By: ABELARDO MENA
"Unforgettable": Obama, Raul, a chronicle of hope.
(Alexis Esquivel; “Unforgettable” 2014 Acrílic/canvas; 540 x 254cm)
On December 10, 2013, while South Africa and the world paid tribute to former fighter against apartheid Nelson Mandela, a historic event happened under the context of the tribute. Breaking a fifty year-tradition of public lack of communication between the two governments, the US president, Barack Hussein Obama and Cuba: General Raul Castro, joined hands for a few moments. They even exchanged phrases. "I am Raul Castro" the Cuban leader stressed, in case the White House occupant did not recognize him.
The handshake spread worldwide, and attacked Twitter and Facebook networks. From Spain, in the cold city of Salamanca, Cuban artist Alexis Esquivel includes the unreleased scene and smiles: it is-undoubtedly-a very special image. He incessantly collects images produced by mass media, and then incorporates them as a basis for his work. Known in Cuba since the late 80s, he is defined as a history painter. Or rather, like a painter who questions history.
His canvases are the laboratory where historical past and present figures are extracted from "official" photos to be “remixed", juxtaposed with cultural artifacts from the past, or repainted following conventions of famous Western artworks. His pieces, featuring surrealist flavor and a high dose of irony, appear as dense layers, in which even fortuitous accidents while painting are obvious. But they are not "layers" digitally produced with Photoshop, they are handmade and brush painted. Being a "traditional" artist, Esquivel has exhibited in major museums around the world and has gained ground in major international collections such as Farber (www.farbercollection.com) collection of Miami.
For Esquivel, the handshake between the two presidents is as significant for the Cuban history as the crossing of the Delaware River by General Washington in 1776, painted in 1851 by German-born artist Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze. Indeed, the image on the canvas by Cuban artist, created with intense and fast movements will not be a common work: the force of circumstances have made it become a chronicle of hope. For half a century, Cubans and Americans have desired to resolve once the political dispute between Cuba and the Colossus of the North. Now, it seems the right time to cross the Rubicon: the Obama administration has taken steps toward easing the laws against Cuba, and on the island, economic changes have thawed the official orthodoxy. This work is the icon of a change.
It is not the first time that Alexis reflects Barack Obama; previously in the "Memorial Garden" series he used Obama’s image dancing in the middle of the Egyptian pyramids, and the play "Live President" about Obama's trip to China. However, it is the first time a Cuban artist portrays Raul Castro, who runs the island since 2006. Fidel’s brother-far more discreet and pragmatic- does not seem to call the attention of Cuban art critics, (busy, focused) on new technologies and Neo-conceptualism.
The mural-sized canvas Esquivel painted on a terrace in Salamanca (because her apartment was too small for such a big frame) not only portrays the two main characters in a serene garden, almost Edenic, but also includes the musical memory, popular culture. The title of the book makes an ironic wink at the viewer, and unties the chords written by Irving Gordon in 1951, which Nat "King" Cole interpreted to Cubans in Cuba Tropicana Cabaret, a cool February night in 1958, just a year before the rebel troops headed by Fidel (and Raul) entered the city, free of Fulgencio Batista. If a painting is like a centaur, "half picture, half words," this is also a jukebox, and a time machine.
In the west side of the White House, a copy of Leutze’s picture greets visitors at the reception, it is a recognizable icon of American history. When Cuba and the United States finally recognize their similarities and differences (more the first than the second), perhaps in a hall of the Palace of the Revolution in Havana, Esquivel’s picture also finds its final location.