Some of the most important contemporary Cuban artists have been living abroad for a long time, with the result that their new works are not shown in Cuban galleries and museums. Such estrangement makes it difficult to follow the evolution of their work closely. It also prevents their work from exerting an influence on or inspiring new generations of Cuban artists and from being enjoyed by local audiences. One of the most critical cases, next to that of José Bedia, is Ricardo Rodríguez Brey
Some of the most important contemporary Cuban artists have been living abroad for a long time, with the result that their new works are not shown in Cuban galleries and museums. Such estrangement makes it difficult to follow the evolution of their work closely. It also prevents their work from exerting an influence on or inspiring new generations of Cuban artists and from being enjoyed by local audiences. One of the most critical cases, next to that of José Bedia, is Ricardo Rodríguez Brey[i] who, having been one of the most outstanding artists of the vanguard of the early 1980s with the famous exhibition Volumen I, has become invisible in our artistic milieu since 1991 when he relocated to the city of Ghent, in Belgium.
The massive emigration of Cuban artists began in the early years of the Revolution, largely in response to the enforcement in 1961 of a new cultural policy, which was governed by the statement "inside the Revolution, everything, against the Revolution, no rights"[ii], considered by many artists as an unacceptable limitation of their creative freedom. The migration of artists and intellectuals reached a height at the beginning of the 1990s, mainly due to an increase in economic difficulties affecting the population in general, and prompting even the younger generations to follow that course, although some travel to the island regularly and exhibit and market their works in our galleries.
For some enthusiasts of global culture, this situation seems unavoidable and normal, since it has always existed (as demonstrated by the pioneer cases of Wifredo Lam or Agustín Cárdenas), but there is no doubt that something stops happening within the cultural scene of a country when its most talented artists stop being present, either personally or through their works. Perhaps this situation has represented an advantage for these artists, many of whom have been able to develop their work under better material and market conditions, with more galleries to exhibit their works. Some are today internationally renowned artists, but this is a disadvantage from the perspective of the society and culture that has been abandoned. This is even more unfortunate in the case of artists whose works were dedicated, in a profound and intelligent way, to explore issues related to problems in their society of origin or with the artistic enquiry of local traditions, as is the case with the religions of African origin in Cuba. since with the interruption of their research, many new artistic discourses aimed in the same direction then begin again, leaving the new generations of artists unable to consult their predecessors and learn from the mistakes they already made.
Ricardo Rodríguez Brey in fact began his artistic career relatively far from the Afro-Cuban traditions, although his ancestors were of Nigerian origin and close to Yoruba religious traditions. His beginnings had to do, strangely, with the visions of American flora and fauna by the famous German scientist of the 18th century, Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), who is considered in Cuba the "second discoverer" after Christopher Columbus, and who Rodríguez Brey assumed as a mythological more than historical figure[iii] to establish his discourse on Cuban and American identity, placing himself in a Western rationalistic, taxonomic orclassificatory perspective. His drawings of the mid-1980s, grouped in an extensive series called "La estructura de los mitos" (The structure of myths), seems to be a transcription of the travel journals of this European scientist, full of hand-written annotations and illustrations of animals and plants nativeto Cuba and Latin America - sheets of paper with time-worn edges or small orifices or traces made by the imaginary attack of implacable tropical insects. This series, as well as his previous one from 1980, titled El origen de las especies (The origin of species) which he also dedicated to the famous British biologist and naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882), were for a long time Rodríguez Brey’s most distinctive work. They works were conceived as conceptual art, in which the use of drawing, writing and collage with stencil prints granted the works an aspect similar to that of a document, with a poetic and even romantic touch removing all possible coldness.
But in none of these series was there anything related to the Afro-Cuban traditions, which would begin to appear later, especially after his show titled Sobre la tierra (On earth), held in 1987. It is in the works exhibited in this show and later ones that Brey began to explore the topic of Afro-Cuban religions, although always in a reflective, contained, synthetic way, perhaps fearing too narrative or picturesque representations. I remember an image representing an iron stew pot dedicated to Oggún, and the concise drawing of a stone that could have represented the material foundation on which the orishas settle, reproduced in a coarse cardboard catalogue (with no reference to date or place) with an introductory text by art critic Gerardo Mosquera, from which I extract some fragments:
Only lately are we seeing artists whose work responds not so much to the forms, the magic, the ceremonial, the fables and the myths of African origin as to the general ideas that sustain them, ideas of universal projection. Thus, in Elso, Bedia and other young people the interest is more toward the abstractions and the essences that determine the sense of all their work... Brey is joining this line now, with extreme refinement. Many will not notice that these drawings of such "western" and objective figuration, carried out with an oriental delight, interpret the contents of the Cuban Santería. And this is because the artist works out the philosophical base, we would say, of the interpretation of the world there present, opening it to the similarities with the thinking of other cultures. Therefore, his procedure is more conceptual than morphological.” [iv]
Later, Brey began to not only produce his habitual sober drawings on paper and Bristol board, but more intense works, more colourful, with sgraffito on the acrylic painting that he applied through gestures, recalling the painting of aborigines with which he came into contact on a trip that he made to Australia in those years. That was also the moment when he began his first large sculptures and installations, in which he says he began to work with fear of too close references to artists of his generation, such as Juan Francisco Elso and José Bedia, who had already made incursions into such expressions. Without abandoning drawing and works on paper, the sculptures and installations ended up being Brey’s predominant form of expression while in Europe, where the visible references to the Afro-Cuban tradition seem to have disappeared almost totally. It could be said that Brey’s interest in reflecting aspects of the Afro-Cuban religions only lasted a few years and may not return. Not only because of the social and cultural atmosphere of his place of residence at the moment (although we should not disregard the fact that Belgium - as Brey reminds me - was the colonial power of Congo), but because of an internal evolution, his work is becoming more and more cosmopolitan or universal. His aesthetic research has led him to take advantage of the ambiguity or the intrinsic meanings that the images, objects and materials are capable of generating and to distance himself more and more from cultural references. Whatever there is of Africa or Afrocuba in his current works will not be on the surface or will require intellectual effort by the spectators, or comments that the artist may decide to disclose. As he writes, "An Elegguá is something you have, it is not shown" [v].
[i] See his web site www.ricardobrey.com
[ii] Fidel Castro. “Palabras a los intelectuales”. Assembly hall of the Jose Marti National Library, Havana, Cuba, June 1961.
[iii] Benjamin Buchloh. Interview with Ricardo Rodríguez Brey. New art from Cuba. Catalogue of exhibition in Amelia Wallace Gallery, SUNY/College at Old Westbury, US, 1985. p.16
[iv] Gerardo Mosquera. Catalogue of the exhibit “Sobre la tierra”, Wifredo Lam Centre, Havana, Cuba, 1987. Also see “África dentro de la plástica caribeña”, Plástica del Caribe, Papers of the II Internacional Conference of the II Havana Biennial, Editorial Letras Cubanas, Havana, 1989, pp.137-164.
[v] Personal letter from Ricardo R. Brey to the author, January 24, 2010.