Lights and shadows at the end of the century
The collaborative duo of Fernando Rodríguez and Francisco de la Cal first appeared in 1991, when artist Fernando Rodríguez was in his second year at the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana. The duo has been with us throughout almost all of the nineties - years of dramatic and radical socio-historical events for Cuba and the rest of the world.
Francisco de la Cal is a fictional character, a humble carbonero, or coal maker. Like his creator he is an artist, albeit self-taught. Born in 1933 in the marshy and forgotten region of southwestern Cuba known as the Ciénega de Zapata, de la Cal went blind in 1963, when he was just thirty years old. Because of his blindness, he was unable to continue creating works that, like those made by any other young humble Cuban vindicated by the triumph of the 1959 Revolution, were full of healthy romanticism and euphoric patriotism. By working with de la Cal, Fernando Rodríguez developed a creative method by which his physical and intellectual abilities were placed in terms of another individual who is also an artist, but one with different training, one unable to express himself through the creation of his own artworks, but one sufficiently lucid as to dictate his point of view to his collaborator.
Francisco de la Cal belongs to a generation that lived the vitality of the first years of the Cuban Revolution, ardently convinced in the principles of justice predicated by the new project. Thirty-two years after the revolution, when Fernando Rodríguez first brought him to light, he continues to be a humble man, an integral participant in the revolution, and one of those individuals considered to be the most solid pillars of the Cuban social project.
Though also of peasant origins, Fernando Rodríguez belongs to the generation of artists born in the 70s who were professionally formed at the end of the 80s, 20 years after the revolutionary triumph. As a student, he was influenced by many of the more renowned artists-teachers of the end of the decade who developed the most advanced art education programs in Cuba. Fernando culminated his studies armed with the theoretical arsenal necessary to judge his reality from a reflexive and realistic angle, that is to say, without other commitments in his environment and his history other than those which arise from his own point of view.
From this dual point-of-view of the sighted/blind, Fernando and Francisco comment on the most significant events of Cuba in the 90s. This is done obliquely, tangentially, with a line of sight that is at once intelligent, ironic, profoundly mordant and suspiciously optimistic.
Fernando and Francisco, functioning as both participants and external referees, have left a group of important pieces to cover the years 1995 to 1997: PaCuba, 1995; La poda necesaria, 1996; Campesino orgulloso, 1997, are chapters in an oeuvre that, when viewed as a group, seem like the structure of a literary plot whose protagonist is Francisco de la Cal, and which guide us, step by step, to ever deeper ethical and aesthetic reflections.
The aforementioned works, which were conceived as installations, possessed a certain narrative character. They commented on very concrete circumstances of the social and economic Cuban life and they reflected many of the crucial conflicts at the time: exodus, economic injuries, a necessity of a renovation of all of the social structure, fake moral principles, ideological disorder, what is known as the end of utopia.
Fernando Rodríguez and Francisco de la Cals reflections followed this path until 1998, when they reached a point of personal maturity. Since then, the work has begun to transcend historical fact; that is to say, the work has taken on a meaning beyond that predicated by a specific locale and moment in time. Does this mean that Francisco de la Cal is becoming a conceptualist? The answer is simple: his point of view was always conceptual; only now his concerns are much more generalized and synthetic - characteristics that prove the development of his abstract thinking.
De una experiencia colectiva (From a Collective Experience) is the title of the most recent works by Fernando Rodríguez and Francisco de la Cal. The works began to appear in the mid-1998. The basic idea of the series, which could be defined as both sides of the coin of a collective society, was gradually structured into a group of drawing-projects and installations. The process occurred slowly and naturally, following an artistic process that unintentionally reproduced the formation process of a social structure. The first drawings of the series used as a basis typically Cuban objects, acts, customs, and domestic atmospheres. Using this quotidian and domestic imagery as a springboard, the artists arrived at a complex universal reflection.
One piece that belongs to this first group is the drawing Café Colectivo: The drawing depicts the industrial design for a new mass-produced object proposed by Francisco de la Cal a chain of coffee cups united by their handles. When put to use, the new product would obligate coffee drinkers to convert the singularly personal act of drinking coffee into a massive caricatured collective performance. Another work in the series, Ajiaco colectivo takes its reference point from a meal which is traditional in many countries, including Cuba, where family and friends share a soup or stew which has been collectively prepared. Francisco de la Cal proposes an installation in which each one of the utensils utilized in the preparation of this popular supper are joined by metal chains to the large common stew pot. The ajiaco supper, a social event of a collective nature, whose celebration is always associated with festive occasions, becomes a frustrated act, dramatically manipulated, physically hampered.
Many other drawings and installations from this series (Economía del espacio, La joya, Blanco y negro, La jaba colectiva), allude to new objects which are designed with the purpose of finding more functional solutions in service of community life. However, each new object combines a legitimate aspiration for social solidarity with an innate physical impossibility. Object dysfunction serves as a tangible metaphor for social dysfunction.
Other works from this series take us to similar conclusions, but do so from an opposite end of the spectrum. If the first ones speak about man from through the means of objects, the second ones transform man himself into the object. Thus the reflection becomes even more pathetic and complex. I refer here to installations and drawings like: Encadenados, Trenzados, El bloque, Los vecinos de Francisco. In these works Francisco de la Cals own body becomes the protagonist. He is repeated as a multiple ad infinitum, losing all individuality, becoming collective, mass, people, in short - a social abstraction.
Los vecinos de Francisco is perhaps the most eloquent and complex installation of the series. In it, the architectural profile of a city is laid out. The locale is undoubtedly Havana, mainly that urban segment known as Centro Habana, which is where the artist lives, and which is known for its eclectic buildings of the first half of the twentieth century. This very populous city is made up of more than 400 small booklets known in Cuba as libretas de abastecimiento , and which specifies the annual allotment of foodstuffs that an individual household may purchase at official markets. A miniscule
2 x 2 cm portrait, drawn in the naïve style of Francisco de la Cal has been put in the designated place of the photograph of the head of the family. These mini photos-paintings are the minimum space of identity, reduced to a piece of cardboard, enough by itself to represent a whole community. Man-family-home-city, are the symbols of a social pyramid contained in 400 small rectangles of meaning. Both formally and conceptually, this work could be classified as a perfect monument to the paradox of collectivism.
In these drawings-projects and installations charged with fiction, humor, and irony we begin to discover some of the codes that allow one to understand the structure and principles of a society which is erected on a foundation of community life. The earlier narrative commentary of Fernando and Francisco that concerned itself with temporary political, ideological and economical acts is left behind. The present reflection of these artists is sustained by the universal conflict that represents our condition as human beings that are both individual and one link in a chain of multiples. It is a conflict that will never be resolved through legal decrees, power structures, or even our own well-meant pledges of altruism.
De una experiencia colectiva summarizes the crisis of collectivism to the extreme. The works express the antagonism between the individual and society in a normative community. Yet, at the same time, the profound humanism and universality in these works serves as a call to meditate on the quality of human life at the end of the twentieth century. The works leave us with the bitter aftertaste of doubt; or perhaps a sense nostalgia for those romantic human values which seem to be inexorably vanishing with the end of the millennium.
Havana, March 1999
Translated by Rosa Lowinger
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