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Discovering Sosabravo in Havana

While in Havana recently, I stumbled on a sculpture garden tucked away in the backyard of an old pretty house off Calle Oficios. The first surprise was to find a sculpture by Rafael Barrios, an op-art artist I discovered in Los Angeles then admired again in Paris. What a surprise to see his work in Havana of all places!

Sculpture by Rafael Barrios with Sosabravo mural in the background

Then my eyes took in this beauty, this jewel-toned 3D mural by Cuban artist Alfredo Sosabravo who was born in the 1930’s. He works with many different materials, from oil paint to colourful glass but let me share what I have actually experienced first-hand: his 1992 Palenzuela mural realized with ceramic tiles.


Is it a puzzle? Not really. All tiles are squares, uniform in size and most patterns don’t seem to join up correctly apart from one, almost in the center and made of 4 tiles. It represents a stylized sun. Can you see it?

Overwhelmed by the size of the mural, my family and I immediately started to look for recognizable shapes as we got closer (a bird! a fish! a frog!). Known quantities acting as a reassuring starting point quickly became reference points. Wait! You see a crab?  Yes, 3 up from the sun and 7 tiles to the right, 2 more and you have a lizard!

As the mural turns into a grid, all eyes navigate from one symbol to the next animal. So, instead of taking the mural in as a whole and then diving into the specifics, Sosabravo reverses the experience for viewers who first have to fumble for clues before seeing the big picture.

Earthy colors and incised texture reveal a wider picture at the bottom : strata filled with teal leaves and flattened terracotta worms. Then look at the additional relief imparted on all the center tiles. More fruits, animals and a few arrows are visible, more densely gathered and protruding. As colors reach  forest greens and oxydized blues, is Sosabravo delineating an entire ecosystem on his mural? 

Yet, it’s difficult to find much of a narrative beyond the immediate recognition of the multitude of stylized motifs on the tiles, as if those lived in-communicated. Is such isolation the artist’s gentle metaphor for what Cuba has come to represent in the world? For what it feels to try to understand why Cuba is still standing despite a 56-year embargo from the US? It felt so hard to grasp why and how Cuba or the politics attached to it can still be in our day and age. For me, Cuba and its art have nurtured a very photogenic aesthetics built on such non-alignment.

And it’s not just Sosabravo…Am I the only one seeing some irony in the fact that Cuban artists Wifredo Lam at Tate and Carmen Herrera at the Whitney Museum of American Art bring Cuba to the artistic fore in otherwise troubling times for the rest of the world? Lucky you if you can catch those exhibitions before they close (until Jan 8, 2017 at Tate and January 9, 2017 at the Whitney). I would love to get your thoughts in the comment box.

© 2017 Ingrid Westlake

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