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In the shell

Notes on El Gran Apagón

by David Horta

In 1990, Pinar del Río still looked pretty much the same as Oliva had painted it two decades before. The village’s comings and goings were different now, though. Beneath the artist’s neighborhood, known as La Alameda, was now a network of underground chambers, like giant wormholes penetrating the foundations of the city. They were shelters—hundreds of them—being built by order of the Cuban government, in Oliva’s town as in every other community all along the island, as usual, in anticipation of “a foreseeable military incursion from USA”, which now seemed more imminent than it had ever been since the Missile Crises in 1964. The purpose of these shelters was to prepare the population to endure air raids and missiles launched by the would-be invaders. According to the speeches of government officials, the apocalyptic downpours were to be expected anytime after the fall of the Soviet Union. Having lost the substantial support provided by the economic, political and military protectorate of the sinking socialist block, Cuba would soon become the ripe fruit, ready to be taken by the winners of the Cold War.

Los Refugios de La Alameda (The shelters in La Alameda).
C. 1990-1991. Mixed media on cardboard.

These shelters created a Dantesque picture in Oliva’s mind. The previous series he was working on, Las Maravillas del Mundo (The Wonders of the World), was rounded off with Los Refugios de La Alameda (The Shelters Beneath La Alameda), the earliest antecedent of the series that would follow shortly after. Bizarre as it may look, Los Refugios de La Alameda envisages a plausible scenario of tightly packed people clogging the length and breadth of a narrow horizontal tunnel, trapped in a time lag, fearing and waiting. In the work, the refugees are confined to a narrow band by the collaging of ragged cardboard arranged in crosswise patterns of horizontal and vertical strips, resembling the window frames of earlier series —only in this case, the band in the center stands for a cross-section of a dark passageway excavated deep underground, and the rackety assembly of bands framing it suggest the jerry-built structure of columns and architraves assembled in haste to hold up the shelter and withstand the mighty destruction threatening from the outside. Rather than suggesting a sort of diaphragm opening a skylight to a luminous world receding in perspective, as in the series Balcones (Balconies) and Ventanas (Windows), here these bands, in ochre and gray, shape something of an eye that is shutting everything in, and constricts our view as befitting the asphyxiating environment of a bomb shelter, a darkness that begins to close in on us.

Early sketch for «Niño cazando mariposas en un refugio» (Boy hunting butterflies inside the shelter). 1993. Ink on paper.

This work paved the way for Oliva to begin picturing life around him with this “subterranean viewpoint”, and soon the Refugios (Shelters) emerged as an independent series, showing busy piazzas, gardens, playgrounds, and asylums inside arched tunnels underground, brimming with arousals, proposals and weddings, orgies and public speeches, caravans and offbeat commemorative parades. Perhaps no other series made by Oliva in the first half of the nineties can emulate such a narrative and symbolic synthesis of the rarified psychological atmosphere that pervaded every corner of Cuban society, from the poverty-stricken shanty towns deep into Old Havana to the trouble-free havens of the powerful in Siboney and Miramar districts, from the domino table to the universities.

La Boda, de la serie Refugios (The Wedding, from the Shelters series). 1991. Oil and acrylics on canvas.

The air raids never came, yet there were shortages and ruin everywhere. This was the time known by a laughable government euphemism meant to shore up the perception that the the crisis was only temporary: “Special Period in Times of Peace.” The whole series Refugios, a vision of Cuban society which, from the artist’s standpoint, was more inquisitive than paranoid, can thus be taken as both a satire and an allegory of how Cuba saw itself at the beginning of the most enduring systemic crisis since the Revolution: “underground”, muddled up, isolated, in total stagnation, jammed into its own shell and fearing the outside.

El rey en su refugio, de la serie Refugios (The King in his shelter, from the Shelters series). 1991. Oil and acrylics on canvas.

The collapse of the socialist block in Eastern Europe wrecked the conceptual framework that was supposed to make Cubans feel the material and spiritual edifice of their lives was safe and sound, and the axes that held up their world vision unshakable: “east vs. west,” “socialism vs. capitalism,” “good vs. evil,” “future vs. past.” With the falling of the Berlin wall like a house of cards, all certainties came tumbling down, and in the wreckage arose numberless questions about the past, and painful qualms about the future. Every Cuban may have wondered in those years: “If this was not true, what is? If this was not the way, which way? If the building of socialism was not as sturdy as we thought it should be, what is solid anymore?” Indeed, at least for Cubans, everything solid seemed to vanish in the air.

Untitled, a.k.a. El refugio en verde (The shelter in green, from the Shelters series), circa 1992. Oil and acrylics on canvas

These were times when it was difficult to “see things straight”, to “see the light at the end of the tunnel”, something Oliva alludes to with the proliferation of candlelights and eyes, that recurring sign of his voyeuristic innuendos: longing eyes, dazed eyes, wondering eyes, vigilant eyes, supervisory eyes, censoring eyes…and evasive, dreamy, introspective, and therefore closed, eyes. While some eyes are trying to stare so eagerly and determinedly through darkness that they pop out of their sockets, others are tenderly switched off and closed, and thus the eyelids become the antipodes of the window, or else a small shutter inside a window, closed to the “big picture” of reality unfolding outside, simmering down the self and safeguarding faith within the more intimate shelters of denial or hedonism.

