Monday December 11, 2017

In Conversation: Sandra Ceballos, Part 1: "The intention has always been to bring people together"

In its 20th anniversary year, the moving force behind Espacio Aglutinador reflects on its beginnings

Courtesy Sandra Ceballos

Earlier this year, artist and curator Sandra Ceballos announced that Espacio Aglutinador, the pioneering private gallery begun in 1994, was entering a new phase and would no longer be based in her Havana home. We saw this as an opportunity to reflect on its pivotal role in the Havana art scene, and asked Rafael DiazCasas to interview Ceballos about Aglutinador—past, present, and future. Here, Part 1 of their 3-part conversation.

How did Aglutinador come about? What was its context, the rationale for the project, and the primary participants?

Aglutinador came about by chance. Neither Ezequiel (Suarez) nor I was interested, or even imagined it would become a major space. Neither of us had a plan, it was all an accident.

It emerged out of an exhibition of Ezequiel´s that I was curating at Gallery 23 y 12, which was considered too lacerating against the institutions and was shut down. That’s the moment when I offered my house to Ezequiel, and so it all began. I said: Move the furniture and use the living room, although it’s going to give my mother a heart attack. The entrance was over here. [Gestures to what is now a walled-up doorway.]

We invited Alejandro López to do a performance, entitled El Frente Bauhaus, in March 1994. He in turn invited Pablo Pedro Pedroso, a young musician in the National Symphony Orchestra, who played the piano. This was something interesting. In the end it turned into a party—there was a lot of music, drinks, and the artists had a great time, despite it being such a small space. After it ended, we all retained something of a connection. 

El Frente Bauhaus, performance by Alejandro López and Pablo Pedro Pedroso, March 1994

Courtesy Sandra Ceballos

All this happened virtually at the door of the 1994 5th Havana Biennial. We decided to do another show. This time it was Ezequiel and me together. We called it Degenerate Art in the Age of the Marketplace. The idea was to present a different kind of work from what was being produced at the time. In the 1990s, artists were creating a “cynical art,” so called by them, but it really was very commercial. I think cynicism was commercialized and turned into something to be sold.

They called it cínico because it supposedly critiqued society and its customs, but in a superficial way—it didn’t get to the heart of the matter, the essence. In this context, we decided to do a more “European” art, and took some of early avant-garde movements as a reference point. With that in mind, I expanded my Absolut series from Russian Constructivism, which had been done as a kind of homage, to those artists who had been relegated to obscurity, who went into exile and ended up selling no work at all. The idea was to draw a parallel between what happened in Russia when artists were exiled and what was going on here. Ezequiel, for his part, remained interested in the Bauhaus.

When did you realize that this was a promising project, one that could take on a life of its own?

People began to encourage us. That moment of change happened after the third exhibition. By then, we began to be aware of what we were doing. We met in the Taller de Serigrafía Rene Portocarrero, the Silkscreen Workshop, where we worked. Talking with Carlos Garaicoa, who has always been a close friend, we decided to continue with it. That was the moment when we realized the context and the possible importance of the project.

We had no name. One day, talking at home—which, as you can see, is very small—I told Ezequiel that I would like the name of the place to have the sense of bringing things together, because, despite being crammed together with the heat, a lot of people came to these events and wouldn’t leave. The word Aglutinar came to my mind, then he proposed a synonym. But it was a mutual decision, between the two of us.  

From that point, everything became a bit more calculated. It was the first time in Cuba, after 1959, that a private cultural center was opened, with monitoring and curatorial logistics; but also, and contradictorily, led by an anarchist and eclectic spirit in their aesthetic and conceptual budgets. The third active member in the process was the critic and art historian Orlando Hernández, who put a lot of light and interest into the project. This past March, Aglutinador turned 20.

A work by Manuel Vidal from the first show at Espacio Aglutinador

Courtesy Sandra Ceballos

For the first show we invited Manuel Vidal (1929-2004). At the time, we always heard about Antonio Vidal, but Manuel had been continuously overlooked. While doing research on his artistic persona, we came across a very interesting body of work, both visual and literary.  We took it from there. Suddenly, we became defenders of the culture, euphemistically speaking. You know, youth makes you believe in all these things. We saw ourselves then as some type of cultural Robin Hoods.

Who else was invited to exhibit? Who else didn’t have a space before you opened your doors to them?

Santiago Armada (Chago) (1937-1995). He spent ten years without exhibiting in Cuba. His work was not well accepted. His first show with us was Eyaculaciones con antecedentes penales, followed by Nace El Topo, both in 1995.

Was that because of the erotic elements in his work?

