Arabian Nights, playing a pipe while another swarm, this time of “sailors,” takes flight from the seashore.

El Gran Flautista.
From the series Alegrías y tristezas del Malecón.
Oil and acrylics on canvas

But probably the most evocative and poetic of all these images is Hombre desnudo (Naked man), in which a man whose phallus is tied up sits beneath a Cuban flag that’s suspended from a fishing rod. The man stares deeply into the horizon, as if thinking, “What is the right thing to do? Must I stay, untie myself, and try to make a change? Or should I part and start all over again, wherever the waves push me to?” It’s tempting to ask whether the Cuban flag in this work, which usually represents nationality and identity, is meant to be the bait or the catch.

Hombre desnudo.
From the series Alegrías y tristezas del Malecón.
Oil and acrylics on canvas

This text is an excerpt from I am not a pure man, unpublished monograph on Pedro Pablo Oliva’s work (work in progress). All rights reserved.

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