El Gran Refugio (The Great Shelter, from the Shelters series). 1992. Oil and acrylics on canvas.

In monumental paintings like El Gran Refugio (The Great Shelter) I and II , which start to appear around 1992, the viewer is granted an impossible, eye-level vantage point to reflect on the collapse. In these, the strips are now wider and only horizontal, and stretch to reach beyond the edges of the canvas, affording a far more involving perspective– a close- up on merry bedlam, in which we can picture ourselves.

Fiat lux

El Gran Apagón (The Great Blackout, from the Shelters series). 1994. Oil and acrylics on canvas

Seen from the distance, as if from one of those earlier windows or peepholes, the huge “mural” of Oliva’s 1994 impressive magnum opus, El Gran Apagón (The Great Blackout), looks at first like a carnival of specters under a rain of fireworks. But as you draw closer you notice that the cavalcade of merriment is actually one of nightmarish mayhem– or, perhaps more precisely, a baffling dream. The work is in many respects a summary of the series that preceded it, and is overwhelmingly full of social and political implications, reinforced by the allegory of power cuts that, at the time the painting was being conceived, had submerged most Cubans in darkness. Thus, in the title, apagón (blackout) alludes to every sense of the term as it relates to the material and spiritual circumstances of life in 1990’s Cuba: physical lightlessness, as the one provoked by massive power failure in the cities; a temporary loss of consciousness, self-awareness or vision; a lapse of memory or reason; an interruption of communications; a blackout skit, where suddenly all stage lights are dimmed out and we understand the show is over… or about to begin.

Beyond the predominance of the anecdotal admixtures and the comic or fantastic tinges found in most works of the series, El Gran Apagón is a symbolical digest. Though the artist has acknowledged the art of Hieronymus Bosch, Peter Brueghel and Goya as key sources of inspiration for this work, it seems closer to a version of Dante’s Divine Comedy, transcribed and synthesized into a dense visual narrative. It depicts a space-time gap, stuck between the Paradise of utopias and the Hell of anarchy and despair that would define, ab absurdo, the painful coming-of-age of Cuban society. The grand finale of the series Refugios narrates symbolically the existential journey through that purgatory of doublethink, confusion, impotence and hope that had to be undertaken to outlive the crisis, and was an unavoidable passageway to the future.

In traversing the world of El Gran Apagón the artist is not guided, as the Italian poet was through the circles of Hell, by a surrogate of Reason, Poetry, or Love. Here, there is no guide whatsoever. In a previous painting, El Gran Refugio II: Homenaje a Duchamp (The Great Shelter II: Homage to Duchamp), a glaring light falls on a latrine where someone defecates unconcernedly; nearby at the edge of the picture to the right, also jammed in the shelter, is Fidel Castro. The Cuban leader, who also appears in other works from the series, has been symbolically dethroned from the focal point of the composition, the place he would traditionally occupy in any photograph, film, billboard, or painting. To understand the power of this image, one must take into account the hectic political activity that occupied Fidel Castro during those years. On an almost daily basis, he was delivering lengthy, inflamed speeches in an effort to talk people into believing that everything was “alright” and that they should keep faith with the Revolution —for, as always, keeping faith would “turn setbacks into victory.”

At the same time El Gran Apagón assembles before us the roaring helter-skelter of cries and laughter, it also gives the impression of being dead silent, or more precisely, mute. There’s too much noise to it, too much rhetoric, but no voice —which is exactly what the artist felt about Cuban society in those days. Among the clatter of beliefs in a postmodern world, the word remained for most utopians one of the last stands of ideological resistance. But now, the word —in the sense of verbal thought— had little to say about the present, and its symbolic dominion of the past started to degenerate into mere narratives. The world of Oliva’s Great Blackout resonates strongly with the philosophical qualms expressed by T.S. Eliot in his poem “Gerontion”: “the word within the word unable to speak a word.” In Cuba, actions had already begun speaking louder five years before, and the first trumpets of the Apocalypse had sounded: socialism was facing its first setback in Eastern Europe, and the venerated general Arnaldo Ochoa— hero of the Republic and commander of the Cuban troops in Angola— was sentenced to death by firing squad, accused of corruption, drug smuggling, treason, and other crimes against the State.

The Great Blackout (details)

Oliva’s mixed feelings about those disconcerting times seem suggested in El Gran Apagón by a ladder —of which it is uncertain to say whether it is meant for ascent or descent—, a winged creature in a nose-dive from the heights (Icarus plummeting? the fallen angel of socialism? the “new man” stumbling from his stairway to heaven?) and a podium, microphones and all, universal symbol of visionary leadership and speechmaking, shrouded in a Cuban flag. Oddly enough, there is no one at the podium2, ergo, it is “voiceless». On the left side we find Fidel Castro, eyes closed, guarded by big, eyeball-capped totems3. As in El Gran Refugio II. Homenaje a Duchamp before it, contrary to what had become customary, both in real life and in art (whether laudatory or critical), in El Gran Apagón the “Commander in Chief” is not the prominent figure at the center of the stage, but rather another refugee caught in the whirlpool of time. A more creative slant in the interpretation of Castro’s inclusion in the painting wants to see it as the vertex that completes the triangle of a downcast ideological trinity: the leader (the Father), the New Man, represented by a falling angel (the Son), and Utopia, symbolized by the quinqué (the Holy Ghost). Following this path of speculation, one might pair the empty podium with the altar of a faith scarce of inspirational messages.

