Cuba’s wars for independence –the fights against Spain that led to the American-Cuban-Spanish war in the late XIX and early XX Century- fueled Americans’ imaginations. As avid consumers of Cuban tobacco, American tourists in Havana were lured by the idyllic scenes of war printed on the lids of tobacco boxes. These depicted the romance of mambises (Cuban soldiers) with beautiful guajiras (peasant women) posing in custom dresses, promising an island full of opportunities for true love. Painters such as Frederick Remington and Winslow Homer travelled to the island at the time, to capture the epic events in images that were not always realistic, but rather their interpretations of the facts. Still, their paintings were widely circulated, ultimately serving the purposes of Roosevelt’s campaign for annexing Cuba.
A century later, artist Ariel Cabrera, a Cuban now living in the U.S., ignites our imaginations yet again with new versions of history that may be as valid as those documented. In his paintings there are mambises and guajiras, machetes and military formations as before, and yet they take part of scenarios that we did not foresee.
Cabrera is a history buff. Even though he devoted much more time -at least seven years- to a formal art education, he is very proud of having “learned history and art on the street.” After graduating from the Professional School of Art in Camaguey, he entered the antique business. He travelled throughout Cuba looking for paintings, books, commemorative stamps and personal letters between military men and their families and lovers. Beyond the profitable business, Cabrera became obsessed with this period in Cuban history. He went on to research all major historical archives on the island, looking for visual information, and was able to compile a digital collection of over 6000 photographs from which he constantly draws content for his work today. What fascinated him was the history that hadn’t been recorded - the side stories of these warriors and politicians, and the people that surrounded them - full of curiosities and mistakes, true romance and deprivation. This knowledge helped him imagine a Cuban XIX century where there was room for transvestite mambises and huge orgies.
His take is not judgmental – if anything, it would be humorous and sarcastic. He is not focused on historical accuracy, even though most of the characters in the paintings are inspired by real people and stories he came across in his research. On choosing the subject of the works, he also states, “sometimes what happened was less interesting than what did not happen.”
The artist’s self-taught career as an antiquary made such an impact in his life that he quit the Higher Institute of Art (ISA) in Havana after the third year of Scenic Design. Cabrera was disappointed by the institution’s rigid conceptions of contemporary art. At the same time, in his search for antiques, he came across a French, XIX century painting course from which he learned of alchemy and chemistry of that time. This was an important addition to his many years searching for the right pictorial language. Another key experience was being part of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Copyist Program, where he reproduced an original XIX century work in the Museum’s collection. “My work departs from historic facts only to subvert them. The only thing that connects it to a historical truth is the pictorial language.” Still, the years of study at ISA and his fascination with encyclopedias about the history of Opera found their way into his paintings. The concentration of light in some of the figures and parts of the composition grants them with a dramatic quality. There is a rich catalogue of draperies in his depiction of the female characters’ clothing, while in many of the works, the figures are strategically positioned as if posing for the viewer on a stage.
Cabrera superimposes layers of reality and time to let new relationships between the figures stem from their anachronism. This simple rule lies within his different bodies of work and connects them all. In the series Thematic Park, for instance, he literally depicts fragments of photographs to be collaged in the composition using a painterly solution –sometimes he builds the physical models as theatre props that are later painted. In his underwater series, there can be one or multiple scenes underwater where figures are gravitating. They might coexist with other out-of-water realities, as if a wall of glass was dividing them.
The idea of worlds underwater was born from the artist’s fascination with designs of glass-walled swimming pools and other vertical glass walls in modern houses. Beyond their delicacy and beauty, this proves his ability to integrate his longtime interest in history with his new reality.
As a firm believer in Astrology, for Cabrera it was clear that 2016, “when Saturn entered his house,” it would be a good time to start painting; and he was right! It is now the viewers’ responsibility to follow his work to fuel their imaginations, whether his visual language is real or imagined.
Coral Gables Museum
August 5, 2019