Cannibal/Carnival: Cuban Art at Breese Little


For my roves and roams column this week I got back in touch with my love and curiosity for Latin American Art. There is humour and solemnity in almost everything Cuban curator, Orlando Hernández, had to say about the exhibition he curated with London’s Breese Little gallery. Read the interview to delve a little deeper into Cuba’s social history, and the bright eye-catching work of artists Elio Rodríguez and Douglas Pérez Castro:


‘After all, once we arrive at a certain point, concepts are as useful as a rotten banana skin. It is then that we should dispose of the skin, so we can savour the fruit, that is to say, the work of art, little by little, which ultimately is what really interests us.’ ‘The Cannibal/Carnival of Elio Rodríguez and Douglas Pérez Castro’ Orlando Hernández, 2012

It’s easy to force exoticism upon Latin American art, to talk about the tropical colours, or the hot sticky influences of Latin temperatures. However in the case of Breese Little’s Cannibal/Carnival, guest curated by Orlando Hernández, Cuban curator, critic and author, it’s not inappropriate to draw on the bright cultural contrasts.

By making himself lead character of his posters Elio Rodríguez is deliberately teasing us with the exotic; in ‘Gone with The Macho’ a voluptuous blonde played by ‘any tourist’ swoons in the arms of Elio the black hero, all to the suggested soundtrack of La Lupe. This is Gone With the Wind gone tropical. Douglas Pérez Castro’s carnival of influences and interests is similarly provocative in its estrangement of the familiar. In Competitive Market (2011) Cuban soldiers seem to throw up shadows of the Big Bad Wolf. Douglas’ paintings are colonized by foreign symbols and signifiers which come from his own, varied interests.

It is this spirit of colour and play and sharp critique, suggestively captured in the title, which makes the exhibition uniquely captivating in the London landscape. I spoke with Orlando Hernández in an attempt to get beneath the banana skin of the exhibition, to savour its fruit.

There seems to have been greater interest in Latin American art over the past few years, why do you think this is?

It is quite difficult to know the true reason behind this situation. In some cases the Latin-American art (and Cuban art in particular) could be seen as a fresh art investment, and in terms of aesthetic values, as a new and original way to think and represent the same old human affairs as always. People say postmodernist ideology ignores the idea of originality but, as you know, it is a lie. Every artist wants to be original, unique, and to seduce all the audiences they possibly can with their work. Not simply to be famous or well recognized but to sell their works for a good price, of course. We can’t underestimate the economic side of the question, which is a strong motivation in driving any change regarding art.  Remember what happened with Chinese art some years ago. In the end, only the best art, and the best artists survive and go beyond the momentary attraction.  

Can you explain why you chose the artists, Douglas and Elio, for this particular exhibition?

Douglas and Elio are two artists interested in making intelligent and witty commentaries on the complex history of our society, our culture, and in discussing socio-political and racial issues. For me all this is very important. Art must say something to people, and not simply appear as beautiful or mysterious or shocking objects, which neither keep the viewer amused nor function as a part of the interior decoration.  I think the work of Douglas and Elio says a lot of things.

What drew you to the themes of cannibalism and carnivalism, and in what ways are they interrelated in Elio and Douglas’ work?

Both terms came from different cultural environments, but are not exactly from the ancient real practices of eating human flesh, or dancing in the streets with extravagant disguises!! They are mere conceptual issues. The term “cannibalism” was used metaphorically by the Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade in the 20s to make reference to the necessity of creating an authentic national culture by devouring everything around, not only the native or vernacular cultures (in their case the cultures from all the ethnic groups from the Brazilian Amazonian rain forest and the cultures from Africa brought to America for the slave trade) but also western culture, which had been imposed by the European colonizer. With regard to the term “carnivalism”, it was also used as a metaphor by the Russian theoretician Mijail Bajtin in the 40s to make reference to literary creation as a way of rejecting the norm, the establishment, so, this is a kind of popular discourse of liberation. The spirit of the carnival would be the best way to understand and reflect upon the multiplicity of reality.  I have used also these two terms metaphorically; cannibal and carnival (which attracted me first because they are phonetically very similar) as a way to make clear two of the principal characteristics of Elio and Douglas´s artistic methods. But as I explained in the little essay which accompanies this show, I recognize that the use of these two concepts is not enough, it is only a superficial approach and from here we all have to go deeper still.

Why do you think that carnivalism seems like an appropriate medium for tackling difficult social issues or problems in Cuba?

The spirit of humour, the jokes, the irony, and the festive spirit of the carnival have been used historically by Cubans as the best tools to keep us alive and smiling in spite of difficulties, oppressive situations, the scarcity, the authoritarian ideology, the repression, the censorship, etc.  But I agree that it also has been our worst tool. Actually, perhaps we are the only society in the world which does not have a citizen protest movement, or strikes, etc. It seems like we were living in the best world possible, without any reason to be annoyed or irritated, which is totally absurd and sad.

There seem to be Western art historical references in Elio and Douglas’ work, in what ways do you think some art is universal?

Both artists are very well informed about the history of western art, but they are also informed by and concerned with a great variety of local situations, and know how to use the “universal” to speak about the “local”, and vice versa. In my opinion, art must be local in order to reach the so called universal rank.  But it is only my personal opinion and I am not a philosopher. Even in abstract painting, you can identify when the work of one artist came from France, America, etc. It is inevitable that we belong to a concrete and particular place, to a particular culture; despite this we all belong to the human genre and to Mother Earth.


Cannibal/Carnival will be at Breese Little until the 21st July


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