The artist, recently honoured with the National Award for Visual Arts 2018, attempts to reveal the invisible connections that make the world go round.
It could be said that the artist José Ángel Toirac (Guantanamo, 1966) is a fan of the well-known phrase that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry immortalized in his work ‘The Little Prince’: The essential is invisible to the eyes, because according to the writer, the true value of things is not always obvious. In Toirac’s work what is important is what is behind, what is not seen. And in that hidden or less visible area there is a lot of heart, meticulous research, infinite thirst for knowledge and true passion for history.
A few days after receiving the National Arts award, the painter – although he is much more than that – was interviewed by Cuban media Juventud Rebelde in his studio, to talk about the award, his work and a career marked by sincerity and constant search.
“Since I was a child I knew that I wanted to be a painter and the universe conspired to be that way. How lucky I was! When I did the exams to enter the ISA (Havana’s university of the arts) I did not pass, there were nine places and I was tenth. Then it turned out that one of those nine had no right to take the test and I narrowly got a place, “he recalls.
Other difficulties hindered his goal of studying painting. Toirac says that his father opposed the idea, but he managed to continue his studies in secret. “He eventually found out, but he did not say anything because he preferred me to study than to hang around by the river Cagalar that was in Guantánamo.
Toirac tells us that in his native province (Guantanamo) he had a key teacher: Emilio Rodríguez, but fate played a trick on him. His family moved to Havana and he had to leave everything. He enrolled in the capital for a transfer. And again the universe acted in his favour and Toirac was reunited with this professor. “He put me at the level of the other students, because I did not have a real idea of fine art. I had never seen an original work of art. My references were those of Guantánamo. Whoever did painting I thought was amazing. In the local radio station there was a huge landscape, it seemed to draw me in, and I wanted to be able to do that. ”
How did you discover that passion?
“For me, it was something that came out of my neighbourhood, I was in a group of boys who grew up together, four of them came out musicians and I became a painter. I think that it was all due to a system that worked. That idea of capturing talent at the base was effective. The Casas de la Cultura [‘houses of culture’ which offer free arts workshops to all across the island] and the clubs for youth left no gaps. They allowed you to discover your vocation as a child.
After being a student, I became a teacher and I became disenchanted the day I realized that there is no worse situation than trying to teach those who do not want to learn. Quite simply, many want to know the formula to make money and I do not have it, that’s why I dedicated myself professionally to my work.
What I do gives me pleasure, allows me to share with friends and raise my family. If they pay me on top of that, what more can I ask for? ”
Graduated from the provincial San Alejandro School of Fine Arts in 1985, as well as the ISA in 1990, José Ángel has had more than 30 personal and collective exhibitions. His works are in the collections of the Ludwig Foundation, Germany; Atlantic Centre of Modern Art, Spain; Arizona State University Art Museum and MoMA, USA, and the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal, Canada, among others.
Some of his work’s most significant references are the German artists Gerhard Richter and Hans Haacke. Richter is his favourite painter and Haacke is a master in uncovering hidden links between seemingly disconnected things, and from that concept Toirac has taken a lot. For him, what is obvious is only the tip of the iceberg.
Each of his artworks tells a much deeper story, which transcends the two dimensions of the canvas. “For me, the creation is not in the novelty of the final product, but in the wiring that I do. The world and ideas are like a great network connected by invisible threads. And the human being is used to always following the same routes. My intention is to show different routes and connections”.
Is that why they call you irreverent?
“My work is perhaps irreverent because it presents reality and history in a different way, because it establishes new connections. It’s like a game of dominoes, which always has the same chips and yet the layout is never the same, the ways of combining are infinite and that’s the way creation is.”
Which are your most important pieces?
I have many favourite pieces which remind me either of the all the work it took me to make them or the years that it took to realize that idea, the final destination of that piece or its level of acceptance or popularity. The series ‘From inside’ I like a lot, which I made to give to a gallery abroad; and upon receiving the Rockefeller scholarship, I took the opportunity to repeat that idea. It is a mosaic made from photos taken by Che Guevara. The intention is to show how the hero sees the world through the concepts of sacrifice, of the eternal, of paternity, of bureaucracy, and the idea of the leader.
Other favourite pieces are ‘Profile’, a portrait of Fidel without Fidel, a kind of profile born of the conversations with Ignacio Ramonet for the book ‘100 hours with Fidel’; the project of the first ladies of Cuba since 1902; the series where I put political propaganda in a dialogue with commercial publicity as if they were a mirror; and the project that I dedicated to the Virgin of Charity and that I also shared with Meira Marrero, with whom I collaborated for more than 20 years.
Is it better or more difficult to work collaboratively?
It is more challenging, but undoubtedly much better because to advance you need opposing views, impulses, different visions…
Isn’t the work with icons, heroes, symbols rather complex?
It is natural. These are decisions that come with maturity: you decide to live in Cuba, you must be consistent with your history. When I talk about Che and Fidel I do it knowing that they are two possible destinations. I find it more sincere to speak from their point of view, than to talk about people and things that are not close to me. Homer had to talk about Achilles and Ulysses, these are the heroes of my time.
Do you think that your work has been justly valued?
I’m not the most popular artist. Although being known does not necessarily imply that they value you. There are certain people who do interest me, and for them I take care of myself and worry about being understood; the rest is a gamble, a chance. Appreciation is a voluntary act. I do not care if they value me, that does not motivate my career. For a long time I made art based on a very good teacher, Flavio Garciandía [Cuban conceptual painter and influential artist and a co-founder of the Havana Biennial in 1984]. I always asked myself: what will Flavio think of my work? That compelled me.
And what did Flavio think?
Every day he presented a different idea. He told me: “Save them because over the years you realize that you only have one idea, because the others have run out.” It never crossed my mind that this was true. And after so many years I had to say he was right. You stay with an idea and just go deeper to different levels, which in the end shape your view of the world.
Does receiving the National Prize for Visual Arts imply any change?
If they rewarded me it was for something and it has to mean something: a change in context level. Although sometimes a prize says more of the jury and the circumstances than the prize. I was nominated so many times before that I did not take it seriously. It really woke me up, but whoever gets it deserves it.
Are you chronicler, interpreter or critic…?
It’s hard to say, because it’s a sequence. I travel through them, they are like suits that one puts on. It is like being a chronicler when you need to negotiate and expose the facts as coolly as possible. Every artist, every human being is an interpreter of reality. Everyone has their interpretation of the world, denying it would be naive. As for being critical, I think like Saint Augustine: criticism is as pertinent as heresy. If you argue and dialogue you can strengthen the faith. You only reach true knowledge, knowing who you are and maintaining a critical stance, otherwise nothing would make sense.
What is your aim: to question or answer?
A little of both. It is a question, but also an answer, but one that does not satisfy, that invites the viewer to search more and leaves you with desire for more, stimulates you.
Art specialists class you as one of the most significant creators of contemporary symbolic production. How do you define yourself?
As an artist, simply. I do not like to define myself as a painter because it reduces a lot, although I resort to the traditional methods of art. I do not cover my eyes, I know that the commitment of a 21st century artist is not only to make art, but to take it out of the studio: with a social responsibility to make it public; and that implies negotiation with the spectator.
That’s why art should always be honest. There is another space for magic and illusionism in art. But the core of an artistic creation must start from sincere love.