Monday June 18, 2018

The Curator’s Eye, Part 2: More on “Cannibal/Carnival: Elio Rodríguez and Douglas Pérez Castro

Curator Orlando Hernández continues his reflections on the London exhibition

Yesterday, Cuban Art News shared the first part of curator Orlando Hernández’s essay accompanying the exhibition Cannibal/Carnival: Elio Rodríguez and Douglas Pérez Castro, on view through July 21 at London’s Breese Little Gallery. Here, Hernández focuses on Rodríguez’s art and reflects on the commonalities and differences between the two artists.

Elio Rodríguez, El Poder del Caribe

Courtesy ElioRodrí

Almost since the beginning of his career in the 1990s, Elio Rodríguez has been completely dedicated to his alter ego and to Macho Enterprise, a fictitious business whose logo is a comically phallic palm tree. The company finances all of his creative projects, covering the cost of materials, his editions of engravings, and most likely his travel for both work and pleasure.

Both his character and company are products of the so-called Período Especial en Tiempo de Paz (Special Period in Time of Peace). This sonorous name is used to describe the moment that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Socialist rule, when the economic subsidies that we had been receiving stopped. We entered into a period of ongoing crisis with all-round shortages, civil unrest, large-scale migration, and an upsurge in prostitution and racism against the black and mulatto communities.

So-called “mixed” companies arose from foreign investment, a magic formula to try to keep afloat what remained of Socialism on the island. Macho Enterprise mocked these companies, playing on the fact that there were no longer—now or previously—companies dedicated to funding arts projects.

From that period forward, the market took over—even in terms of the human body, to the point that “blackness” became a lucrative source of foreign revenue. Sex tourism brought great flocks of travelers “on the hunt” for black people and mulattos, for as the (still dominant) myth goes, these were the most “well-proportioned” and uninhibited people of our island.

A great deal of Elio Rodríguez’s work has focused on critiquing and mocking these myths and the “new” forms of prostitution that emerged during that time. The black person, the mulatto, and the tourist are perhaps the three most important characters in this carnival—a carnival that is both lamentable yet somewhat entertaining, just as 19th-century Cuban teatro bufo (slapstick theater) was. Elio has taken inspiration from this theater, as well as from the designs on cigarette packs, Hollywood film posters, Spanish bullfighting advertisements, and even Goya’s engravings.

We are all different, yet there are many common threads which tie us together, especially Cubans. I would say that in the case of Elio Rodríguez and Douglas Pérez, many of these common threads are visible in their work. This has nothing to do with the fact that they are both artists of the same generation or that they are both Cuban. Nor are their body shapes or skin colors significant.

It is more that both artists share an identical delight in the “carnivalesque,” joking and applying a sense of humor to their work. They explore our mestizaje—our mixed heritage—undoubtedly the most important component in the history of our society and culture. Finally, they both keep their eyes open for any issue or scenario that could inform their work. This enables them to mock and critique the society in which they were born and raised in order, hopefully, to improve it.

It is easier to highlight the similarities between the artists than their differences. In onclusion, however, I will briefly draw attention to some of these differences:

- Elio daringly uses both sexually implicit and explicit images in his work, while Douglas only rarely draws attention to this subject matter.

- Elio frequently portrays himself, his wife, and his children in his work. Douglas completely removes any such representation of his private life.

- Elio’s sense of humor is explicit in his work and he often applies elements of caricature and slapstick comedy. Humor in Douglas's work is more mediated, contemplative, and intellectual.

- In terms of racial issues, Douglas is almost always more “politically correct” than Elio, although both artists have the same ability to laugh at themselves and caricature white and black persons with similar intentions.

As I stated previously, we are all the same, yet also different. And thank heavens for that.

Orlando Hernández is a Havana-based author, critic, curator, and poet with an interest in popular cultures and Afro-Cuban ritual arts. In 2010, he curated Without Masks, the first exhibition of Cuban in South Africa, which presented themes of Afro-Cuban culture and issues of race and identity. Previous publications include The Art Victims of Havana (2007), The Importance of Being Local (2005) and “The Pleasure of the Reference” in Art Cuba: The New Generation, edited by Holly Block (2001). He graduated in Art History from the University of Havana in 1978.