February 20, 2020.
Leslie Loyola: Iwa Mimo
Leslie Loyola’s series Iwa Mimo (Innocence) is founded in the history of Matanzas; a coastal city two hours East of Havana with a large Afro-Cuban population arisen from generations of slavery. Afro-Cuban culture is deeply influenced by a blending of the traditional Yoruba cultural and religious practices brought from West Africa and Catholicism, in the form of Santería. This religious syncretism informs the lives of not only those who practice it—from the tiendas selling ritual beads, to the hum of rumba music throughout neighborhoods in Matanzas, Santería has become part of the daily ritual of many in Cuba. Loyola closes in on the specific symbolism and heritage associated with this practice. She approaches her work with a community focus, beginning her compositions in the homes of each subject’s family, surrounded by objects from the Yoruba religion. Her works create a performance of reality that invites us to consider a deeper analysis of how Cuba defines itself in modern day. Loyola also exercises her ability to treat photography as a means for stopping time and turning cultural practices into a tangible, visual object. Her vibrant colors and strong narratives combine both aspects of documentation and artistic expression in photography, to continue a canon of Afro-Cuban religious art.
It is the heritage of familial generations that are the axis of Loyola’s dynamic, descriptive compositions. Each child she documents has undergone a ritual as part of the Yoruba practice to associate their soul with a Yoruban Orisha (a deity). We see one boy seated in his home, dressed in red clothing and holding a tortoise shell to represent the Orisha Changó, while a wooden sword representing Santa Barbara, the Christian saint syncretized with Changó, is placed on the side. His fixed posture and thoughtful expression conveys how each individual takes on a responsibility at a young age to perpetuate the practices that are so deeply ingrained in their family lives. The boy’s assumption of responsibility to continuing his familial practices implies the transition that occurs in cultural and religious practices as they are passed down over time. Loyola allows the individuals with the lived experience and cultural heritage of syncretism to define what it means to them and their family.
Color holds a specific symbolism in each object placed in the work. Even without a contextual comprehension of color’s role in traditions of Santería, it is clear that saturation and emphasis on pigment in the photographs is an intentional focus of the image. The background of the exposed concrete walls almost disappears among the movement and color of objects in the foreground. The shadows created by placed objects and lighting in the work create a vignette around the center of the image, commanding more attention towards the contrasting color of the subject. Such a deep saturation of tones draws even further attention to the clothing and objects that are present in the photo. The emphasis on color seems to compress the depth of the image, focusing all attention on the foreground, and as a result, the image is completely dictated by the props within them.
Iwa Mimo works in conversation with its subject and viewer to express the flow and development of culture in Cuba. Looking at these works through the lens of how others define cultural blending helps us to understand how artistic practices create an aesthetic production of deeply rooted traditions, and how they are carried into contemporary society. Loyola’s photography freezes the transitions that culture undergoes, documents it, and uses artistic liberties to explore relevant themes surrounding the definition and celebration of Cuban identity. By looking at how Cuban artists make an artistic representation of their lived experience, a better understanding can be made of how Cuba makes sense of its identity as a country with diverse ethnic, historical, and cultural narratives.
Waldo Balart (Banes, Cuba, 1931) is a Concrete Cuban painter yet to be rediscovered, not only by the public at large but also by many Latin American scholars. He is not unknown, to be sure. He has been painting for more than 50 years and exploring art as some sort of spiritual project.
In 1959, the year of the Cuban Revolution, Balart migrated to the US, and in the bohemian world of New York he get accounted with luminaries such De Kooning and Franz Kline. He even got to be a friend of Andy Warhol, with whom he collaborated in two rather forgotten, but important films.
Balart was not really interested in Pop culture but in the wake of Abstract Expressionism, and particularly in the Geometric Abstraction and Minimalism that culminated in the important, although forgotten, exhibition The Responsive Eye, at MoMA in 1965.
Since then, he exhibited in Nueva York, Washington, Boston, Miami and México. He had a solo exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum in Madrid in 1972, and in that year he finally moved to Madrid.
Since then, throughout these years, even if he has deserved to be the subject of success and recognition from the artists community, it has come slowly, always bit by bit. And it couldn’t be otherwise. Except of the well-known case of Carmen Herrera, Latin American and Cuban modern artists like Balart had to face the banality of the “art fairs” syndrome and the phenomenon of the “emerging” artist. In the meantime he is already 87 years old.
It is time we recognize his work, his history and his accomplishments. And that’s the reason why he is the first artist to launch our CUBAN ART FOUNDATION Editions.