Thursday October 19, 2017

In Conversation: Elio Rodríguez

As he wraps up a fellowship at Harvard, the artist reflects on the experience and what comes next

The Cooper Gallery at Harvard, with Elio Rodríguez's Forest on the Walls, 2014, exhibited in the window

Courtesy Elio Rodríguez

This month, artist Elio Rodríguez completes a semester-long fellowship in Harvard University’s Afro-Latin American Research Institute and Hutchins Center for African & African American Research. In an email interview, he talks about the experience and what comes next.

You’ve spent the past several months doing a fellowship at Harvard. What has it been like to be there?

The fellowship has been a great experience for me. It has allowed me to detach from everyday issues and concentrate on sharing experiences and ideas to develop new work. I was also able to attend the opening and related activities of the exhibition Drapetomania: Grupo Antillano and the Art of Afro-Cuba, curated by Alejandro de la Fuente at Harvard. The show opened in January and is currently on view at the new Cooper Gallery, a beautiful space that is part of the Hutchins Center, the same institution that offered me the fellowship.

Elio Rodríguez, Forest on the Walls, 2014

Courtesy Elio Rodríguez

Likewise, I was able to attend two other exhibitions that feature my work: En voz alta (Aloud), a group show earlier this year at 532 Thomas Jaeckel Gallery in New York’s Chelsea district, and Still Running, Afro-Cuban Art, a group exhibition curated by Astrid Martínez of Latin Art Space, now at the Multicultural Arts Center in Cambridge.

What have you been working on while you’ve been at Harvard?

I’ve been working on a new series of digital photos that will incorporate some ideas from previous series (Mulatisimas, Con la guardia en Alto). This new series, however, may be more focused on issues of identity, like race. For example, I found minstrel show posters in the Hutchins Center archives that give a tricky idea of America. The minstrel show was like the Teatro Vernaculo in Cuba, where society was represented by iconic characters like el negro, el gallego, la mulata. Minstrels do something similar, but with regards to race and in a time when black folks were not allowed on stage, so all the characters wear masks (blackface).

Elio Rodríguez, Forest on the Walls #2, 2015

Courtesy Elio Rodríguez

I am also experimenting with new techniques. Normally when I plan my painting or prints, I begin by using photos and then Photoshop them to use as references for the final work. Now, I am using this stage (photography) as the final product, so this requires that I take photography more seriously.

I have also been working on a new series of drawings on canvas. This is something I have wanted to do for a long time, but I hadn't had the time to try different canvases and graphites to find the ones I like most.

Has being at Harvard enriched your work?

Any experience gives me new ideas to do more work. I always say that I am not an intellectual in the sense of those people who go to museums and read books in order to collect experiences. Perhaps because I am a black guy from Habana Vieja, I prefer to live the experiences, instead of studying them. So this adventure has been great. To live among great academics, hear the discussions, see what they say about my work and how some of my concerns have connections with theirs, and walk with and know people from Cambridge is something new that for sure will bring new ideas and inspiration for future works.

Also, this experience has given me the opportunity to get to know people like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who—apart from the halo of stardom that may surround him—is a very funny guy with whom you can talk about issues like you do with a close friend.

And of course, to be near Alejandro de la Fuente, one of my closest friends, and to share with him ideas and projects is a unique privilege.

Elio Rodríguez, right, with Alejandro de la Fuente, curator of Drapetomania and director of the Institute of Afro-Latin American Studies at Harvard

Courtesy Elio Rodríguez

Do you think your work has changed or taken a different direction from the experience of being a fellow there?

I can’t say it has changed directions; maybe it has incorporated more paths. I don't see my work in just one direction; I have always loved to have different “identities.”  My two-dimensional work (painting and prints) is more representative, more fun—it likes to play with different iconographies. My work in sculpture is more abstract, more serious. It’s as if, when I get bored of being one thing, I can alter into someone else. But it’s a fact that I’m now incorporating some American references and subjects that are more related to American culture into these new works due my experiences here.

Elio Rodríguez, Resisteremos, 2010

Courtesy Elio Rodríguez

I love to use references from different cultures in my work. Cuban culture is well-trained in using foreign references as its own. So I do the same.

Aside from your own projects, what is involved in being a fellow in these institutes?

It is really a wonderful moment to be a fellow at Harvard, and also to be near intellectuals like Alejandro de la Fuente and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in order to share ideas. There are an infinite number of activities going on at any given time here—so many that you have to focus on really what is closest to your own interests, and in the end you never know where your ideas might come from.

How many fellows were in the program this year? What sort of projects were they working on?

There are around ten fellows in the program. Some will be here a full year. Others, like me, are here for a semester. The fellows are normally academics, professors, and writers.

There is a group of fellows whose work has some connections with my concerns, and we meet at the same conferences, or meet to talk about issues and share ideas.  For fellows such as Devyn Spence, Lester Tome, Odette Casamayor, Marial Uttset, and myself, the subject of the persistence of racism in Cuba is one of our favorites themes.

For example, Lester Tome´s research focuses on the presence of racial subjects in the Cuban Ballet, and it provides me with a lot of ideas for my own work. Odette Casamayor is investigating the persistence of racism in Cuban society and the way some visual artists address the issue.  Another fellow, Devyn Spencer, is researching contradictions in state policies regarding racism in Cuba. In addition, interactions with Steven Nelson, who has an incredible knowledge of African Art, and also the discussions about the importance and interpretations of DNA samples in our cultural identity, have been very interesting.

I am a kind of “special fellow,” because as far as I know, I am the first visual artist allowed to participate in this program.

Rodríguez, right, with institute fellows, left to right: Lester Tome, Devyn Spence, and Odette Casamayor

Courtesy Elio Rodríguez

Everybody has been really helpful here. My “obligations” have been to present my work, and attend the other fellows’ presentations. Other than that, I have been free to do whatever I want to enrich my experience here.

The fellowship ends this month. What comes next for you?

By the time the fellowship ends, I should be finishing one big piece for 532 Thomas Jaeckel Gallery, which will be shown in Miami during one of the upcoming fairs. My next big project will be a solo show at MOCA in Miami in 2016.  I’m very excited because I will put together some previous works that have never been shown together.

Also, I will come back to Harvard to exhibit the series I am working on as a result of the fellowship.

And I will be part of the Flux Art Fair in Harlem this May, and in July at the Watermill Auction in the Hamptons.

      Drapetomania: Grupo Antillano and the Art of Afro-Cuba runs through May 29 at the Cooper Gallery at Harvard University. Still Running: Afro-Cuban Art also runs through May 29 at the Multicultural Arts Center in East Cambridge.

Susan Delson has been the New York editor of Cuban Art News since 2009. A former member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art education department, as editor she has worked with the Museum of Modern Art, Asia Society, El Museo del Barrio, and other institutions. Her books include the film study/biography Dudley Murphy, Hollywood Wild Card and (as editor) Ai Weiwei: Circle of Animals. As a magazine editor, she has worked at Forbes, Louise Blouin Media, and other companies.