|Exhibit of Salvador paintings
inspired by the mysticism of AfroCuban culture, at the Met in NY, 6/21-24.
NY Gallery, 6/00
Salvador back in NY, to paint mural in Philadelphia, 5/00 to 6/00
Interviewed by Pedro Pérez Sarduy, 12/97
Salvador González Escalona
Salvador González is an AfroCuban painter and sculptor well known for his murals around the world. His murals are collective events involving the community they are painted in and represent a transference of AfroCuban culture to a new home (see interview by Pedro Perez Sarduy, 1997).
|1989||"Palo Monte": Mural dedicated to religious culture, Casa de Africa, City Museum|
|1990||First outdoor AfroCuban mural: Callejon de Hamel, Havana|
|1991||"El hijo del sol": a 350 m2 mural on the Caracas
Mural on Rancho Boyeros Ave, with the group Danes Arte por Vida, Havana
|1992||Mural at the Escuela Superior on Isla Floro, Noruega
Mural in hommage to Nieve Fresneda, Casa Comunal del Municipio Plaza, Havana
|1993||"Ancestros": mural in Xochimilco, Mexico
"Metamorfosis": teatro Mella, Havana
"Ceremonia Egun": Architecural College, Cuba
|1994||"Sol de America": at the Queretaro Anthropological
Mural at the Instituto Indigenista Otomi, Mexico
Mural at the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico
"Madre Agua": Copenhagen, Denmark
[more to come!]
|Videoclip Iya Oromi||with Grupo Sintesis, Cuba. Director: Manolo Padron. Prize at the Tan Tan Festival, Italy|
|Mensajero de los Dioses||First documentary on Cuban Santeria, won Caracol prize in the 3rd Festival of New LatinAmerican Cinema, Havana. Directed by Rigoberto Lopez|
|Regla de Ocha o Santeria||Coproduced by Spain and Cuba. Directed by Ramon Chile|
|El Brujo de Hamel||Documentary by VideoCuba|
|Ofrenda a Aggayu Sola||Documentary of the Cuban TV station CHTV. Directed by Salvador Gonzales and Miguel Valdes|
|Videoclip||with Adalberto y su Son, a Cuban salsa group, and Isaac Delgado|
|Salvador, un Hombre de Hamel||Documentary directed by Carlos Leon. Won Caracol prize in Havana.|
|An AfroCuban Mural around the
Cuban popular music is a music of the people and one of its fundamental themes has been the celebration of the geographic environment, rural and urban, as a way of stressing the concept of cubanía...
[The author starts with a description of Cuban music and its relation to the barrios, seat of the renaissance of popular culture, "whose African roots are strong." He describes how groups like NG la Banda sing about the barrios of Havana, where popular traditions are being revived and extended]
It is right in this barrio of Cayo Hueso where you can find Callejón Hamel, very near the University of Havana, which is over 200 years old. Located in a very small space, relatively long, in a sort of cul de sac, Salvador González Escalona has a gallery from where he directs an ambitious project he, as poet of images, started: huge mural paintings on the front and side walls of the buildings. He himself admits it is difficult to imagine what the Callejón de Hamel is for someone who has not visited it.
I had gone to this alley at the end of December, 1997, and my curiosity led me to talk with Salvador a good couple of hours, sitting with some rum on the small patio of his surreal dwelling.
"In reality, the Callejón de Hamel is a heavy load of poetic images and sculpture that you have to live through, as you have lived it in the rumba, in all of the goings on that take place around it. This is, for many, a thing of magic, because it is the result of a conversation with the orishas over a period of many years. It's where you can see landing that white dove of Obbatalá that flies and flies and flies until it finds its place here."
Salvador's magic, as he nears 50 years with his half gray beard, begins to show me the atmosphere of this alley:
"Its walls express in one form or another the feeling of African art, that is the presence of African culture in our country. You will find here pieces of sculpture, overhanging roofs with many colors, poetry, images. A house that could be a temple, or that is a temple for this community. It is Black poetry that is in each house, which is at the same time a temple."
Yes, that's the definition, the Callejón de Hamel is a public temple, open for everyone in the barrio of Cayo Hueso.
After a brief interruption from one of his collaborators who wanted to know the price of one of the canvases in the gallery for a foreign visitor, Salvador gave me some of the history of the place:
"The barrio Cayo Hueso is a barrio of the people, with a great cultural force which has given rise to some magnificent artists. It is so called because in the past many people from Key West, Florida, lived here, mostly tobacco workers who wound up settling here. People in the area started referring to 'the people from Cayo Hueso,' cubanizing the Key West. From that came the 'barrio Cayo Hueso.'"
The barrio, located in the municipio of Centro Havana, close to Vedado and Old Havana, is in the heart of Havana. Three blocks to the north, the sea awaits us.
Salvador continues his evocation: "We find here many of our best musical traditions. In this alley many years ago, in the 40's, a cuban musical movement was born, known as "filin," songs of feeling, with our friend Angelito Díaz and his now deceased father, Tirso Díaz. There were figures such as Elena Burque, the late Moraima Secada, aunt of Jon Secada, Omara Portuondo [featured in Buena Vista Social Club], César Portillo de la Luz, and many others."
A cultural environment project such as Salvador's obviously had to have support in the community's own roots. Up to what point do the inhabitants identify with popular art and culture? Salvador returns to the history.
"Here, the traditional comparsas (carnival street bands) of our barrio are very important. So too all the rumbas formerly played in Trillo Park. This is also a place steeped in popular religion. You can walk down the street and hear a 'toque'. Abakuá plants (for initiations) are found all over. The barrio has its own 'potencia' of the secret Abakuá religion, very important here."
