It is true that many Cuban artists have openly expressed in their works elements that were part of important religious secrets; likewise, ethnography has recorded and described a great number of these details. But what decision should be taken when an artist such as Rubén Rodríguez has integrated Santeria and Ifa elements in a large part of his work, in such a voluntarily discreet way that those links are hardly verifiable? Rubén Rodríguez does not speak much about his works. And much less of the relationships of his works to religious events, objects and symbols.
Not everything exists on the surface, or is what it appears to be. Neither is everything transparent and legible; more so, when dealing with works of art. This is especially true regarding the contents of Afro-Cuban religions, in which discretion, reticence and secrecy have always prevailed. Many people have been naive witnesses of hermetic, only-for-the-initiated, small events; but lacking the necessary information to identify those events, they have considered them as something ordinary, not of great significance. Of course, this is not only the case regarding the Afro-Cuban religions, but also freemasonry, for example.
Those of us who are accustomed to interpreting works of art consider it normal to unravel all that is hidden, difficult or even undecipherable, for the benefit of knowledge and for the enjoyment of less trained spectators. And to a certain extent, that includes explaining religious images and symbols in works of art. But this opinion is not shared by a large number of religious believers, neither, strange as it might seem, by many artists. Apparently, what is hidden, mysterious and enigmatic increases the seductive power of the artworks, and serves as a decoy to lure viewers and stimulate their imaginations. But, in the case of the religions of African origin in Cuba, secrecy has performed very different functions that go beyond protecting the sacred from the indiscreet gaze of non-believers. Secrecy has made it possible for these religions to survive in the scientific and rationalist atmosphere of the modern world, as well as to avoid discrimination, persecution and repression which was part of the colonial, slave regime of old and atheism which has characterized official thought in socialism. Such caution and mistrust with their information prevails up to the present; therefore, we should be respectful when commenting on these matters.
It is true that many Cuban artists have openly expressed in their works elements that were part of important religious secrets; likewise, ethnography has recorded and described a great number of these details. But what decision should be taken when an artist such as Rubén Rodríguez has integrated Santeria and Ifa elements in a large part of his work, in such a voluntarily discreet way that those links are hardly verifiable? Rubén Rodríguez does not speak much about his works. And much less of the relationships of his works to religious events, objects and symbols. He is not interested in making those relationships visible. It suffices for him to know they are there. And, in fact, they have always been there, since the beginning of his career. Many people may not have noticed them, and could therefore not have been aware of their real importance when evaluating and interpreting his work[i].
It could be said that more than the religious aspect, what is hidden, mysterious and secret is what seems to have prevailed in the painting, drawings and prints of Rubén Rodríguez. But that concealment and secrecy originates in religion. Or perhaps those concealments and secrets are an inseparable part of his personality, which is why the mysteries of the Afro-Cuban religions are his excellent travel companions. Rubén has always opted to keep his preferences and religious membership private. It is something that belongs only to him. He does not feel obliged to share his religiosity with other believers, or at least not in the way most do, by participating in religious ceremonies and festivities, but rather in the solitude of his home. To a certain extent, the practice of the religion of the orishas in Cuba facilitates such privacy, since the home of every believer is a temple. The believer has his/her consecrated objects within his/her reach. And except in some cases, he/she doesn't have to attend any temple or church to pray and to make petitions, sacrifices and offerings.
Rubén Rodríguez’s art is seldom interpreted from the perspective of the Afro-Cuban religious traditions. For many, he may even seem an outsider in this exhibition. Yet I believe that, on the contrary, his work is one of the most interesting examples of the Afro-Cuban religious presence in art, which makes us wonder if many others are also hidden in unsuspected corners, out of our view. The philosophies, myths, colours, numerical symbolisms, sacred stories and varied knowledge that make up the strong tradition of the Afro-Cuban religions have penetrated the subjectivity of all Cubans so deeply that it is very rare for somebody to be unfamiliar with their influence, either in art or daily life. In a metaphoric manner, Rubén Rodríguez uses the inner, not the outer parts of those religious aspects. He does not paint a coconut, but the invisible water inside it. Not the shell and pulp of a fruit, but the seed, flavour or scent of that hypothetical fruit. What truly interests him is not the varied appearance of religious practices, but their religiosity, their mysticism, their secrecy.
In his paintings, drawings and prints, he presents naked bodies, sometimes simple sketches of bodies, without much detail, split, fragmented bodies, whose heads are not generally not visible. Sometimes the head is substituted by a dove, a fish, or a rooster. Arms or legs are enormously lengthened to cover the whole space. Almost all his work is a succession of bodies in different positions, painted with different formal and chromatic solutions.
He uses a body to convey aspects of a simple wild herb, its characteristics or ritual uses, its power to solve certain problems, to strengthen the spirit, to keep away an enemy or the spirit of a dead person, because he knows that such a herb is used to make an osain, an omiero or, in a cleansing ceremony, a despojo, or sarayeye. But the herb is only mentioned in the title. The body acquires the characteristics, the personality of that herb.
He uses sayings from the sacred treaties of Santería and Ifá: “The spider never loosens her web,” “A big fright brings happiness,” “What goes well, ends well,” “You must give before receiving,” but he does not describe those situations by means of a narrative representation. The proverb was in his mind when he made the work; and that is enough. The proverb’s content passes to the canvas, to the cardboard and incorporates itself in the painting or drawing. Or maybe the proverb came to his mind later and was identified after having finished the painting.
He uses the five manners in which a coconut falls after being cast (agbón in Cuba, obi in Nigeria) during a divination process called by some Biagué, to make five paintings in which he conveys in an abstract manner, the positive or negative features of the answers of that uncomplicated oracle: Alafia, Etawa, Eyeife, Okana and Oyekun. He does this by means of formal and chromatic suggestions, increasing or decreasing the intensity of the colour and texture, making the painting lighter or more dramatic according to the situation.
Rubén Rodríguez may be the most hermetic of all the Cuban artists. It is not that he wants to be obscure and impenetrable, but rather that this is natural and unavoidable for him. To be an artist, to express himself through painting or drawing and to openly exhibit his works are his only ways of betraying such secretiveness. This is much more visible in his paintings than in his drawings. His paintings can have a paralyzing, intimidating effect, eliciting in the viewer a sensation of restlessness and fear, mainly due to the use of dark, cloudy colours, while his drawings allow more rest because they present less rarefied, lighter atmospheres, where winding, elegant lines reflect greater sensuality. Thus, they are better accepted.
Sensuality and eroticism have always been the essential ingredients of the works of Rubén Rodríguez. He mixes this in an unusual manner with religious contents, attributing an enigmatic character to the bodies involved in his scenes. Sensuality, religiosity and hermeticism could be the three characteristics that best define him.
[i]I drew attention to these matters in the text of his first exhibition, which fortunately I also organized. Rubén Rodríguez Crypt, Galería Habana, February 1991.