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Fernando Rodríguez

About Fernando Rodríguez

b. 1970, resides in Cuba

Rodríguez’s sculptures, drawings, canvases, and short digital films deconstruct—with a healthy serving of Cuban humor—the labels of primitivism, local color, and popular identity frequently imposed on Latin American and Cuban art.

Sueño Nupcial (Nuptial Dream) depicts the wedding of Cuban leader Fidel Castro and La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre (Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre), the patron saint of Cuba. The stage for this alliance is not heaven or earth, but the imagination of Francisco de la Cal, a farmer from the Ciénaga de Zapata marshlands who has suffered from incurable blindness since 1963. De la Cal had been a naïve painter and sculptor, but his handicap kept him from fully expressing his inexhaustible imagination; so, after meeting Fernando Rodríguez in 1991, he made the younger artist an unexpected proposition: to translate his dreams into images. Rodríguez became the medium who transformed ideas into reality, the hand destined to give expression to the unbridled fantasies of the rough-hewn country guajiro, de la Cal.

For de la Cal, the wedding couple in Sueño Nupcial represents the highest powers of Cuba. As a fervent Catholic, the peasant venerates Our Lady of Charity, who had been proclaimed patron saint of Cuba by Pope Benedict XV in 1916, and had long been worshipped by sailors and travelers. As a partisan of the Revolution, de la Cal remembers with fervor and enthusiasm its first years, before his blindness. For this reason, images of revolutionary heroes such as Che Guevara and Castro recur in his work.

The dream is related in episodes, or comic-strip frames. Each shows a ceremony to be performed by the bride and groom according to the country traditions familiar to de la Cal. In every scene, he appears as a witness—wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses—and, in the lower portion of the frame, lying asleep dreaming. As a country farmer, de la Cal never received professional art training; so Rodríguez conceived each scene in the flat perspective favored by many naïve artists, and carved the characters using crude tools as a folk artist is expected to do.

But Francisco de la Cal does not have a birth certificate or an identification card. He is the man who never existed—a fictional character, like those created by Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. This distancing mechanism, so full of humor, generates multiple tensions: between the artist Rodríguez and his role as de la Cal’s “translator,” as well as between the utopian evocations of the Revolution’s early years as recalled by the marshland farmer and the realities of contemporary Cuba. Rodriguez opens a gap between spoken language—the medium by which de la Cal transmits his ideas—and its incarnation as images. He comments ironically on the “originality” of folk art, promoted as an example of the “authentic roots” of the Cuban nation.

A wealth of biographical and contextual references are woven into the expressive texture of this wedding saga. The Virgin appears here in her role as patron saint of seafarers; the men in a boat to whom she waves, in salutation or farewell, are the three sailors who found her image floating in 1687, and who have been represented aboard a boat ever since. In 1994, when the piece was made, they could be seen as abandoning the island during the mass exodus of rafters to Miami. The graffiti inscribed on the worn walls of the famed café La Bodeguita del Medio in Old Havana (depicted in the third panel) are the actual signatures of Alexander Arrechea, Carlos Garaicoa, Esterio Segura, and other colleagues of Rodríguez’s at the Superior Institute of Art (ISA).

The dream union between Our Lady and Fidel unveils a real phenomenon: in the years of the “Special Period,” when, to paraphrase Karl Marx, “everything solid melted into the air,” there was a noticeable upsurge in Catholic devotion. Together with the Afro-Cuban orishas, Christ occupied, in the minds of the Cuban people, the space that had been reserved exclusively for Marx, Engels, and Lenin.

In the period between the exhibitions De una experiencia colectiva (On a Collective Experience, Iturralde Gallery, Los Angeles, United States, 1999) and Puramente formal (Purely Formal, Havana Gallery, 2002), Rodríguez’s work evolved with the conscious need to achieve a formal synthesis and expansion of content. The Francisco de la Cal character did not disappear, but underwent a change of image, emerging as a logotype of the human being. The rural landscape that haunted the dreams of the blind farmer gave way to other scenarios: real objects such as chairs, tables, and the wall of the museum or gallery. Rodríguez’s work is now built from new materials, and assumes a minimalist design in its assemblage, stemming from concepts of accumulation and sequence as organizing principles.

In Unir/Separar (Join/Separate), the artist takes an everyday object, the zipper, and transforms it into a metaphor for connection and isolation. The small, anonymous sculptures have been arranged like fastening teeth, forming a graceful line. Initial sketches for this sculpture followed a more conservative approach: the figures were affixed to a ribbon, and the fastener size was proportionate to theirs. In the final version, Rodríguez’s solution is both more synthetic and striking. The little wooden figures are affixed directly to the wall; the fastener has been carved in exaggerated proportions to signify its executive role. The piece seems to include the viewer, suggesting that he should manipulate the fastener, exerting a “divine” role over human destiny.

In this work, Rodríguez has progressed from the specific local chronicles of Cuban life to explore the universal conflict of collectivity versus individualism and the tension between the mass and personal freedom. The road traveled between Sueño Nupcial and Unir/Separar illustrates current tendencies in Cuban art, and its search for more universal messages destined for an audience beyond the country’s borders.

References: Catalogue, Fifth Havana Biennial, 1994, p. 301. Catalogue, Cuba, Utopian Territories, Vancouver, pp. 42-44. Camnitzer, Luis, New Art from Cuba, 1994; reprint, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003, central page, color.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri