By David Horta
Well before the trauma of exodus from Cuba became a trendy theme in the art made by the ‘90s generation, Oliva’s series Navegantes (Sailors) had already focused on the vision of a nation splitting up, torn apart by scarcity and ideological differences. On the threshold of the collapse of real socialism in Eastern Europe, Cuba was rent by generational conflicts and political pressure from the U.S. embargo, as well as from the Cuban government’s constraining policies on economics and civil liberties. In a desperate adventure, thousands of Cubans seized whatever materials they could find to build a rag-tag collection of improvised rafts, on which they attempted to escape the island by crossing the shark-infested Florida Straits toward “the American dream.” It was an adventure recalling Xenophon’s campaign with Cyrus, the great Jewish exodus from Egypt, or, closer in time and circumstance, the Mariel affair of 1980.
The cruising balsas observed no class differences; no professional restrictions; no age, sexual identity, or political preferences in their crews and passengers. Intellectuals and housewives, Christians and Yoruba babalawos, dissidents and members of the Communist Party —they all fled. In his works of this series Oliva’s imaginative depictions of the rafts represent all these groups, as well as elements of a culture of survival: rationing cards, magazines, matchboxes, knives, fruits, and the then frantically sought-after hamburgers and eggs.
The latter, eggs, once were a measure of prosperity, being the same items that were thrown at expatriates, dissidents, the “weak” (gays) and other “undesirables” by hate mobs in 1980. Many of those “seafarers” lost their lives, either drowned in the tricky, hurricane-prone waters of the straits, or eaten by sharks, or dehydrated and starved, or, more recently, caught in the net of (in)human trafficking. There are still no official accounts of the collateral human damage that resulted from a crisis fed from both American and Cuban shores, during those years.
Spontaneous uprisings burst in the streets of Havana in August, 1994. They were immediately referred to as El Maleconazo, since protests reached the emblematic sea wall of El Malecón, and provoked an immediate reprisal from the government. After the riots were suppressed, Fidel Castro declared in a nationwide broadcast that all those who wanted to leave the country were free to do so; he commanded the Cuban Coast Guard to open the beaches. This led to a wave of migration, the climax, if only for a moment, of a crisis that relieved the valve of internal pressure in Cuba and heaped political burdens upon the American government, which was forced to negotiate in face of the oncoming human tide.
In Oliva’s work of this time, we see —from the artist’s typical windows, behind which we are apparently safe from harm— those now-fabled balseros, as they drift away. It’s not easy to decide whether we, as passive spectators, are staring at our own misfortune as stay-behinds, or whether the misfortune belongs to those who left everything behind to be forever adrift in dreams and memories, framed by tragedy, headed toward no permanent port, always with the image of El Malecón fading away in back of them.
Just like the sailors with their ingenious balsas, the artist is most resourceful in the use of materials —art supplies were scarce in those times. He uses procedures like collage, dripping, gestural handling of pigments and textures, and abrasive scrubbing and frottage that overlap each other on a generally neat and dexterous drawing, thus forming a hazy, puzzling atmosphere. As usual, his recollections and “chronicles” of these events are ambiguous, tragic and comic at the same time, realistic and surreal, and even deceptively childish, as in Twenty manners of sailing away. Oliva’s narrative vision is built out of wonderment, emerging from both the urgency of documenting reality and the need to understand it in a sense beyond the anecdotal.
In a delicate balance of poetic, melancholic, and ironic tones, the Sailors series chants the absurd and the pathetic themes of Cuban lives back then, but also the drama and hope of people whose recklessness was encouraged by an unquenchable thirst for liberty. These works continued to be produced during the years of uncertainty, frustration, and impotence that followed, and they ultimately gave birth to the Shelters series. The outlining and first strokes of El Gran Apagón (The Great Blackout), the epitome of Oliva’s work in those times and a provisional closure to the so-called dark series, started providentially in 1994. The Havana sea wall would also return as a major allegorical setting in another series that echoes the importance of Sailors in the 1990’s and can be seen as its symbolic reverse: Alegrías y Tristezas en el Malecón (Joys and Sorrows on El Malecón), a parade of eternal wanna-be sailors bound to their residence on earth and to “the damned circumstance of water all around”.
This text is an excerpt from the book I am not a pure man, a monograph on Pedro Pablo Oliva’s Art (work in progress). All rights reserved.