Painter and sculptor from Santiago de Cuba, Alberto Lescay Merencio, has this week been awarded the 2021 National Prize for Visual Arts, the most prestigious recognition awarded each year since 1994 by the National Council of Visual Arts (CNAP) to an artist living in the country, for the work over a significant period of their life. This year there were 18 candidates for the jury to choose from.
“When I received the call, I was just making the feet of my sculpture of José Antonio Aponte that will be placed at the entrance to Havana,” Lescay told the Cubarte newspaper.
“It is always a surprise to receive an award, at least for me. Personally, the great prize that I always yearn for is the prize of critics, that of the people, that of the universe, everything that I work for. But to be chosen amongst so many talented colleagues is very touching, I receive it with great respect and I will do everything possible to continue deserving it. “
Minutes earlier, the artist Rafael Zarza, president of the jury on this occasion and 2020 winner, had declared to the press gathered at the CNAP headquarters: “…Lescay is an artist not only loved as a person, but also respected as a creator of intense work. The Prize has been awarded unanimously. ..Lescay has a very solid body of work, not only in monumental sculpture, but also in painting. He is the founder of the Caguayo Foundation, that brilliant workshop that has done so much good work.”
The art critic Jorge R. Bermúdez, a member of this year’s jury, described Alberto Lescay’s career as creating a very significant place in the island’s visual culture, both for its continuity over time and for the quality of the work.
“Especially in this most recent stage, in which a certain expressionism is manifested on a sometimes monumental scale. But, in addition, Lescay has created the Caguayo Foundation, which has enabled many artists to develop their own work and skills. He has also been very supportive of the design industries, industrial design and the graphic arts, which are often overlooked for awards and professional study.
Another Jury member, the sculptor José Villa Soberón, 2008 award winner, said: “I am very happy that this year we were able to choose Lescay. It is a double celebration on a personal level for the respect and admiration I feel for his work and I also celebrate that he is a sculptor. It is something that I think that all sculptors enjoy very much. That he is from Santiago, too. There are important artists outside the capital and Lescay is a very outstanding person. He is a brilliant man, and we can recognize the work that he has done in many areas of culture ”.
MORE ABOUT THE ARTIST AND HIS WORK
Born in Santiago de Cuba in 1950 Alberto Lescay Merencio graduated in Painting at the José Joaquín Tejeda Academy of Visual Arts in Santiago in 1968, then in Sculpture, at the National School of Cuban Art, Havana, 1972. He gained a Master of Arts, specialising in monumental sculpture, in the Repin Academy of Sculpture, Architecture, Painting and Graphics. Leningrad (Saint Petersburg), in 1979. In 1995 he founded and became president of Fundación Caguayo in Santiago de Cuba where he still lives.
Lescay’s work is part of Cuban cultural heritage, since many of his creations are in very important heritage sites throughout the country. In his monumental sculptures he tries to unite realist elements with abstract expressionism. “I use some resources of figuration, but with an abstract concept” he said in a recent interview with Artcronica. “Even in my paintings …I imagine everything in the abstract, and then some figuration may appear. But what interests me the most is the whole. The expression of the form. If it is paint, the color…”
For example, Lescay directed the multidisciplinary team of the Antonio Maceo y Grajales Plaza de la Revolución monument complex in Santiago de Cuba in 1991, Cuba’s largest sculpture. He is the creator of the figure of Cuban hero Antonio Maceo on a horse behind the Mambises (Cuban rebels) represented by huge iron machetes rising out of the ground high in the air. Maceo, from San Luis just outside of Santiago, became a second in command in the Cuban army in the late 19th century dedicated to the abolition of slavery in Cuba and Cuban independence. The piece is called ‘the Bronze Titan‘ which was the nickname Maceo acquired for surviving so many wounds in battle.
The realisation of the monument was not straightforward, according to Lescay. “We had to create a school.” A team of nearly 100 artists was assembled, and they spent nine years on the piece that was opened in 1992. “We had to melt over 100 tons of bronze to make it,” Lescay says.
The organization that grew out of that project, Caguayo Foundation for Monumental and Applied Arts, is 26 years old. It is funded by Cuba’s Cultural Ministry and is a member of the Madrid-based Latin American Confederation of Foundations.
Lescay went on to make pieces such as the sculptural portrait of Mariana Grajales, mother of Antonio Maceo and to many known as mother of Cuba, (located in the Santa Ifigenia cemetery in Santiago de Cuba).
Another later important public work is Lescay’s Monument to the Cimarrón, the runaway slave, a monument to resistance to slavery. Located on a hill in sight of El Cobre church outside of Santiago de Cuba, made of bronze, “it rises more than 9 metres tall: it looks like an open hand to the sky raised from the depths stopping the wind. At the base is a Nganga, a Congo cauldron, which is a spiritual source of strength with African roots; it has the body and hands of a man but appears to have the head of a horse, dog or other wild animal. It represents the moment the cimarrón was transformed to take flight, so as not to be seen or captured. According to stories, he was transformed into a tree or an animal.”
The Cimarrón monument was unveiled during the 1997 Festival of Caribbean Culture and is part of the UNESCO Slave Route international project that begins on the African coasts. The town of El Cobre is seen as a milestone in the History of Slavery in the Caribbean.
Lescay has said in an interview with Artcronica that by the time he was working on The Cimarron “I was better able to identify who I was, philosophically and culturally. It had a lot to do with being linked to the Casa del Caribe. Having met the Grupo Antillano, [group of Cuban artists exploring African-Caribbean history, culture and identity] which was happening in parallel in those years. That is why the sculpture or monument to the Cimarron comes next, in which you realize that there is something else, where there is a much freer spirit. Looser from a creative point of view, more experimental. “
For Alberto Lescay “the most important thing is to study, prepare, know oneself and try to be as useful as possible to society… to be happy by making others happy, to the environment in which one has been lucky enough to share.’’
Lescay is considered one of the most prominent sculptors in contemporary Cuban and Caribbean monumental art, he also has a broad career as a sculptor, painter and promoter of Visual Arts.
Lescay is currently working on a sculpture project dedicated to Jose Antonio Aponte, a free black Cuban man of Yoruba origin born in the late 18th century in Havana. He was an artist and craftsman – but has also been called the forerunner of the struggle for independence of Cuba for his part in the ‘Aponte Conspiracy’ of 1812. “Aponte’s personality has a level of symbolic, universal force that fascinates me” says Lescay.
For more about the artist see his website at https://albertolescay.com/