Well, his artworks turned out to be almost pornographic, but that was very interesting for the time. He also embraced metaphysics, which we couldn´t talk about, as it was sort of a dirty word back then. In addition, there were the existential conflicts that Chago tackled.

Back then, there was no room for people with conflicts of any kind—we were all happy. I must say that Chago was never censored, but he was forgotten. They talked about exhibitions for him but it was just a pretext. They never gave him space for a show, and so he was forgotten. That is also a form of censorship.

Angel Delgado, jabones santos (Soap Saints), from his first show at Espacio Aglutinador

Courtesy Sandra Ceballos

Another artist we invited in the early years of Aglutinador was Angel Delgado (b. 1965). After he left prison for his performance in 1990 at the exhibition El Objeto Esculturado, he was marked—nobody wanted to show his work. If memory serves, he was able to do only two shows after that. The first was in the back room at Galería Habana, a project by Maria Milián and me; and the second was with us in October 1996, co-curated by Gerardo Mosquera, Orlando Hernández, Ezequiel and me.

Installation view of Angel Delgado's first show at Espacio Aglutinador

Courtesy Sandra Ceballos

Angelito´s show was a beautiful experience. He brought a box that had been sealed since his days in prison, and from it he took, for the first time, the objects he had in there: the handkerchiefs, the blankets and carved soaps. All of them were shown here for the first time.

Ernesto Pujol (b. 1957) was also invited. He was an exile artist, one of those who at that moment was viewed with much prejudice, and whom nobody wanted to exhibit. He had previously shown at Casa de las Américas—which is somehow "independent," operating at the margins of official cultural policy—not at an official gallery under the Cultural Secretary. This time we showed in Casa de Sandra [at Aglutinador, in Ceballos’s home]. To make it a double show, we invited Manuel Alcaide (b. 1954), of the same generation, who had studied in the former Soviet Union. In reality both of them lived in exile, one in New York and the other in Camagüey. Both worked with objects, but in different worlds and from different points of view.

Installation view of the exhibition Trofeos de la Guerra Fría: Instalaciones y ensamblajes de Ernesto Pujol y Manuel Alcaide (Trophies of the Cold War: Installations and Assemblages by Ernesto Pujol and Manuel Alcaide), 1995

Courtesy Sandra Ceballos

At that time we were looking to do duo shows, inviting artists whose practices had something in common. For example, older and younger artists, who were from different generations or lived in different places but had similarities in their work, or totally the opposite, etc. The idea was to demonstrate continuity and stimulate dialogue. But also to invigorate the atmosphere, creating dialogues and opening doors while bringing people together. I recall now shows like Trofeos de la Guerra Fría: Instalaciones y ensamblajes de Ernesto Pujol y Manuel Alcaide (1995) – as I said before; La Mirada Amable. Pinturas de Pedro Álvarez y Benito Ortiz (April 1995); Levántate Chago, no Jodas Lázaro, with Chago Armada and Lázaro Saavedra (1996), among others.

La Carne: Tatuajes – convección de artistas tatuadores (The Flesh: Tattoos - Convection of Tattoo Artists), July 1996

Courtesy Sandra Ceballos

We also brought Glexis Novoa (b. 1964) with Daño (1994); Cleva Solís (1926 -1997) a member of the Origenes group, which hadn’t exhibited for a long time, with Una Mariposa con Ojos de Buey (1995); José Antonio Díaz Peláez (1924-1988), a former member of Los Once; Alberto Casado (b. 1970) with Historias del Barrio; Tania Bruguera with her performance Cabeza Abajo; Jorge Luis Marrero (b. 1970); Ibrahim Miranda (b. 1969); Rafael Zarza (b. 1944) with El Campo; Eduardo Aparicio (1956) with Entre la Habana y Miami. All of those were in 1996. We also had Juan Carlos Alom (b. 1964) in 1997, and others. We invited many others who hadn’t necessarily been nailed by history, but had lost the capacity for public dialogue, either because they didn’t know how or couldn’t defend and/or negotiate it.

We invited Santiago Sierra, who did a closed-door performance of Línea de 250 metros sobre seis personas remuneradas. As with that one, we did several exhibitions in which we explored new issues that hadn’t been previously treated in Cuba, among them La Carne: Tatuajes – convección de artistas tatuadores in July 1996 and Una Miseria Temporal in May 1997.

Next: Aglutinador-Laboratory, the P.E.R.R.O awards, and the 1st Biennial of Porno Art.

Rafael DiazCasas is an art historian and independent curator based in New York. Interested in modern and contemporary art, with a focus on Latin American art. He writes about art and culture for several publications, and is co-author of Hard Light: The Work of Emilio Sanchez. (Prestel London – New York, 2011). He is currently working on a monograph and a documentary about the history of abstraction in Cuba in the second half of the 20th century.