This spring, the Center for the Development of Visual Arts (CDAV) in Havana hosted the show “Como te cuento mi cuento” (How I Tell You My Story) by Cuban artist Guillermo Ramírez Malberti. Among the works on view was a “remake” of one of his most memorable pieces from the 1990s. Recently, Ramírez Malberti spoke with Cuban Art News about the show and the evolution of his work.
Your art has a self-referential quality linked to a sense of nostalgia—a look to the past. What importance do you give those elements in your work?
Much of the material that inspires me is linked to my lived experience and to the past. In the exhibition Como te cuento mi cuento, the theme of nostalgia—rifling through personal history—it’s perhaps the most emphatic accent. The original piece was made in clay in 1994; it was shown, and won a prize, at the Contemporary Art Salon that year. I thought it would be interesting to return to the idea 20 years later, and include my son. It’s about playing with destinies that have changed, observing what remains of that reality after so much time has passed. It’s also about confronting two realities: showing the current generation its past, and in this way playing with the future of that generation.
How would you place yourself in the Cuban art scene of the late 1990s, when you had your first exhibitions?
I graduated from the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA) in 1988. That decade was very troubled, from the point of view of the social radicalism of art. The artists’ intent was to penetrate and influence the social events of the time. We had an idyllic notion of changing the world by blowing up the foundations of society and creating a utopian space. In fact, I was very focused on theater work, although I also did my own art.
When I finished my studies, I began my social service in Cienfuegos, where I started to make and exhibit my work. On returning to Havana, I had a first exhibition called Mutilaciones, in which I selected moments from a period of five or six years and gave them the character of mutilated works. Later I did Como te cuento mi cuento, and that’s when I really entered the art world. This piece earned a mention in the Salon of Contemporary Art in 1994, and it had a major impact. It´s really amazing; even today it’s an emblematic work and is studied in the university. That first version in clay was acquired by the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.
Your works are notable for showing the daily life of Cubans, with its vicissitudes and conflicts. Is your art committed to reality?
Yes, absolutely. Especially the series Camino al Paraíso (Road to Paradise), in which I refer to what is “moving” in the street—cars, popular phrases. For me, the titles of works are very important, as they help to place the viewer, to ground the audience in the reality that I want to focus on. I try not to let everyday reality escape, and in this regard that series has worked very well, in the sense that it captured what circulates in the street. I also have other series on these themes, such as Santa abundancia and Ilusión Tropical.
The series Camino al Paraíso was much discussed, because it captured elements frequently used in the urban space.
You mean the camellos, those huge, articulated trucks that emerged during the Special Period to transport hundreds of people. For the last biennial, I did the piece Isla Almendrón, an urban intervention at the Capitol building with the so-called almendrones—the American cars built before 1959 that are still circulating, thanks to Cubans’ mechanical skill and inventiveness.
I also have more recent works with the so-called “P-buses” currently circulating in Havana. I made a tribute to Argentine composer Àstor Piazzolla in which the bus bellows act as the bellows of the accordion, and nearby is a hand playing a keyboard, as a sort of giant poster. Also, my series Ilusión Tropical focuses on the world of tobacco and Cuban prostitutes or hookers. I´m interested in constantly reflecting reality in my work in an acute, critical way, without overlooking humor. It’s not humor to make you laugh, but a more subtle humor that makes you think and sets you on a different path.
For some time you focused on erotic themes, linked to themes of identity, with a certain comic quality. Would you say that you’ve neglected this topic for the sake of more social issues?
In the exhibition Juego de Manos (Hand Games), held at the National Council of Visual Arts, I grouped some erotic pieces such as Puzle pa 'Margarita, En barra, and Retozo angelical—that last piece showed two angels having sex. Each time I prepare a project, I set myself challenges. At that time it was the erotic theme; now I’m turning to questions of identity and gender. I'm working very broadly, treating themes from different perspectives in installations, photography, and painting.
You referred to clay as a material for ceramic works and sculptures. What factors do you take into account when modeling?
I've always considered clay as earth, as skin, and in that sense I use it as a material. Perhaps the piece closest to that intention was Del barro venimos (From Clay We Come). In that work, a person models himself in clay, because we have to mold ourselves, make ourselves, educate ourselves. In this regard, I also did a series Memorias de Viaje (Memories of a Journey), where one of the characters remains as clay, used either in painting or sculpture. This was a self-referential note, because the character is me—a character who seeks to feel part of his land, because we are made of earth. I was trying to compare land with nationality, with one’s own space, with the body, and clay allows me to play with those associations. This character moves, speaks, travels abroad, but is still clay, maintaining this corporality.
Many of your pieces are derived from Pop Art, from the graphic itself or the artistic avant-garde. What do you consider your main visual influences?
