Interview with Cuban artist Rene Francisco, awarded 2010 Visual Arts National Award

La Jiribilla interviewed the artist, just a few hours after the award ceremony.

RF:I began to study at the National School of Art (ENA, in Spanish) between 1977 and 1982. Then, I continued at the Higher Art Institute (ISA) for five years, up to graduating in 1987. When I finished my studies at the ENA, I started to take my career very seriously and to join with a group of friends: it is a very important moment of formation in the life of every young person – I was nearly 20 and that time- because it might be possible that the road I had chosen, began to consolidate, the choice I had done.

Those were the first moments of seriousness and self commitment, which, along the time, were being organized and consolidated, to become a sort of interpersonal relationship with poets and writers who were my friends. It was a very interesting stage -that happened by the mid and end of the 80´s – where we began a generational work. It was a serious moment, a moment of choosing and undertaking a creative work and of taking very seriously the cultural world.

Why did you choose to study painting at the ENA, and engraving at the ISA?

I was very interested and attracted by engraving; that´s the reason why I chose this career. At that time, while a student was on second year, he could choose or changed his studies for another. It was a moment of many opportunities. Engraving facilitated me to study another thing, present other works with other procedures and techniques. In this regard, it was common that all studying at the ISA had the possibility of incorporating to the chairs of painting, to see the critics that were made to Consuelo Castañeda, Flavio Garciandia or Jose Bedia´s groups. The classrooms doors were always opened to us, and we used to shift our disciplines from time to time. I didn´t have to worry whether I was in painting or engraving; I worked in accordance to my ideas, without sticking to a specific technique or procedure. I worked with ideas, and these demanded from me all of my energy, as well as materials, and I moved according to my interests. I attended the chair of painting or that of sculpture, because I felt the need to do something with clay or weld metals. That issue of opening the chairs to the students developed more formally at the ISA.

However, you have been luckier with engraving -to say it in some way- for example, you worked as professor at the Chair of Engraving, and also at the Havana´s Graphics Experimental Workshop.

Engraving is another technique. It doesn´t annoy me; but this is a genre I feel I am losing a lot of time, since its procedures slow a little bit the speed of my thought, my ideas.

Is your work as fast as your thought?

Generally, I work on several projects at the same time, and I try to do them all. At times, it is very complicated, but other times, everything comes out fluently.I have not followed a career as an engraver, I´ve only made some engravings; but what I did at that time were pieces that fulfill what the chair has demanded from me: the fulfillment of the exercises and tasks professors required. I did never go beyond that.

I made some experiments as to engraving, but, in my opinion, I have kept that spirit and I have made a couple of lithographs recently. I feel happy for having returned to that a little bit, but it is not something that attracts me so much. I don´t see it as a minor art, but as an art that may introduce you to some procedures which are not precisely those of engraving; but they come from there, from printing, tracing and reproduction. That type of process interests me more rather than the technique per se.

Nevertheless, engraving is a discipline that, by its features, is a way of expressing as a whole. That is, behind engraving, there´s always an Workshop, a group of persons around your work, and you have distinguished yourself by being surrounded by people…

That is part of the legacy of the Engraving Workshop, where, all the time, it is full of persons working around the artist who is making a piece; we work in team, and there´s always someone suggesting you: why don´t you make this or that to it; why don´t you use this or that chemical substance; or why don´t you do it again.

I´ve always liked that: working with people at the Workshop. As any creator, I need my time of loneliness and I have my periods of total solitude; but I love to work at the Workshop, due to the high level of participation and opinion. I like to develop my work as a state of opinion, as an accumulation of experiences.

The so-called Generation of the 80´s, according to my criterion, was more questioned than understood. You were very close to it. Today, at the edge of 2011, looking back at the 80´s, how do you see that period of the most recent history of the Cuban art?

I´m not usually very nostalgic -as I am by nature, so I try to avoid it- but, there is one thing as regards to the 80´s: generally, you long for a state of creation like the one that took place during those years, which were years of a great collective brightness. It has been even called "The Cuban Renaissance" , and I lived it, I experienced it.

The night I received the Award, I said it was a tragic moment for the Cuban culture, because, by the end of the 80´s, there was a generation misunderstood, censored and separated. In fact, there is a big excision in culture that is produced from the exodus of the artists from my generation. I also left the country: I also left: I lived for one year in Spain, then another one in Mexico and, in 1993, I decided to return definitively.

I feel those are moments you wish could return, because it was a party; you went to the Chaplin movie and found a crowd of intellectuals and artists discussing; we finished watching a film and went to the bars and cafes to continue our discussion. That´s a moment you continue longing for and expect to happen again. After that, we have lived moments of a big apathy, as regards to cultural coexistence, and of distance; many people had gone through a tremendous solitude.The 80´s taught us that things have a sense, and that we had to deal with them with that sense.

Today, art´s task has become more individual, maybe more survival character. People work more alone: many focus more on their businesses and their work, trying to move it forward. We were much pretty interested in discussing and carrying out a project, we criticized ourselves, we made workshops; it was something that had a tremendous fluency.

