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Lázaro Saavedra

About Lázaro Saavedra

b. 1964, resides in Cuba

Oval or rectangular in shape, industrially printed in garish color, the Sacred Heart was one of the most popular icons in a Catholic land that also revered African deities in the guise of Christian saints. It invariably depicted a young man with a gentle expression and eyes full of tenderness, offering a heart crowned in thorns.

Over time, the imagery of the Sacred Heart became an intimate part of Cuba’s contemporary cultural heritage, even when the long years of official atheism removed it from household walls. Then, when the “Special Period” arrived, and each meager meal seemed as if it might be the last, the images of Lenin disappeared and the churches filled with young parishioners. John Paul II and his Popemobile landed in Havana, and the Sacred Heart was raised in a visual Magnificat over Revolution Square, before the cameras of CNN.

It is not surprising, then, for Lázaro Saveedra to mark this image for personal interpretation. A conceptual artist a la cubana, a former member of the Puré (Purée) group, a participant in the Pilón and ENEMA projects, designer of Detector de ideologías (Ideology Detector, 1988) and Altar a San Joseph Beuys (Altar to Saint Joseph Beuys, 1989), Saavedra is one of those creators who in the 1980s transformed works of art into incisive and honest reflections on everyday Cuban reality.

In the 1980s, the visual arts assumed the function of a public space for social debate. Until then, the methodologies of art production taught in the academies had forced students to “rise above” their particular social contexts and adopt the lingua franca of “refined” art. Under teachers at the Superior Institute of Art (ISA) such as Flavio Garciandía, Consuelo Castañeda, Osvaldo Sánchez, and Lupe Álvarez, Saavedra learned the exact opposite process: to make art from his own socio-economic circumstances. His work is distinguished by its analytical nature; self-referential allusions to the creative process; the use of comics, texts, jokes about current events, and everyday objects; parodies of artistic styles and periods; and satire and self-criticism. These characteristics turn Saavedra’s art into a living chronicle of social consciousness, tracing the conflicts of the Cuban intelligentsia during the past twenty years.

Saavedra has frequently appropriated stereotypical representations of historical persons such as Karl Marx, as well as influential popular icons such as Elpidio Valdés (a character in Cuban comics). In El Sagrado Corazón, he reproduces the image of Jesus as it appears in popular prints, adding (with a wink to the viewer) a countercultural “hippie” accent with the full beard and overlong hair. The Cuban flag takes over the flaming heart while the skeletal hands and haggard face of this tropical Jesus reveal the extreme frugality of his life: it is the decade of the “Special Period.”

By applying the linguistic conventions of comics to a religious image, the distance between thought and speech is made clear. As his speech balloon attests, the prophet publicly aligns himself with the Soviet Union and Communism, but he is really thinking about the United States and a market economy. Saavedra treats this modified image of Christ as a literary character, using him to castigate the double morality, dissimulations, and social opportunism of his compatriots. He is not, however, lashing out with false puritanism. Behind the Christ that creates masks for public consumption hides the bleeding face of the artist himself.

References: Mosquera, Gerardo, “La Isla Infinita, Introducción al Nuevo Arte Cubano” (The Limitless Island: An Introduction to the New Cuban Art) in Arte contemporáneo de Cuba: Ironía y sobrevivencia en la Isla Utopía (Cuban Contemporary Art: Irony and Survival in the Island of Utopia), Arizona State University Art Museum, Delano Greenidge Editions, New York, 1999, pp. 31-37.

—Abelardo Mena Chicuri