Rachel Weiss


On her book To and from Utopia in the New Cuban Art

Cover Interview of July 03, 2011

A close-up

Juan Francisco Elso’s “Por América” is one of the many remarkable works that I write about. An effigy of José Martí, it is an exquisitely painful portrait, depicting the Cuban national hero as a barefoot figure clad in mud and wielding a machete.

Elso’s Martí achieves, through formal means best recognizable in the folk carvings of popular heroes, some amplifications to and reopenings of the meaning of Martí whose essence, as that of all the heroes, had become fixed and frozen a long time before. It escaped monumental history’s discouragement (we can never measure up), antiquarianism’s first principle of remove, and acknowledged that in fact it was living with a very tenacious, unrequited past.

Elso’s Martí made plain the doubled relation that he and others had to their own social space: with the ambivalence of both insider and outsider positions they were part of it, identified with it, plugged into its energy source, but unsatisfied by it and profoundly critical of it.  In its act of historical memory, the work had rescued remembering from rote distraction in the name of reconstituting a sense of personal, everyday ethics.  It collapsed the vertical gap of deity and reclaimed the revolutionary promise of everyday heroism. Its doubling made the hero, and the “terrible desire to believe” uncanny, potent, unnerving and poignantly awry.

rorotoko.com Juan Francisco Elso, “Por América,” (1986). (Photo: Gerardo Suter.)

In fact Elso’s portrayal was so far removed from the version that is ubiquitously present across the island—from monuments to patios—that it was denied the prize that an international jury wanted to award it at the Havana Biennial in 1986.

The controversy was about the de-heroization of an icon. Paramythological and parahistorical, icons are symbols intended to be clear in their meaning. Elso took Cuba’s central icon and made it so complex, contradictory, emotional, and ambiguous that it was impossible to nail down. No, it said, it can never be clear. Martí’s death had set the standard for proportions of sacrifice in Cuba, and Elso’s Martí died incomplete and unresolved, his entire project reopened as a wound in the work, an open wound at the heart of the contemporaneous Revolution.