At first, one might find the work of Elio Rodríguez shocking or unusual, especially those who have taken the premises of negritude or blackconsciousness too seriously. Or those who apply an introspective approach related to the traumatic psychological experiences that the famous psychoanalyst from Martinique, Frantz Fanon, explored in his writings. In fact there is no painful exploration of his existential condition as a black man in the works of Elio Rodríguez. There is no trauma. No black lament. Neither can we find any thirst for vengeance. No revanchism.
At first, one might find the work of Elio Rodríguez shocking or unusual, especially those who have taken the premises of negritude or blackconsciousness too seriously. Or those who apply an introspective approach related to the traumatic psychological experiences that the famous psychoanalyst from Martinique, Frantz Fanon, explored in his writings. In fact there is no painful exploration of his existential condition as a black man in the works of Elio Rodríguez. There is no trauma. No black lament. Neither can we find any thirst for vengeance. No revanchism. Quite the opposite. It seems that being black – in Cuba, in Spain, in any place – was a reason for joy, amusement, celebration, in spite of the daily lashings of racial prejudice and discrimination which he has inevitably faced. The boastful exhibitionism of his black condition has always had in Elio Rodríguez (or in his alter ego, the Macho) a sense of self-assertion, optimism and racial pride, a festive or carnival tone that is intentionally farcical, like a self-caricature. Yet those expressions are never exactly what they seem to be, but carry large doses of sarcasm and irony. In general, there is no irony without the existence of a previous upset, a feeling of discontent or annoyance, and without a concrete target at which to point the cannons. The work of Elio Rodríguez became from an early stage, a vigorous and original paradigm within the small Cuban artistic vanguard that began to investigate and denounce racial problems during the 1990s.
But his works do not have an intellectual or theoretical origin from reading the main activists of negritude or black identity (Aime Cesaire, Rene Depestre, Frantz Fanon, Malcom X and Reverend Martin Luther King). His main source has been his personal experience as a black man in our society, in countries visited and in Spain where he resides at present. Elio Rodríguez has always had the strategic support of his direct knowledge of popular Cuban culture in which he was born and bred. There he found instruments that were sharpened and ready to tackle conflicting situations as well as to satisfy his artistic purposes. These instruments are humour, double meaning and mockery that the artist finds in the lyrics of popular songs, in jokes and conversations, where sexual, racial and political ingredients are mixed with the same guile that he uses in his works. Only the handling of such instruments by the artist turns our laughter –irresponsible, prejudiced – into a reason for reflection and self-questioning.
Elio Rodríguez did not start his career as an anti-racist militant. And his work cannot be reduced to a critical comment on racial problems. Art curators and critics often manipulate the work of the artists in such a way as to build from the outside, amplifying some aspects and playing down the importance of others. I remember his first works well, since I was fortunate to be the tutor of his thesis at the Higher Institute of Art (ISA) in 1989, and they revealed a search for his own language and a topic with which he could fully identify. Maybe that is why the title of his thesis and his first solo show was a humorous question: Mammy, what does the black want? which was the refrain of a popular song at the time.
In the beginning, Elio created capricious monsters from fragments of different animals (bats, rhinos, giraffes) that he shaped by means of the soft sculpture technique, and later he did something similar with tropical fruit. In both cases, he emphasised sex, representing sexuality in its more direct and uninhibited sense (with a great profusion of male and female sexual organs).
Although Elio Rodríguez has always made his status as black man evident, his works approach a wide variety of situations and social, cultural and political problems that go beyond racial comments. These include male chauvinism (machismo), which the artist sees in the patriarchal character that still governs our immediate and extended families, sexual or gender relations and the encounters between cultures, where there always seems to be a weaker or "feminine" culture and another stronger or "masculine" one. His work also makes allusions to male chauvinism in domestic political discourse. This last variable was presented splendidly in one of his early works, Con la Guardia en Alto (With our Guard Up), made for his exhibition El Macho in 1991, in which the figure that sustained the shield of the CDRs (Committees for the Defence of the Revolution)[i], instead of wielding the machete as it appears on the original shield, brandished over its head a large male organ, to emphasize a false concept of virility or manliness in a revolution in which women had been important participants. Despite our impassioned disagreement with the managers of the state-owned gallery (Provincial Art Centre of Havana), the provocative heraldry of the CDR suggested by Elio was censored and withdrawn from the exhibition, which at least demonstrated its effectiveness.
Seen from a wider perspective, Elio Rodríguez’s interest has been in dismantling and questioning clichés and stereotypes, whether social, racial, sexual, historical, cultural or political. "Everything should be questioned; I believe development stems from questioning the “truths.” Ordinary Cubans live such complicated lives that they do not have the time to question themselves, or the reality that surrounds them. They do not have references, they only know of El Dorado that the conquistadores have told them about. They have not been trained for this” (interview with Elio)[ii].These questionings have always been made by means of his outlandish inclination to transform everything, even the most dramatic situations into funny or humorous topics, knowing that humour has been a form of resistance for Cubans in the face of countless difficulties confronted throughout history. These ingredients of our national idiosyncrasy have been the subject of his artistic research into specific socio-economic situations, as was the case of the “joint ventures”, (a novelty of Cuban socialism of the 1990s which included foreign capital for the first time) as well as the emergence of the paladares, small family-owned restaurants suddenly authorized by the State, that confused many people, since private property had been disallowed in Cuba since the Revolutionary Offensive of 1968, and even the smallest businesses had been confiscated or nationalized.
The invention of the non-existent Macho Enterprise, under which Elio Rodríguez printed his magnificent series Las Perlas de tu Boca (The Pearls of your Mouth) in 1995 is a reflection of those peculiar circumstances known in Cuba as the Special Period. Elio had fun mocking the Cuban "tropical or exotic character" vis-à-vis the opening to foreign tourism that the State used to counteract the economic deficit generated by the fall of the socialist camp, with an artificial emphasis on the attractive aspects of Cuba’s image which paved the way, among other things, for a new type of prostitution (the jineteras and jineteros), dedicated to the economic exploitation of our national identity with a view to pleasing the tourist's fantasies at all costs.
[i] The CDR (Committees for the Defence of the Revolution), was one of the first mass organizations established by the Revolution with the objective of having a system of vigilance made up by the neighbours of each block to prevent possible sabotage and counter-revolutionary activities. Its functions expanded later.
[ii] Elio Rodríguez. Las culturas inventan su propio cliché. Interview on the exhibit Arte, Sátira…!Subversión, Cinco visiones iberoamericanas, Casa de América, Madrid, Spain, 2007.