Interview with Cuban artist Reynerio Tamayo on his obsession with baseball

The renowned painter, sculptor, designer and cartoonist Reynerio Tamayo says he has "fulfilled a personal dream" with ‘Cuba en Pelota' (‘Cuba in the ballgame'), an exhibition recently shown in Havana and later at the Miami Art Centre in the United States, "the country which produced that wonderful sport".A graduate of the National School of Art (ENA, in 1987) and the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA, in 1992), Tamayo is passionate about baseball, Cuba's national sport: "Thanks to art, I am fortunate enough to meet many Cuban players and those of other nations because the sport can reach where many people can not access and opens countless doors" he said in an exclusive interview for Havana Radio.He clarified that the title of the exhibition paraphrases ‘death at the ballgame' ‘Muerte en Pelota', of the great Antonia Eiriz, work that treasures the National Museum of Fine Arts and that, at the time, also paid homage to baseball. How did the two audiences react?"Very well and it struck me that the day of the opening – the same day in Havana as in Miami – more than three hundred people attended, something atypical. The interesting thing is that there were journalists, curators, art specialists, but also sportswriters, active and retired players – a large group of people related to the world of baseball.

It was my first personal exposure in the United States and, frankly, it exceeded my expectations.

It all started with respect – that's very important – and the result was wonderful, I think among other reasons, because it was a show loaded with humanism. That is, the theme was baseball, but many of the pictures I made as if they were portraits of characters that come from the past – like José de la Caridad Méndez, known as the Black Diamond; Cristóbal Torriente, El bambino cubano and Martin Dihigo, dubbed The Master or The Immortal and considered the most complete Latin American baseball player in history. Another great player was also portrayed: Eustaquio Pedroso, all players who in their time thrilled and made whole generations happy, but which in turn constituted the foundations of what is modern Cuban baseball.

In your work you tackle several issues, but baseball seems to be a constant, a recurrence, why?

Because somehow from the ball the past is revealed and you can understand what they did by watching how they played baseball: the delivery they had, discipline, noting what they faced, among other things, racism because many of them played in the American Black Leagues. Most of these athletes were very poorly paid and faced humiliations of all kinds, but nevertheless devoted their lives to baseball; many died drunk, tubercular and in misery, but left a very important legacy that can even serve to encourage and look at that past and ask, what is happening in Cuban baseball now?, what is happening to us? Why has the quality gone down? In addition to baseball, have the topics varied or do you continue with them?

The themes are always the same, but I want to return to humour with a deep Cuban flavour – although I'm always appropriating things – but I want to go back to choteo (satire), sarcasm, fresh humour, uninhibited, daring.All this has to do with the origins of my work that was from comics, of graphic humour, but this humour carried, incorporated, to the canvas, and everything became loaded with characters, perhaps even more Baroque. My more recent period has been very synthetic and I want to come back loaded with characters, situations, absurdities, surrealism, but above all that the choteo is more evident.I am not proposing anything new: creation travels in a circle and I have no prejudice with it because I believe in the freedom of creation without impositions; is when one feels better and the work comes out more convincing.

Appropriations are part of your way of making your work, why?Simply because they are icons of universal art and many people know their meaning, what they symbolize, what they express; when all this is combined with the Cuban reality it establishes a bridge of communication – of course with provocations – more accessible to all audiences and not only the Cuban.

I also use appropriations because I firmly believe that art is a great tree from which everyone extracts what interests him, whatever suits him and takes for his art without any problem. In that way magical and unforeseen things can happen. In the history of art there is an inexhaustible quarry and in the Cuban context I am not the only one who makes appropriations – for example there are Eduardo Abela and Rubén Alpízar, just to mention two, but there are many more.In your work, the titles were always very important as tools to guide the viewer.It is still so, but not in all cases because there are necessary evolutions and the day the artist is totally satisfied, is the day he has nothing to tell and is dead. Personally, the work flows and when I'm about to finish it almost always has its title, although I do not complicate life with it. Before, I was more incisive about it, but not anymore. Now everything is more natural, more seemingly simple.