Of course, it was a creative moment of Cuban culture within the Revolution. We almost were born with the Revolution, and expressed ourselves from therein. Any country or culture needs those founding key moments, moments of focusing in its identity. This doesn´t mean you have to identify yourself with your house, but that your house brings you to an identification level with the world. In that sense, the 80´s were worthwhile for what it happened later on with many artists and, in general with Cuban culture abroad. We lived that moment intensely, which drew the attraction of a group of persons who traveled to Cuba to know about that phenomenon.

You are a pioneer of a new pedagogic link: I am referring to From a Pragmatic Pedagogy (DPP, in Spanish), that, at its time, it was not understood, and was even questioned; there is also your Project The National House, in Obispo 455… How do you remember that time?

I see that time as hallucination. It a professor-student´s state of fraternity, among friends. It happened amid the aftermath of a project at the Castillo de la Fuerza, and I found limited, truncated roads. But the thing was not to be restrained, not leaving Cuba, but try to find out what was happening to me as a censored artist, and what roads my work had to take, so so as to go ahead.

At that time, I was given a book by Jorge Luis Borges, a dictionary, and I remember I read my students the meaning of the word censorship. Censorship is one of the best things that may happen to an artist, because it forces him to invent new metaphors. That was like an equation for me, as there is a moment in Hercules´ crossroads, where he had to choose the roads.

And I chose the road of working according to my own action -rather than continue painting works with critical or political or social subjects. That action developed as something that included my work as a pedagogue, and my work with the students. This attracted me to move towards a more active field, towards a social ground directly linked to life itself, and proved that everything I did, perhaps in a critical way, would become an answer for me.

When you say "that is criticized", you always find mistakes; there are complaints, but never provide the solution. I found the solution and and I did it, at the beginning, for myself as an artist, which resulted in my work as professor.

I should fit time, that time in which you study and then go to school to teach. Then, I asked myself: why must I split time? That´s why I say it was like a hallucination. It happened by the end of December, and the 31st, I shared with those persons living at the family house; that day was total happiness for me.

The works created by an artist are always inspired in a state of vision, clarity or grace. The national house -which set the beginning- was like arriving at a state of grace among students, professors, the neighborhood people and my family. It was a very interesting moment. I did not know what I was undertaking, but I felt that inner fire of repairing people´s homes and taking my students there, to live and share with those family houses. The national house began on January 9 and finished on February 3 1990.

… living with those families and sharing everything with them…?

That´s right. The students had to go to the school and learn Philosophy and other subjects; but it was very critical, since this was carried out in the Engraving chair, and that was a problem. Some wondered how the students would repair the houses to those people, how would they paint virgins, or flowers or peacocks or make poetic corners, do plumbing or scrape roofs…. But, from the pedagogic point of view, it was understood, despite I did not have a program, but a project.

– It was also daring…

As everything in art. Art must always be daring. One of the things that has always troubled me is not to make a passive work, a work for sheer delight. That would probably be a difficulty for another one, but it struck me at that time when I was twentysomething.

After those years, and now that you receive this award, what do you recall about Rene Francisco-Ponjuan´s duet?

We had a tremendous work, a work to which I have devoted years of compiling data, lost images. We have a multimedia, we´ve been recently repairing works, reviewing all that work. I have a ot of papers and I am reviewing each note, each sketch from that time where we worked together. It is a ten-years work, plus everything that preceded it. It was a coexistence and a substantial, very strong friendly relationship.For me, Ponjuan was also like a professor; at least, that´s how I see him. When we met, I was on 1st year and he in 5th. Three or four years later, we started to work together and we learned a lot. I remember that the only studio the ISA had -apart from the classrooms- it was a small room that was difficult to enter, because that was a place where people read books by Borges, Octavio Paz and all kind of Literature, where you have access to those things you don´t usually "read" at school, a hidden Literature that, we wrapped in paper at that time.

That was an interesting time to know about many books. I got close to the work by Borges, thanks to Ponjuan. I remember that, on one of my birthdays -after one or two years of being friends- he gave me three poetry books written by Borges: El borde de Buenos Aires, Cuadernos de San Martín and Luna de enfrente, carefully handwritten by him. It was a very solid gesture of our friendship, and I continue reading those books, I always keep them close to me. I keep that great work from that friendship -for me, one of the most important things I have done in my life- and I there is also the fact of having given away a half of me.

Something very complex in Art is, above all, to work with four hands and two brains.

It was complicated, but we did it. That is the amazing thing about this work, that, some day, will have to be reviewed. It also served me to reproduce those relations; to have students whom I could have a friendship later on, the same devouring time -as Jose Lezama Lima said: Friendship is a devouring thing. That helped me a lot for my Pragmáticas (Pragmatics) and also for what I am doing now: I have 14 students whom I teach every day, 14 problems and 14 equations I have to face. Without any doubt, my relation with Ponjuán trained me.

I have the impression that you´re an artist who needs to be surrounded by people, something that, many times, other artists avoid, since they prefer the intimate and solitary dialogue with their works.

