OSWALDO CASTILLO VÁZQUEZ 

(Contramaestre, Santiago de Cuba, 1967)

 

 

 

Of rural origin, Oswaldo Castillo migrated in the early 1990s from the eastern area of Cuba to the capital looking for better living conditions. During those years, those of us who lived in Havana thought that our situation was bad (blackouts, shortage of supplies, transport problems, dilapidated streets), but in the cities and towns of the interior and in the rural areas, things were much worse. The situation of those who lived in the rural areas in the eastern provinces, like the Castillo family, seems to have been untenable. The economic crisis that whipped the country after the withdrawal of the Soviet grants and the collapse of the socialist camp brought to Havana a great migratory wave from all corners of the island, especially from the eastern area of the country. Although the orientales – as they are called generically – were not the most abundant in those internal migrations, they became notorious for their way of speaking, their Indian colouring (a little different from that of the mulattos) and especially their industry, their tenacity to assume any work and adapt to any type of dwelling. This generated a feeling of resentment among many in the capital, as if Havana was not "the capital of all the Cubans" as one slogan affirmed – but the property of Havana’s denizens.

 

Accustomed to working the land with his father since he was a child, to small animal husbandry and to bringing water from distant places to their house, Oswaldo Castillo was nevertheless able to obtain a Degree in Primary Education in 1988. From a young age he taught himself to paint and became a visual arts instructor for the children of his community. He was a tireless reader. Castillo participated in the Naïve Art Festivals of the Mella municipality in Santiago de Cuba and in municipal salons of Contramaestre, where he won prizes. Occasionally his neighbours asked him for small works such as a portrait, a landscape or a vase with flowers to decorate their houses, providing a modest source of income. His departure to the capital, although spurred by economic necessity, was also motivated by the development of his artistic career, since in Havana there are more galleries and cultural institutions than in the rest of the country and better opportunities to exhibit and sell his work.

 

Since his arrival in Havana, Oswaldo Castillo became a luchador (fighter), one who does not give upwhen faced with difficulties. In contrast to other popular or self-taught artists who wait to be discovered and supported by some critic or gallery, this humble artist, of unhurried movements and somewhat melancholic expression, went out with some of his paintings under his arm and began his journey to ask and discover for himself who could help him to improve the quality of his works and place them in any market, regardless of how small and sporadic. Without great illusions but with trust in himself, little by little he made his works known; he made some sales and later managed to obtain a permanent contract with the Fondo Cubano de Bienes Culturales to market his works as an independent artist. Once established, Castillo brought one by one all his relatives from Contramaestre and they built a small property on the periphery of Mariano's residential area, known as Finca Santa Catalina.  Initially, the land was almost uninhabitable, full of boulders and thorny bushes, but they took to subsistence farming and reproduced the same forms of rural life they had enjoyed in their place of origin. They continued being rural in the city, and orientales in Havana.

 

Castillo was invited to participate in an important exhibition of prints, but since he had never made prints, in a few days he learned the rudiments of the technique from Ibrahim Miranda (one of our best printers and a professor) and he not only showed a group of beautiful xylographies and linoleum prints, but became such an enthusiast of printing that some weeks later he built himself a rustic press with waste machinery parts with which he printed many more works. At another time, when there were no buyers for his paintings, I suggested that he make figures carved in wood and then paint them, and in a few days he transformed himself into a wood carver, creating mothers carrying children, farmers with straw hats, multicoloured fish and a few unconventional walking sticks. In these new artistic expressions, he required only perseverance, tenacity, and used the same language, ambiences and characters that appeared in his paintings.

 

It is curious that despite having resided in Havana for more than ten years, all of Oswaldo Castillo’s work refers to the rural atmosphere of his origin, to its inhabitants, customs, work, landscapes, animals and humble dwellings. His paintings continue being gentle, idyllic, presenting a calm image of contemporary rural life of Cuba, and only occasionally reflecting some dramatic event from his own life (for example an accident while riding a horse at night that almost killed him and left him deaf in one ear).

 

Portraying the city, its buildings, squares or inhabitants has not been important to him. His paintings have also avoided reflecting the suffering that his new life in the capital has caused him and his family, especially events related to the government's measures to control migration and avoid the establishment of improvised and therefore illegal housing. All those institutional measures prompted in a large portion of the capital’s population a new form of prejudice and discrimination against the orientales (whom they started to call "Palestinians"), many of whom were returned to their places of origin or besieged in the streets by the police for not having the documents required to live in Havana. This recent form of discrimination (not only racial, —but also ethnic, cultural and linguistic) was added to those well-known against the black and mulatto population.  Oswaldo Castillo’s painting has always avoided those unpleasant topics and he has placed his bets on those who are more accepting and at the same time able provide him with an income. This may be a way of adapting to his new and unstable conditions or a resistance strategy vis-à-vis those discriminatory mechanisms, in this case not only deployed by the white privileged sector but, unfortunately, also by the black and mulatto sectors of the capital.

 

Instead of hate and resentment, Castillo prefers to return to Havana many things that the city and its art have started to lose and forget: the simplicity and sincerity of the language, the kindness, sweetness and beauty of the natural ambiences, the colour of the skies, the transparency of the rivers, the playful grace of the dogs, the flight of the birds, although he has also expressed in his work many of the current difficulties and vicissitudes faced by farmers, such as water shortages and humble housing. His oeuvre also reflects the racial composition of rural families from the eastern area of the country, where the population of African descent has generally been numerous.

 

Beginning of the text