You mentioned Antonia Eiriz and I know that the teacher Antonio Vidal was the one who awakened in you the vocation for painting. However, in your work I do not perceive a direct influence of either of the two, how do you interpret that?

Indeed, there are artists who by the way they make art, by how they develop it, and by the way they see the world, they have nothing to do with me. That is what I like the most because it presupposes plurality and variety, it would be very boring if everyone did the same! In art there are no truths but paths: it is not a sport but philosophies of life, worldviews, universes and every artist has his way of saying, his way of thinking and expressing himself. The most important thing is that there is an angel inside: otherwise, there is nothing to tell and you had better 'turn off and leave', as the popular saying goes. The essential thing is to have imagination and an idea to share. That is what will last, but it is up to art historians and critics and specialists to decide.

To me, as an artist, I have to work and, at the same time, have fun and share my ideas, my dreams and also my disappointments. Communication interests me a lot. Antonia and Vidal fit me precisely because they have nothing to do with what I do.

As an anecdote I remember that on one occasion Master Vidal presented an abstract exercise and I did not know how to do it and I made a radial composition with squares. He said to me: 'this has nothing, this does not know anything'. To fix that I began to paint on the squares some caricatures as if they were part of a symphony orchestra mixed with salseros musicians. It was a tremendous absurdity, but it was what I presented. My great master told me: 'Tamayo, the truth is that you do not like abstraction.' But he gave me 5 points for sincerity. Vidal was a great artist, but also a great teacher who – although we were beginners – respected much the fact that one liked to work: I come from a generation that the soul, or the essence or the mystery is at work. From there, everything comes out.

I recently read a review that said. "Tamayo does not have a style of his own." I think there is only one style, which is creation. I do not care if I have a style or not. My only style is to feel free making. My work points to many directions and that has to do with the exercise of humour. As you know, to make graphic humour for newspapers you have to have a different theme every day and so, I think, that is why I jump from one series to another. I can do gangsters in Havana, then go to the series on baseball, that I can return to the comics, then I can make a naturalistic picture.

Contemporary art gives you many tools, there are many ways to say, many ways to express, but the essential is the universe you have inside and be able to get it out. That's my style.

And what about colour? You go from monochrome, to an explosion of colour… Colour is based on the needs of the idea and each picture. I have no prejudice with that and, perhaps, that is why it has been so timely and useful to have attended the Academy that allows me to use the tools available. Can it be said that organizing in series is a method of work? A galaxy that has many planets. The series are endless and conclude when the artist decides. And there is also physical reality, that is, one thing is what is in your head and the other the speed of the hand.

The practical thing about working in series is that one idea leads me to another and so on. And since I have a great creative appetite, I love to always be working and exploring and, at the same time, trying to take each theme to the maximum possible. From the same series, Picasso made dozens or more pieces, is there a better example than that? In the same way – Pop, Comics and also Japanese art.

I remember that a few years ago you were using some oriental iconography introducing erotic elements, is it still like that? I use it from time to time and refresh other series. The same thing happens to me with watercolor. Sometimes the daily work becomes monotonous because you can start an idea very happily, but then comes the wait, the creative processes … there are pictures that take months and there is a moment when you want to make an end point, however you can not do it because there is a problem that prevents you. That is the moment when I look away.

And collage? …unlike other sets of work I think that your recent work is more flat, am I mistaken? The truth is that I have not done collage for some time and the work I am doing is more pictorial. But the collage will return in due course: creation is a spiral circle that puts you at the same point and makes you ascend. In the next two or three years I plan to produce work and develop many ideas that I have parked and I feel the spiritual need to carry them out. I also want to return to graphic humour, which I have somewhat abandoned. When I have something new to say, I will show it. I will concentrate on doing the work, on building it. We will see later.

Read full interview report in Spanish at Radio Havana here