It is not exactly like this. There is a period in the year I need to move away: how would you assimilate a group of experiences, if you´re not able to get away and dose, compile and settle down all that information? I think that is also a necessary exercise of solitude; but I am also interested in the group as way of being.My house is always opened, there´s always food to share with that one who comes to it, since I was also raised that way. I would never impose this to my students; I would neither get him involved into an educational program that would read: "people should be collective". No. I simply let people join the project, I ask and observe, and everything matches in a natural way.

– There are no recipes…

There are none neither I would like to be made. The worst it may happen is that I could influence a generation in this regard. What I have tried to do as a teacher is that students be themselves, not me.

In an excellent interview by Antonio Eligio, Tonel, published in La Gaceta de Cuba, you affirmed: "art meets life; dilutes in it, may transform it, it is something I have always believe in ".

The times we´re living in, it is difficult to believe in it, it is rather a sum of frustrations of those social, massive and collective projects have rather been an accumulation of frustrations. One of the projects undertaken during the 90´s was La región de Ismael (Ismael´s region), which consisted in providing instruments to a person who has never painted, helping him and living some time with him until he turned into painter. He had it inside him, he only needed the tool, the art and the artist willing to have that kind of experience that moved him to that world, that recovered it. Besides, he was a forty-something person, who had always been devoted to music; it was an act which proved me that Art is transforming.

Then, there are the construction-destruction transformations, which are transformations of another kind. I don´t mean by this that Art transforms for the good, sometimes it does it for the bad; but when Art may transform life, it doesn´t mean that it sweetens it, it improves it. I think that Art modifies things at destructive levels and creates other phenomena. In that sense, we should go deep into it.

Pedagogy has been a test: education is a form of salvation. Salvation because you offer a space, a experience, your status, your incomes, and a state coexistence is created that the one who needs it -which is sometimes oneself- is saved.

– At some point, have you seen yourself away from teaching?

Yes, I´ve been, even one year in which I´ve been fully devoted to my object-type personal work -painting, sculpture, installations, drawings-, to my economic career. Economy is one of the issues that break down in the contemporary world, and I´ve tried not to distance myself from that, that is to say, to see how the young generations move in that direction, and I´ve tried to set myself in tune. Sometimes I´ve had to do without a social commitment, because I´ve needed to prove I can work like a normal creator who produces objects and gets into a a chain of exhibitions, promotions, samples, galleries.

– What about sales?

Even that, although that doesn´t worry me. This comes to any artist along the time, when his works reach a value that, at some time, is given and it is reverted. I am not thinking on market in the sense that "I have to paint to sell". I don´t waste my time on this, because, for me, Art means much more than this as a way of knowledge, expression and message.

However, there is the world of economy that influences upon Art and the artist´s thought, and we can not get away from that. We have to understand it, and the best way is to participate. I have been to galleries, have done some exhibitions for sailing, I do my everyday communicative work linked to clients who follow my work; I am trying to see it as a phenomenon, and I also talk to my students about this issue. Sailing is present in the contemporary world, but I reject the idea that we have to enter into a process to see how we sale or make a work for sailing.

– At the very beginning, you talked about "seriousness and commitment". You have just been granted the 2010 Visual Arts National Award and you are the first artist born after 1959 who receives it…

And I am also the first artist of the 80´s who obtained this award. It is very important; but I´ve never worked to receive an award and, matter-of-fact, and sometimes I feel very uncomfortable being the center, with cameras and lights all over me. My temperament is very changeable, makes me feel weird, shy. I don´t have stage fright, but, at that moment, I realized I am not ready for that.

I´m very interested in Marcel Duchamp´s definition to consider the artist as a sniper or a clandestine person. I have worked within that underground. Pedagogy is a sort of underground, in the sense that you work in slow grounds, and the results are only perceived after ten years, when the students become famous and keep on being your friends, they start to travel with you… we share our lives here and there, we meet at airports or at art exhibitions 15 years later. You feel the gratitude for having worked in silence; this makes public later on and you see the impact of each of the actions.

The award may mean joy for me as regards to the ideas for which I have worked for – I´ve always been a critical artist, sometimes, I have been controversial, have defended and transmitted to the new generations the spirit of the 80´s, I´ve always been an artist concerned by spiritual and social issues, which I have reflected in one way or another on my Art – and this has nothing to do with chauvinism.

If I being granted this award for being this kind of artist, I accept it with gratitude and humbleness, because I have worked very hard -as many other artists- but I have done it without having made any concession of conceptual, spiritual, political or religious type. I have been a consistent artist. I have worked for and in my country. There are 50 years of life and more than 20 years working. The importance of this award is that it also recognizes many other persons whom I was formed with, lived with and went through bitter and resistance ways, going, coming and returning ways, of meeting my generation friends out of Cuba and, then, returning full of their influences. This award distinguishes that artist typical quality and in this regard, many people is happy; many have approached me and said: "it is not you the only one being awarded but many things that had not been awarded up to now!"

By Estrella Díaz for La Jiribilla, Cuba. full interview published on Cubarte portal

Translation: Roxana Marquez Herrera (Cubarte)