b. 1972, Cienfuegos, Cuba
Around the mid-1990s, the art catalogues of the Italian Trans-Avant-Garde—led by art critic Bonito Oliva—and German “sauvage” painting introduced new frames of reference for painters in Cuba. Those publications circulated hand-to-hand among artists, teachers, and students of art in educational centers such as the Instituto Superior de Arte, San Alejandro Art School, and the School of Art Education (based in the site of the old Columbia military barracks). Through these publications, techniques such as quotation and pastiche—marked by the Postmodern theories soaked up by the art community—arrived on the island.
The “Cuban” remaking of styles, genres, and figures of universal art spread like wildfire. Artists turned it into ammunition: highly charged satire directed against art as an institution, the cult of originality, and the contradictions between official ideologies and social realities.
This subversion of meanings was reinforced by the impact of the so-called Special Period. After the end of Soviet economic subsidies, hunger became a daily ritual presence, and numerous intellectuals and others migrated, many by raft. Fukuyama’s “end of history” became for Cubans a sort of nautical chart of the unknown. The island lost its moorings in the real socialism of Eastern Europe, and was flung adrift like a raft on the raging waters of the Gulf Stream, without a compass.
This radical departure from a future hitherto guaranteed by the manuals of official Marxism brought about a widespread questioning of the present, and past, of Cuban society and culture. Artists started to focus on genres, periods, and creators of the island’s visual history since the 1500s.
Pérez took particular interest in nineteenth-century paintings and engravings, an interest shared by fellow artists such as Pedro Álvarez, Alexis Esquivel, and Elio Rodríguez. He allowed himself to be seduced by picturesque prints engraved by travelers like the French Frédéric Mialhe. He set about updating characters such as the black slave, the mulatto girl, and the foreman, taken from the lithographed “comics” of Basque painter Víctor Patricio Landaluze. And he pored over the motifs in the Libro de los Ingenios (Book of Sugar Mills), a 28-lithograph album created between 1855-1857 by French artist Eduardo Laplante under the sponsorship of sugar industrialist Justo Germán Cantero.
These visual pre-texts were Pérez’s “local” raw materials. Utilizing them in the manner of novelists such as E. L. Doctorow and Gore Vidal—whose narrative fictions dwell in the “shadow” zones of historic characters and events—Pérez “wrote” on the canvas intricate layers interweaving characters from the Cuban past, such as the slave, the mulatto girl, and the foreman, with European images. They were modeled using the métier of academic painting, and their background was the productive and social spaces of Cuban history: the sugar mill, the slave barracks, the colonial plazas, the batey (sugar workers’ town).
It was a twist on the genre of history painting. Ahead of “academic” historians, and with greater freedom, Pérez painted an “unauthorized,” irreverent vision of his national history, where the ghosts of the colonial past interacted smoothly with the myths of present “socialism.” He was driven to merge a critical detachment from the past with an attack against the current stereotypes in the construction of a “white” Cuban identity.
Anthropophagy… is a piece from this period, a painting with a mural-like ambition. The artist drew inspiration from nineteenth-century engravings whose “educative” function was to teach owners how to punish their slaves in an exemplary manner through images that showed the necessary discipline and equipment: “El cuerazo” (lashing),“Cepo de gorguera” (stocks), “Bocabajo” (whipping a slave tied facedown) were some of the methods employed.
The “bocabajo” is the torture represented in Anthropophagy…, a painting done in realistic strokes but destined to comment on the conflicts and challenges of the artist living and working in a Third World country. Tied on a ladder, the artist, faceless, disfigured, holds his brushes in his hands while being subjected to a lashing whose effects are shown in the style of the comics. His bleeding mouth exhales an ethereal island of Cuba, flanked by two African warrior deities, Oggun and Shango, painted in the style of Japanese manga. The title poses a cultural challenge: to achieve—from the island, from the parochial—a jump over an inequality implicit in the world of contemporary art.
Ariadne belongs to a later group of paintings, in which the background gradually replaced the characters until what emerged were fantastical, almost futuristic landscapes: anti-utopian stages mingling influences from Blade Runner, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and the still undervalued Cuban Eclectic style of architecture.
For the concept of this drawing, Pérez used a panoramic photograph of Prado Street taken in the 1920s, in which the high silhouette of the Sevilla Biltmore Hotel, built in 1908 and later expanded, dominates the skyline. While one area of the watercolor seems to follow the photograph faithfully, in others it has the feeling of an architectural project, with lines that seem to describe non-existent edifices. Over both areas, outlined with gold thread, looms a fictitious vaulted roof that encompasses the whole street. Although it looks like a futuristic version of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, its design was actually inspired by the numerous sugar mills—now shut down—to which this street, as well as the whole of Havana, owe their architectural splendor.
—Abelardo G. Mena Chicuri