Cuban artist José Ángel Toirac is to be awarded the Cuban National Visual Arts Prize for 2019, it was announced this week. This is the highest recognition granted in Cuba to artists for their work through their life so far.
Toirac works with painting, drawing and installation, but central to his art is his committed and questioning vision of epic history and the future of the nation.
His works have referenced some of the milestones of the Cuban Revolution, the journeys of many of its heroes and protagonists, and events of recent years.
But his work has not been just to chronicle that history, nor to give a sweetened vision, rather he has taken a critical and questioning look at iconic images, figures (including Fidel Castro and Che Guevara) and references, sometimes using humour, irony, sometimes juxtaposing political and commercial images. Which has not always been easy for Cubans to accept or look at. But he has always portrayed ordinary people with sensitivity.
However through his art, Toirac makes it clear that the “missions” of art and propaganda are not the same, although at times they overlap.
The art critic Hilda María Rodríguez Enríquez explained that one of the reasons the jury felt they wanted to give the award to Toirac was that his body of work has been vast and versatile, based on extraordinary investigations, exploring many different approaches to making art, analysing and critiquing the times and context in which he was working. They were impressed by the combination of the aesthetic level of his achievements and the critical success of his work.
Minutes after hearing about his award the artist told Cuban press: “I’m super, super happy. One sometimes loses hope … you know that one day it might be you but no idea when. This is incredible. I am very, very grateful and very happy”.
Toirac, (born 1966 in Guantanamo) graduated from the San Alejandro Arts school in 1985, and the Superior Institute of Art (ISA) in Havana in 1990. He was a member from 1988 to 1992 of the artistic group Grupo ABTV, along with Tanya Angulo, Juan Pablo Ballester, and Ileana Villazón.
He has more than 30 solo and collective exhibitions maintaining a regular presence in the national galleries. His works are also in collections around the world: the Ludwig Forum, Germany; Atlantic Centre of Modern Art, Spain; Arizona State University Art Museum, USA; MoMA, USA; the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal, Canada, amongst other institutions, galleries and public and private collections.
He has had artistic residencies at the Ludwig Forum, Arizona State University, Rhode Island School of Design, University of Kentucky, Vermont Studio Center, Art in General, NY and Mattress Factory, Pittsburg.
Toirac has already received two National Prizes for Curatorship and a National Culture distinction.
The National Prize for Visual Arts was awarded for the first time in 1994 and is awarded annually to a Cuban visual artist, living and residing in the country, whose production is distinguished by providing a valuable contribution to the development and history of the visual arts in Cuba. Artists’ most relevant achievements are also considered as well as their national and international profiles.
This year, 31 cultural institutions from Havana and the other provinces were involved. A jury composed of prestigious personalities of the visual arts was appointed. This year the jury was chaired by last year’s National Award winner Eduardo Roca Salazar (Choco) and other recent winners: José Manuel Fors, Ever Fonseca, Ernesto Fernández, José Villa, Osneldo García, Nelson Domínguez, Pedro de Oraá and Lázaro Saavedra; plus the artists Luis Enrique Camejo, Rafael Villares and Ariadna Contino; art critics, researchers and curators Hilda María Rodríguez, Maikel Rodriguez Calviño and Gabriela Hernández.
This year’s nominees were the artists José Ángel Toirac Batista, Esterio Segura, Lesbia Vent Dumois, Flora Fong, Zaida del Río, Rafael Zarza, Manuel Hernandez, Alberto Lezcay Merencio, Ileana Mulet, Arturo Montoto, Roberto Diago, Agustín Villafaña, Agustín Drake Aldama and Roberto Salas.
The award ceremony will take place on December 18, at the National Museum of Fine Arts,Havana.