The life of artist Bernardo Sarría has not been easy. Quite the opposite. To be black and poor (and there is no milder way of saying it) have not been good ingredients to provide for his well-being up to now. In fact, this is a fatal equation, avoided in Cuba, whenever anyone tries to explain objectively and without euphemisms the current unfavourable economic situation of many Cuban men and women from this sector of our society.
The life of artist Bernardo Sarría has not been easy. Quite the opposite. To be black and poor (and there is no milder way of saying it) have not been good ingredients to provide for his well-being up to now. In fact, this is a fatal equation, avoided in Cuba, whenever anyone tries to explain objectively and without euphemisms the current unfavourable economic situation of many Cuban men and women from this sector of our society. The general needs and shortages of our people are even harsher for the black and mulatto population of Cuba and this is not a coincidence. According to official thought, such a correlation would be unacceptable given the equal rights and opportunities that were granted to all Cubans – without racial distinction – by the Revolution of 1959. But the truth is that being black and poor are still closely related and this is not only reflected in the general trend of low incomes, poorly qualified professions and occupations, or in lower quality dwellings and slums, but in many other psychological, educational, cultural and household factors that a few Cuban specialists have recently begun to analyze. “Cumulative disadvantages” have dragged on since slavery and the neo-colonial period, and have not yet been overcome, and include as an important component the scourge of racial discrimination. The racial dimension of poverty and its speedy reproduction under the current crisis (which began for us at the beginning of the 1990s) are a complex reality demanding a more detailed analysis in Cuba.[i]
To reduce the impact of such painful situations, Bernardo Sarría has used two basic resources: his extraordinary artistic creativity and his confidence in the support of the orishas and egguns. Initiated in Santería (he is a "son" of the powerful orisha Aggayú) Bernardo trusts that "Dios aprieta, pero no ahoga" (literal in Spanish “God has a strong grasp, but he doesn’t choke you”), although many times he has felt asphyxiated by his low wages, wretched living conditions and the lack of interest that the official institutions have paid to his art. The basis of such indifference is not his status as self-taught artist, but rather the unusual character of his works. From the point of view of materials, language, style and subject matter, his works do not fit easily with the average taste, and are different (sometimes radically) from the works of more conventional or picturesque Cuban popular artists that the State generally promotes in its galleries and sells to foreign tourists.
Yet Bernardo’s art, his religious faith and optimism have allowed him to withstand these difficulties. Entrenched in his root vegetable stall, property of a state company, Bernardo does not give up so easily. His work place – which has changed its location over time – has always become his own workshop and a space for the permanent exhibition of his varied creations. These include not only drawings and paintings on canvas and cardboard, but small sculptures or ensembles made with bottles or using old acetate disks, conveniently painted, melted and bent, to which he adds toys, necklace beads, buttons, commercial labels, shoes, eyeglasses, lighters and any item in disuse that he finds appropriate. His aesthetics find parallels in some artists from the south of the United States and Africa but, in Cuba, he is an exceptional case. His turbulent creativity has gradually expanded to the facade of his place of work, which Bernardo generally fills with graffiti and a wide array of social and political or antiracist messages, and extends into the street, where, during important occasions (especially the Havana Biennial), he builds exuberant installations with stone, iron, cloth, fruit, tubers and an infinity of waste materials. The local police have tried unsuccessfully to evict such works in the belief that they affect public decorum or may be seen as witchcraft offerings, but the neighbours enjoy and respect these creations of "The Sorcerer" as, half jokingly, they have baptized him. A sort of defiant and provocative attitude or public claim of his rights as an artist and as a citizen has gradually permeated his natural tolerance or simple resistance. Moreover, this self-employed exhibition has never had the objective of promoting the sale of his works, but rather the more modest aim of sharing his ideas, opinions and experiences as an artist, since the regular visitors to his vegetable stall are not potential buyers or art collectors, but humble buyers of potatoes, sweet potatoes and pumpkins.
On very few occasions Bernardo's works have been shown to the art public; the first time in 1996, in an independent gallery called Espacio Aglutinador in the house of two vanguard artists, which was the centre of the most advanced (or daring) art that Havana has had[ii]. Since I was lucky enough to discover him, and to have been collaborating in such an unofficial space, it was my pleasure to introduce him there. I also wrote about his work[iii], drawing attention to Bernardo’s ethical and political decision to show his art at his work place, as an artist who had been excluded from the Havana Biennial in a report commissioned by Art Nexus magazine in 2001[iv]. I suggested his inclusion in the group of artists presented in the only existing publication on Cuban popular painting in 2004[v]. Unfortunately, none of this seems to have done much good, except to assuage his occasional despair somewhat or to sporadically feed his illusion, his optimism.
Bernardo has always been interested in the social, political and racial life of Cubans, the massive illegal migrations to the United States in which hundred of Cubans have died, HIV, prostitution and racism against blacks. He mixes historical references with anecdotes from his life, sometimes using a humorous tone, other times dramatic overtones or shocking, grotesque images, at times sexual, filled with double meaning and many times focused on the Afro-Cuban religious world. These variants generally appear mixed in the same work, establishing complex connections that are difficult to decipher and about which the artist himself is usually reluctant to give many explanations or provide clues. He prefers the viewers to unwind his reels on their own.
[i] María del Carmen Zabala Arguelles. “Análisis de la dimensión racial en los procesos de reproducción de la pobreza”, 2008. http://bibliotecavirtual.clacso.org.ar/ar/libros/clacso/crop/zabala/20zaba.pdf
[ii] Espacio Aglutinador. Publication financed by the Prince Claus Foundation, the Spanish International Cooperation Agency and the Spanish Embassy in Cuba, Havana, 2005.
[iii] Orlando Hernández. “Bernardo Sarría: el rey de las papas”, catálogo exposición Espacio Aglutinador, Havana, 1996.
[iv] Orlando Hernández. Carta de La Habana. Desde el jardín. Art Nexus, no. 40, April-June 2001, pp. 72-75.
[v] Gerald Mouial. Arte mágico de Cuba. 51 pintores cubanos, Editorial Arte Cubano, Havana, 2004.