I asked Salvador to give us some specifics on religious practice here.
"I am talking about the religion known as Santería, which comes from the Yorubas; Palo Monte, which comes from the Congo; Abakuá, which has to do with Calabar [the Cross River Delta in Nigeria]; and maybe some manifestations of spiritism, a cultural expression of working class people, the ordinary folks in our country."
All of these Cuban religious manifestations have their ethnic origins, obviously, and came about with the importation of African slaves starting with the beginning of the XVIth century. Their descendant succeeded in preserving them even with the considerable racial mixing that occurred.
"This barrio has a strong contingent of Black people. Of course, we don't have all of the Black people in the city here. Our country is a mixture of African, Spanish, and Asian presences. The barrio looks great, with many colors that shine even more now that there has been some remodeling. In one way or another, this work that we began here in Centro Habana has resulted in the same kind of color and magic that the barrio has to begin with."
In large part, we owe the transformation that Callejón de Hamel has undergone to Salvador's initiative. According to the artist, the alley was nothing compared to what it now is.
"As I told you, in the decades of the 40's and the 50's this musical movement rose up in the house of Tirso Díaz where a group of young people got together who are now stars of Cuban music. But that movement did not grow further there and the Callejón de Hamel stayed in the dust, forgotten in time. It was in 1990 when I set myself the task of beginning to paint these walls. As I painted, I saw how the alley was growing. I saw how interesting things came up, how it was becoming converted bit by bit into a monumental work. And monumental works deserve respect. So I began to revere this respect and people then began to interiorize this."
Evidently, the first reaction of the community was an immediate astonishment. Salvador explained to me why.
"For two reasons. Fist, in my country, there is no place like this, even less with AfroCuban murals." Perhaps the most surprised was the artist himself.
"Not even I knew I was transforming myself into one of the pioneers of the theme -- although great masters such as Wifredo Lam had painted murals, they were painted inside houses. But as to outside murals, maybe fate reserved this little piece for me. And that's how we get this mural on a public street. People's reaction was magical. Many knew the work it took me to find the materials and told me 'Maestro, I have in the house a little bit of red oil paint,' or yellow, or a little printing dye. And so it was that I began to paint with whatever I came across. At that time I still hadn't traveled outside of Cuba. It's for this that I love this work so much, it has achieved such an international recognition, it is known in a lot of places. It is from this work that I travel abroad. I'm not giving thanks because this got me abroad, I give thanks because I have been able to take out our culture, which is AfroCuban culture."
Salvador's work can be found in the Caracas Hilton in Venezuela, in a school in New York, in New Jersey, in Tucson, Arizona, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in Los Angeles, in Norway, in Denmark. His most recent work was four murals in Puerto Rico. One in the school Republic of Peru, in Santurce, and others in Loíza.
"Loíza is a very important Black community in the northwest of the island, where they play rumba. It's like I'm bringing over the rumba of the Callejón de Hamel as a gift to the rumba of Loíza. I painted another mural in San Sebastián street, in a place they call Rumba because there at night you can hear the drums and cajones [wooden boxes used as drums]. The last one I made was in a community called La Perla, a very humble community near Old San Juan. In La Perla, they know a lot about African culture. I experienced these places and for that I wanted to give them a mural with all the love and care of a Cuban artist. It's really great to see how you can re-create your culture in other places and how, from the mural work, you can establish these links around the world."
The relationships the artist Salvador González makes with class and race are not a given, all to the contrary. The great majority of the places he put his murals, as in these communities in the US and Puerto Rico, have a high percentage of working class people and people of African origin who have taken the hits from marginalization, in double measure. In the case of the Cuban capital, Salvador maintains a tight relationship with his environment and its inhabitants. What then is its importance?
"There are artisans and plastic artists who don't know these themes and dare to intrude on them. But they only do that in order to sell. Of course, for foreigners who don't know our culture, who have only heard of Voudu and confuse it with Santeria, when they come to Cuba, they look for the exotic side of this theme. They encounter certain people who sell them images of the orishas (Yoruba dieties) and talk to them of Elegguá, Changó, or Yemayá, without any grounding, that is without any preliminary study before executing the work. I don't want to say that's the case with everyone. The are excellent artists whose work is well grounded. And I add myself to them. I think you have to start with a work whose values are well grounded for our culture to be preserved and our traditions maintained. In this way our image, which has traveled through time, gives faithful proof of our true identity as a people. This is the great importance that Callejón Hamel holds for us, it preserves those values which for many are archaic, primitive, but which nevertheless have their origin in one of the oldest cultures on earth -- the Yoruba culture which in Cuba is lived at the threshold of the third millenium, with a living ritual, with living consecrated drums, with living elements of a strong cultural identity which prevails in our food, in our education, in our manner of speech, in our way of talking, in the way we express ourselves. Here the values of a cultural identity are intrinsic. Taking care of this, preserving this, we attain what our don Fernando Ortíz said: 'every people who denies themselves is thereby in danger of a suicide trance.' The thing is not to deny ourselves, but to fight on."
And Salvador feels himself to be in Cuba, in his own words, "a humble fighter, one soldier more in the AfroCuban or Cuban culture," which for him is pretty much the same.
[this is about 1/2 of the article, which continues with an account of some of the travails of AfroCuban culture and more interesting remarks from Salvador.]
(c) 1998 by Pedro Pérez Sarduy
For rights to publish this article, contact Pedro Pérez Sarduy via acw_AT_afrocubaweb.com [replace _AT_ with @]
In the US: firstname.lastname@example.org
San Lazaro # 955
E/ Aramburu y Hospital
Centro Habana, Cuba
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