JULIAN GONAZÁLEZ PÉREZ 

(Regla, Havana, 1949)

 

 

 

The municipality of Regla lies on the eastern shore of the bay of Havana. When it was founded, at the end of the 17th century, it was a small fishing village, populated by dockworkers and humble people dedicated to chores of the sea. Even now, it has a slow and silent pace very different from that of the city of Havana, to which it has always been linked by a picturesque boat service crossing the bay from Luz wharf, in Old Havana. Like Guanabacoa, its adjacent town, Regla has always been an important centre of religious Afro-Cuban activity. The first chapter of the Abakuá Secret Society was established in Regla and the famous Church of the Virgin of Our Lady of Regla, patron saint of the Bay of Havana, is located there. Besides its Catholic functions, this church is a place of religious pilgrimage linked to the cult of Yemayá (the goddess of the sea for santeros and babalawos), which is also worshipped as Mother Water by paleros and as Okande by the Abakuá. It is customary after attending mass in church on festive days, for the parishioners (many of whom are also practitioners of the religious Afro-Cuban cults), to perform small ceremonies or leave offerings on the seashore to pay homage to Yemayá, owner of the sea and mother of all the orishas.

 

Born in this town, artist Julián González Pérez became a member of these religious groupings from childhood and his artistic life has developed linked to these groups. He has painted murals in the munansos or temple-houses of the paleros, made tattoos for the obonekues or new initiates in the Abakuá society and has sewn the attires of íremes as well as ritual objects for that cult. He also makes canes and small handicrafts to sell to tourists for extra income. His long life as a Tata Nkisi Malongo or priest of Palo Monte Briyumba and as a member of the Abakuá Secret Society has granted him great prestige in these activities, since Julián is a reliable expert in the intricate symbolisms and the formal and material requirements of these objects for their appropriate ritual use. Julián's own sacred objects and the place where they are installed, surrounded by allusive murals painted by him, also have great artistic refinement, and this differentiates him from other priests whose objects and altars are more basic or who are less interested in aesthetic appearance. His facility as a tattoo-artist using traditional techniques, is also well known in popular environments, which some regard contemptuously as marginal. Although for the moment he has stopped making tattoos, he has made hundreds throughout his life and is known as the only pupil of a legendary tattoo artist, a religious man known as "Salaito". Unfortunately, the history of tattoos as an artistic expression in Cuba has only just begun to interest some researchers, although with less emphasis on this popular type of tattoo developed by Julián and his teacher. Julián has painted many works, most of which decorate Afro-Cuban ritual spaces or have been commissioned by collectors, but so far he has not had the opportunity to hold a solo exhibition to allow the general public to appraise his extraordinary artistic worth.  

 

Julián González Pérez has lived all his life and developed his artistic work in this context, so that he is virtually unknown in galleries and museums. There are a few exceptions: several years ago the Municipal Museum of Regla commissioned two large paintings representing Abakuá and Palo Monte, which are on permanent display. Julián has also collaborated with the museum, offering his knowledge to researchers and making replicas of ritual objects to show in its Afro-Cuban rooms. The other exception dates back to 2001, when the world-famous curator Jean Hubert Martin chose him to participate in the Altars of the World exhibition held in the Kunst Palast Museum of Düsseldorf, Germany, where the artist built and consecrated in situ an extraordinary Palo Monte altar.

 

However, being out of touch with the illustrated artistic milieu is not something that seems to trouble Julián, since the buyers of his art do not generally frequent those elitist places. In fact, those that should be worried (or embarrassed) are the Cuban cultural and artistic institutions and their specialists. These continue to exclude and discriminate against many popular creative talents, especially those related to Afro-Cuban ritual art, for not complying with the requirements of the art system, which is still based on western tradition; evidence of their strong colonial, Eurocentric, elitist and racist heritage. 

 

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