If in El Gran Refugio II. Homenaje a Duchamp it was a latrine, in El Gran Apagón it would be the podium the only spot inside the shelter that is intensely lit up by a zenithal cone of light, reminiscent of the conventional representations of the Holy Ghost shedding light around him, which we can find in the Western tradition of sacred painting. The beam, however, doesn’t originate with the usual luminous white pigeon, but with a rather prosaic source, a kerosene lamp or quinqué, where the burning slot has become a flaming eye. With these symbolic appropriations and mutations, Oliva seems to be giving us a warning: let there be light, but it must not come from any outside source or entity, we must find it at home, among and within ourselves.

El Gran Apagón was exhibited for the first time in a hot spring night of 1995, in a local art venue few blocks away from Oliva’s studio in Pinar del Río at the time, and later that year, in the first edition of the Salón de Arte Cubano Contemporáneo, at the National Museum-Palace of Fine Arts in Havana. But it was only that first night in Pinar del Río when El Gran Apagón was displayed as it was originally conceived by Oliva. The painting, the sole work at display in the show, was hung on two combined walls. The night of the opening all the lights within the gallery space were switched off. At the entrance, the artist placed tenths of the homemade spirit lamps used in Cuban homes to see through the night during the blackouts, which people ingeniously improvised with recycled glass containers and zincked toothpaste tubes emptied out and then stuffed with a piece of cloth soaked in kerosene. Significantly enough, those lamps were called“chismosas” (gossipmongers). Visitors to the showwould take and lit one of those precarious lamps to find their way through darkness towards the image.

The ritual of discovery, the trembling flames and the resulting counterpoint of lights and shadows projected by the elongating and contracting silhouettes of viewers on the walls, the ceiling and on the canvas, submerged them into an eerie atmosphere, which evoked the play of illusions on the walls of Plato’s cave, the visceral fears of childhood and the return to a primeval community, that of cave men summoning spirits, painting the stencil of their hands and the chronicles of their lives under the light of torches, to end up sharing stories and unravelling the world around the bonfire. That night, El Gran Apagón being displayed in the fashion of a “cave painting” (the cave itself being the archetype of any shelter) was Oliva’s symbolic rendering of a moment in history where he felt Cubans should have retraced the steps to a primordial sense of reality and belonging, and a common search for the truth, free from the ideological figments of utopias and the empty rhetoric of political discoursein vogue. Such steps would inevitably lead back to where it all started, to the womb of disillusionment, chaos and darkness that predates every rebirth.

The promise of new utopian aspirations lurks in the The Great Blackout, embodied in a conspicuous, yet enigmatic presence. Towards the center of the composition, one prominent figure draws the attention: a huge wolf-like creature ridden by a couple of characters, one bearing a bouquet of flowers, the other a burning torch. In Oliva’s particular symbology, and as part of his profuse bestiary, often stand out these kind of solitary, equally terrible, ludicrous and melancholic behemoths and leviathans that swallow up or are ridden by his characters ( in series like Saturnalias, Bodas de españoles y criollas or Navegantes, for example), which emblematize the arbitrariness of destiny, change, and chaos. In El Gran Apagón, this sort of mythical monster and its riders represent something different: a moral, existential and political dichotomy. Later Oliva would comment on his attempt to symbolize the Cuban youth, the generation he had put his hopes on in the early nineties, the one that should bring about the much needed change. But this was to be, Oliva figured, inevitably atraumatic kind of change, and thus the creature and its riders stood for chaos and destruction. Oliva had envisioned a new Revolution, and the bouquet of flowers could be either a celebration of it, or perhaps the mourning for the one many Cuban felt had ceased to be a long time ago.

In spite of El Gran Apagón’s atmosphere of deadlock —the ladders going nowhere; the swollen and hollowed-out eye sockets; the fallen angels, seafarers, and idle broken bikes—and in spite of its nickname, “the Cuban Guernica,” the painting is not unmitigatedly apocalyptic. On the contrary, El Gran Apagón makes you feel like there’s hope surfacing everywhere; even in the battle between light and shadow, there’s a way out at the end of the tunnel. Everything inside the painting seems to be in a quiet but restless motion, because the coming change —the only way out of a desperate situation— does not result from forward movement, but from internal movement, a change in spirit, of insight. Picasso’s Guernica is a black-and-white hellhole, a disenchanted hymn to modernity and reason inspired by a vision of destruction and death. And in that work, death is the end. El Gran Apagón, on the other hand, is a bet on the future—having emerged, like everything in Oliva’s imagination, from an incorruptible faith in the power of life to build hope and bring light to the gloomiest dungeon.

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