Mosaic at Entrance to Historical District


I said it before, art is everywhere.  But art does not equal art.  From Havana to Trinidad (and I expect from here on out) we saw about one art gallery per street in the historical quarters, doubling and tripling up around the central plazas. Artists seem to be in cahoots about what to produce, which has the undesirable effect that the wandering tourist soon is in no mood any more to step into yet another gallery displaying the same stuff:  American oldies in quaint old streets, Che and/or Fidel, colonial architecture, Cuban scenery, surreal beasts and lots of naked ladies, with a few abstracts sprinkled in between, done in shrill, bright primary colors.  Paint by numbers comes to mind.  It takes a good eye and lots of patience to find anything worth your money amidst the abundance of mediocrity and production line.  It is more of a surprise then to stumble across a gallery with unique and distinct art works.  And when you do, you most likely are onto something. 

Camaguey is different.  We had more of the extraordinary and less of the cookie-cutter art here, than elsewhere.  Advertised in every guide book is the local celebrity couple of Joel Jover and Ileana Sanchez.  Their work is in collections the world over and we had the good fortune to meet Joel in his studio.  The studio at the Plaza San Juan de Dios alone is worth a visit.  It is the oldest and most authentically preserved plaza in town.  His studio is housed in one of the 1750’s mansions, and some of his works were outright breathtaking.  He combines historical personalities such as Hamlet and Ulysses with his own central motive, a zick-zack half-face with a twisted tongue sticking out — evoking everything from limits on free speech to gossip.  He uses a variety of techniques and color palettes for various thematic series.  One monochromatic series was about all the places he dreams to visit someday.   

Another, a series of 21 images of the Madonna, is collage-based in blue-greens.  That was my favorite and the most creative series on display.  It is hard to describe art, but he used bottle caps enhancing the glittering effect of an icon and flattened soda cans to frame images of the Madonna.  Each of them is enhanced in 3D by book pages to evoke a palimpsest effect.  It was simply stunning!  Price tag:  $1000.  In the US you would have to add a zero to something as large, complex, beautiful, and creative as that, done by a nationally recognized artist.

Joel was a modest, open, kind man and happy to chat with us.  He showed us around, allowed us to photograph and recommended a stop at his house at the central square in town, also open to the public. 

There is no better location to live or display your work than the Parque de Ignacio Agramonte.  Of all the plazas it is the most stunning and developed one in town, with a central equestrian statue on a marble platform lined with marble benches.  Every visitor will make it here.  Every local lingers here.

The house, likely as old as his studio, was filled top to bottom with antiques and works for sale done by him and his wife.  His wife’s work goes more into the brightly colored, popular, cartoonish direction. We did not buy anything, but I sure wish I had a space in my luggage or in my house for one of those big Madonnas.  Joel told us the story of one American who bought a large piece by him.  He could not check it onto the airplane in Havana.  It had to come all the way back to Camaguey and be shipped via a freighter.  I guess, that added another chunk of $$ to the price tag, but still would be worth it.

Martha Jimenez is another successful artist whose studio is right next to the plaza where her full-size work is displayed:  Plaza del Carmen.  Again, we had the fortune to run into her.  When she realized that Celibeth is an artist and I am an art historian, she happily talked to us in detail about one of her printing techniques that baffled both of us.  She called it colagraphia.  The point was that she created a template from cardboard covered with a specific kind of glue, rather than from the more traditional linoleum or wood.  Instead of using multiple plates for multiple colors, she creates each multi-colored print for an edition from one template.  That ultimately means that each piece is part of an edition, as well as unique.  For better or worse, uniformity just can’t be created with just one plate.  Sorry for the technicalities, but these things are fascinating for the two of us.  🙂

We both appreciated her historic home, the whimsical fountain in her court yard, the creativity and the variety of media.  Her style… I in particular, did not care for it that much.  It was a bit too contrived and a bit too cutesy.  But it worked really well in the life-size sculptures that lined the plaza in front of her house. 

As we continued our stroll through town going plaza hopping, we came across two more studios of note.  Each time, the artist was right there working, and only too happy to chat and to show us around.  These better-to-do artists all had hired English-speaking gallery assistants who were able to explain the work of the artists for us; a great sales technique.  As I know from teaching, you will appreciate what you understand.  And all of these artists had put a great deal of thought into their work, which could easily be missed without some inside information.  One artist used leather and crated life-size figures and objects from layering leather.  The scraps he transformed into jewelry and small hanging objects of great beauty.  The other artist worked in wood.  He stripped old crumbling mansions of their old beams and from those 200 year old cured, hard-wood  pieces, he crated sculptures such as abstracted tea pots, animals, smoking men, and cranking “machines”.  He too, worked in an 18th century studio which he and a friend of his had restored and rescued from crumbling. 

I am sure if we had roamed the streets of Camaguey for a few more days, we would have stumbled across a few more of these unique artists, working in the shadows of 18th century alleys, hidden from the limelight.  But for us it is time to move on. 

And first of all, it is time to sleep.  Good night.

3 comments so far

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  1. What a day – so much to soak in and enjoy and meeting the artists as well.

  2. Martha’s statues are really fun. She must do well to afford all that lost wax processing…maybe in the US.
    Joels’ Adam and God is very interesting. His “message” is clear once you view your picture of it in large format…though Spanish literacy would definitely help.

    • She is extremely popular and definitely super successful. She can afford anything she wants. And there seems to be no shortage of bronze in Cuba judging by all the public sculptures everywhere. Only North Korea has more; much more.