The Farber Collection
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Ángel Delgado

About Ángel Delgado

b. 1965, resides in Mexico

The date: May 4, 1990. The event: the opening of the group exhibition, El Objeto Esculturado (The Sculptured Object), at the Center for the Development of the Visual Arts in Havana. The artist Ángel Delgado slowly unfolds a copy of the newspaper Granma, squats down in front of the blasé audience, and defecates on the printed pages. Named La esperanza es lo último que se está perdiendo (Hope Is The Last Thing To Go), his performance prompts the exhibition’s closing and the firing of the center’s director. Delgado was found guilty of public scandal and sentenced to prison. For six months, he would become inmate 1242900. The process art of the 1980s had examined the merging of art and life from a theoretical perspective; Delgado’s act now threw him into a context he’d known of only by word of mouth, from rumors, or through Saturday night movies.

Delgado’s involuntary status as an “artist in residence” catalyzed his creativity. “There, together with his comrades in captivity, he learned to draw on handkerchiefs using colored pencils and cold cream, and to carve images from bars of laundry soap. And this has provided his themes and subjects, and the overall inspiration for his art” (Hernández, 2002). Delgado also discovered that art was useful: his soap carvings and handkerchief drawings could be exchanged for the items necessary for a prisoner’s survival. Meanwhile, in a rabid expression of privacy, he made one hundred drawings on office paper with pen and crayon: “sacred, hieroglyphic writing, a bundle of stories half-graphic, half-text, an iconography, a cache of memories” (Mosquera, 1996, 24).

As someone who created art while imprisoned, Delgado entered, by implication, a peculiar sociocultural canon: prison art and literature. In Cuba, texts such as José Martí’s essay, El presidio politico en Cuba (Political Prisons in Cuba); Carlos Montenegro’s novel, Hombres sin mujer (Men Without Women); Pablo de la Torriente Brau’s memoir, Presidio modelo (Model Prison); Ernesto de Blanck’s drawings in El Principe prison; and the anonymous graffiti on the walls of the Isle of Pines prison are among the previous contributions to a body of work—unexplored by the island’s scholars—in which the discourses of submission and rebellion, of bodily urgencies and individual solitude, meet and intersect.

Within this unacknowledged tradition, the unavoidable autobiographical focus tilts Delgado’s oeuvre toward the non-fiction, testimonial genre. But its conceptual density keeps it from reduction to mere anecdotal melodrama. The approach is similar to that used by Uruguayan-American artist Luís Camnitzer. Traumatic events are channeled and purged through the appropriation of everyday objects—soap, bed sheets, drawn-on handkerchiefs—transformed into the material and metaphors of freedom. Delgado reworks the shape, texture, and smell of the soap, turning it into a different kind of signifier. Applying it directly to his drawings, he transmutes it into a symbol of the malleability of the individual in the face of his social environment. It is a position similar to that expressed by the artist Carlos Cárdenas in Suicida o moldeable (Suicide or Malleable, 1989).

Delgado turns the handkerchief—a personal object of prison “tough guys”—into a narrative codex, an obsessive diary in which each piece of fabric becomes a frame, as in a comic strip. But the narrative is strictly visual, because silence reigns over everything: silence, and the contained gesture. Objects such as bunk beds, barred windows, and barbed wire fences are charged with implying a human presence. Whenever figures do appear, they’re either sketchy outlines or remain mute, without exchanging a single word. The drawing is spare, precise; it adapts, rigorously, to the contours of the fabric.

On one of the handkerchiefs, Delgado has drawn the faceless images of three men. Eyes, noses, and mouths have been excluded; only bare outlines define them. Their tongues, however, seem to move tirelessly. Entangled with each other, they form the only bridges among the anonymous faces. Delgado’s drawings translate common phrases into images; darse lengua (to give tongue) or “Frenching” would be the most fitting term here. Yet the image implies not a carnal link between these individuals, but conspiratorial conversation, gossip, the intense transmission of information—in short, the sport of profoundly bored men.

The second handkerchief seems to appropriate a universal photographic format: the mug shot. In the lower area of the cloth is a string of numbers: 1242900, Delgado’s prison ID. But there’s no face or silhouette; these have vanished. The portrait that indisputably identifies the individual has been replaced by an amorphous, dirty, indeterminate blob. It could be a sweat stain, a footprint, a smear of semen or tears. Or a stark and sober shroud, in which the individual disappears behind the assigned number, a barcode for a biography that struggles against losing its voice.

References: Block, Holly, ed., Art Cuba: The New Generation (Harry N. Abrams, 2001), p. 67.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri