It may seem strange, even inappropriate, to include Ruperto Jay Matamoros in a show devoted to contemporary Afro-Cuban art. Perhaps the reason for such a decision is that Matamoros belongs to the Afro-Cuban world, since he was a black artist. However, is it possible to consider Matamoros a contemporary artist? Is this not a chronological or generational, as well as a stylistic transgression? Matamoros began to paint in 1937; he was active as an artist for 70 years and died in 2008 when he was 96 years old.
It may seem strange, even inappropriate, to include Ruperto Jay Matamoros in a show devoted to contemporary Afro-Cuban art. Perhaps the reason for such a decision is that Matamoros belongs to the Afro-Cuban world, since he was a black artist. However, is it possible to consider Matamoros a contemporary artist? Is this not a chronological or generational, as well as a stylistic transgression? Matamoros began to paint in 1937; he was active as an artist for 70 years and died in 2008 when he was 96 years old. He was a self-taught artist, with the exception of some rudimentary knowledge acquired when he attended the Estudio Libre para Pintores y Escultores (Free Studio for Painters and Sculptors), a brief teaching experience organized by avantgarde artists during the third decade of the 20th century. However, Matamoros was never interested in modernizing or updating his artistic language. Like most popular or self-taught artists, he remained faithful throughout his career to his own expressive forms -those that some continue to mistakenly classify as “primitive” or “naive”- and he was attached to his topics, his landscapes, his characters and the personal vision of life which he learned during his rural childhood and while performing a great many trades and occupations.
The truth is that regarding contemporary art, we have a false idea about the supremacy of innovation of language and style, and about the automatic importance attached to it by current information and academic or professional studies about art. Contemporary art seems to have acquired a status related almost exclusively to the employment of new, experimental languages, with the predominance of formal inventiveness, cleverness, wit and artifice which are often dictated by fashion and art market trends[i], As a result, a sizeable portion of artistic production classified as contemporary is conceived by many people as a sophisticated, luxurious and incomprehensible puzzle designed to entertain a minority of initiates. However, I would like to point out that this view of contemporary art excludes and discriminates against any artistic production whose language is considered dated or conventional, and thus leaves out popular or self-taught painting, not to mention other creative productions, full of aesthetic and symbolic values which are simply considered nonartistic. Not even coincidence in time has allowed popular artists to be given such credit, since the term “contemporary” has ceased to operate as a chronological concept, but rather refers to the youngest generations of elite artists closer to mainstream dictates.
Despite these bureaucratic hindrances typical of the art system, we believe that the works of Jay Matamoros are sufficiently abundant in elements of interest on the issues approached by our Afro-Cuban project to consider his contemporaneity, or his up-to-datedness, very seriously. Perhaps this is a subjective decision, but didn’t Arnold Hauser tell us “of any art with which we have an authentic relationship we build modern art”?[ii] By including Matamoros -as well as some other artists in this show- we are attempting to dismantle the false elitist and formalist concept of contemporary art in order to present an approach based more on the social and cultural importance that these works reflect or provoke.
Jay Matamoros was able to cut through a good number of generational barriers graciously, inviting an almost unwavering public interest in his work and the contents of his discourse, convinced that there is no better way of saying things than to say them with simplicity. His artistic originality was never dependent on the juggling of the language, which at times surrounded him. Nevertheless, it is not only his artistic stand that has moved us to include him in our selection.
The work of Jay Matamoros has received praise for its beauty, its country-life grace and the sensuality of its colouring, but the critics have always stopped at the easy frontier of the aesthetic, of appearance, obviating or neglecting its reflexive aspects, his philosophy, the depth of his knowledge of the world. As is the case with other older black popular artists that could have accompanied Matamoros in this Afro-Cuban show, specifically Gilberto de la Nuez (1913-1993) and Elpidio Guerra “Mirito” (1923-1995), our critical response echoes the stereotypical and condescending perception with which we observe the humble people, workers and farmers. We find them amusing, open, witty, but of simple minds, or shallow in contrast to, for example, enlightened artists, intellectuals who practice conceptual or post-conceptual art. However, popular Cuban painting is particularly complex and intelligent. The ornamental and picturesque may be an added value, but it is generally a conscientious, reflexive art, at times wise, deeply interested in history, politics and the social, cultural, racial and religious problems of our country and the world. From this perspective, the work of Jay Matamoros has been scantly celebrated or studied for its true but least apparent value, despite the fact that he was granted the National Prize for Painting in 2000. The two works that we will comment on, among thousands made by his hands, clearly demonstrate Matamoros’s interest in reflecting issues related to our history, our traditions, even when sometimes African and Afro-Cuban issues occupy a hidden, veiled place but are undoubtedly present.