Pop artists like Jasper Johns or Jeff Koons have always captivated me. In fact, Como te cuento mi cuento has much of Jeff Koons, possibly in the formal, with a sort of flirtation with socialist realism, with irony and cynicism.
Even in my public work, Pop has a very strong presence; everything related to objects has always appealed to me. I just finished a piece called Venganza (Vengeance), in Las Tunas. It´s a pencil embedded in the back of a [computer] mouse, expressing the resistance of the old to the new.
All art is influenced by what we´ve lived, though Pop is what I feel most connected with on a formal level. Along with my generation, I have taken from here and there without a paradigm or a dialogue with specific figures.
Your recent show, Como te cuento mi cuento, exhibited at the Center for the Development of Visual Arts, returns to and amplifies a work that you had made years earlier. Why come back to a piece that was apparently completed?
The version of Como te cuento mi cuento made in 1994 comprised 14 pieces covering a broader story, told by way of chapters, and made only in clay. The intention of the clay was to demystify; the clay was unglazed, pure patina, painted in a very free way. It was an anti-monument. And it had its effect; indeed, for the Contemporary Art Salon I made a selection of the most daring pieces in the grouping.
Twenty years later, I found it interesting to look at same piece again from the perspective of generational confrontation. Now I think perpetuating the story in bronze strengthens the irony in the piece. I also returned to clay, but this time for the character of the pioneer (my son) who is living in this political moment.
There is also the desire to seek a dialogue with the viewers, who will find themselves reflected in these pieces.
I think the fact that the figures are in bronze is more forceful and shakes up the viewer. It’s my personal story, but it’s also the story of a generation that grew up with the Revolution. Watching everyone's life as in a museum suggests a distancing, and also causes a sense of deep pain. In the exhibition there is irony, a certain amount of satire, and I think the titles of the works express this: Will I be like Che?, The Job of Power, To a Tough Enemy, The 1964 Wedding of Mama and Papa…. All this takes you in another direction.
This exhibition includes installation, sculpture, photography, etc., in a sort of collage. What was the process like in creating such a varied show?
I tried to give this show the flavor of a museum. In preparation I went to the Museum of the Revolution and tried to capture the testimonial spirit presented by museums, and especially that one. I tried to capture the way works are displayed—like the ropes that separate the pieces from the viewers, serving as protectors of History.
The reference to the present time is also seen in photos, which is a much more direct testimony. I used photos and documents from my family archives, my parents’ wedding, awards given to me in elementary school, photos where I´m wearing an olive green uniform. I also used medals, epaulettes, and the beret of the militias, which enrich and give the viewer a vision of the 1960s and refer more to nostalgia. I use all kinds of historical elements that can multiply the experience of the viewer who did not live then.
How does the latest show Come te cuento mi cuento differ from the previous version?
It’s strange to see, 20 years later, how, in spite of the fact that many things remain current, you see the change. Things can happen quickly—hence the presence of the child and the flag behind him, made of banknotes.
Moreover, the artist is undoubtedly not the same twenty years later, and the viewers are not the same as before. An essential element is the material itself, which now gives another appearance to the piece.
You are also known for your role as an art director and set designer for both film and theater. Is there any relationship between this artwork and these other roles?
I come from a family in the performing arts: my parents were actors. At some point I worked in amateur theater, and for me to do theater in some form is linked to this.
When I was studying at ISA, I was very close to theater students and we often did things together. Then I did a postgraduate course in stage design that was like the prelude to the art direction specialty at ISA.
Alongside my artistic work I've been working in film and theater simultaneously. I´m very close to my cousin, the renowned filmmaker Juan Carlos Cremata; we have an empathy, and we have the same criteria in terms of aesthetics and other aspects. Sometimes he comes to me with ideas, and sometimes I propose projects to him—that’s the way we operate. It's an intense and fruitful work relationship. The texts we work with are strong, transcendental, they move the viewer. From a visual standpoint, the idea is to support the text so that the spectator leaves the theater impressed. It’s work that gives me great personal satisfaction, it’s very uplifting.
Your work in theater and films, like your more intimate visual work, reflects the same interests, the same intentions.
Yes, I think to a large extent it does, although they are not entirely complementary. In the theater, set design is subordinated to the director´s interests; in my artistic work I am the director. But there are similarities. In fact, there is no separation in my visual work and the work applied to film and theater: there are intentions to touch reality, to bear witness to Cuban daily life. So there is no contradiction.
Are there any new projects you want to comment on?
I have a project in hand I’d like to do at some point, and the centerpiece of the exhibition will be Cristal beer. I also have some shelved projects; their outcome depends on the production or financing, but they keep coming up.