Eventually my ineptitude confuses the cross with a man or vice versa who knows…

In 1 on January 16, 2010 at 4:56 am

Corpus Digestive.

Bearing the Cross of Our Humanity
Babacar MBow
Alejandro Mendoza’s counter-current contributions of visual meanings constitute a defining moment in Caribbean Diaspora Contemporary Art. The service he has rendered us through his work spans the past decades of Caribbean states’ ups and downs—a contemporary visual history he decodes for a necessary new “enlightenment” with which we say who we are and where we are.
Challenging the gaze of the other and where it locates the Caribbean in the scale of “values” it has self-forged, the work of Mendoza articulates what we are enduring and sometimes why we are subjected to it.
The work gazes at our socioeconomic and political conditions in an analysis of both the calamities that weight down on us—oppression, poverty, de-spiritualization, but also our knowledge of setting priorities. Mendoza has chosen something else for us; to break that stochastic process in which the conditional expectation of the next value, given the current and preceding values, is the current value of disasters that has sometime been programmed for the Caribbean—that debilitating fatality in which the Caribbean is expected to be maintained. The work explodes in thousand images, thousand colors, and thousand breaths under the sky of Miami to say that we are still here. That we are still human since our ancestor LUCIE saw the day and with the first human wail on earth. The oeuvre of Alejandro Mendoza is then testimony to the millions of years, we have not stop creating life, reducing the dangers and organizing the existence of the human, inventing forms of defense to protect it and imagine chef-d’oeuvres for the pride of the entire humanity. The work articulates our existence and overcoming of centuries of human barbarism and oppression–an articulation fitting to great civilizations that have marked our peoples. It presents Caribbean art with smiles and gestures of happy peoples, with the extraordinary vigor of his themes, the wisdom and mystery emanating from them, and the styles of our various aesthetic cosmogonies. The work is offering: to ourselves and to others of what the Caribbean has the best: its culture. But this is not a fossilized, folkloric culture. Of course, it expresses our songs, parades and flaunting, it displays our exuberance and our reserve but above all, it expresses our thought, our speech, our questioning and self-criticism—our humanity. Have we always been “out of history” as the ‘other’ claims? Has modernity fallen on our head crushing us down? Where are we going? What have we done of our freedoms? If yes, how were we able to found the strength to bend our bows to free ourselves? Where have we found the springs to straighten ourselves? In the arts, religions, history and the coded messages our ancestors bequeathed to us. These are the foundational depths Alejandro Mendoza reaches for responses to a world that seems to have gone mad.

Tu casa es tu casa.

Turn on my fire.

When you lose some body.

The art of Alejandro Mendoza and the Cuban religious tradition.

Alejandro Mendoza lives, and produces his art in Miami; not in his hometown: Havana. However, this space dislocation generates no differences in the Cuban distinctive features that permeate his work. American art collectors consider as “authentic” only those artistic works made inside the island. But Miami has become a true “reservoir” of Cuban culture inside America; a huge aircraft carrier ashore Biscayne Bay. Starting in 1980 with the massive arrival of “Marielitos”, this city in Florida – 45 minutes flight away from Havana- is no longer the winter beach resort for American retired citizens, and has eventually transformed into the second capital for Cubans.

Miami is also the final destination for over 10,000 Cubans that legally emigrate from the island to the United States every year. Newcomers change their vital expectations in a postmodern capitalist economy and bring new elements to the Cuban-hood that was transported by previous immigrant groups. Mixing the Calle 8 domino and arrozcongri (mixed black beans, and rice) at La Carreta restaurant with Oprah show, spiced with Mexican TV soap operas, broadcast by Televisa, and the every day hard work at Hialeah factories, Miami is becoming the most incredible cultural lab of the Cuban civilization at the dawn of the XXI century.

His cultural education has significantly marked Alejandro’s work. A new cultural movement began in Cuba in 1980 (later called Cuban Renaissance.) It was led by a small group of artists and supported by the Cuban critic Gerardo Mosquera, who exhibited the famous Volumen I show that eventually became a landmark in Cuban contemporary art history. By the end of the decade, the concepts driven by the New Cuban Art were widely spread among a great number of artists graduated from the Instituto Superior de Arte (Higher Art Institute), a state university that became the center of most innovative artistic proposals. Members of ephemeral art groups like Puré, ArteCalle, Grupo Provisional or Nudo, these young funny artists reintroduced the performance, the expressionism, the conceptualism, as responsive weapons to face the decorative and pleasing tone present in the Cuban art during the 70’s, and proposed a deconstructive art for those iconic rituals manufactured by the Cuban establishment for the mass. At the Instituto Superior Pedagógico (Higher Pedagogical Institute,) where he became a Visual Art Teacher (painting and sculpture) Mendoza (among other later artists as Pedro Vizcaíno, Armando Mariño, Pedro Alvarez, Alexis Esquivel) made close contact with the “radical” students from the Instituto Superior de Arte, and learned analytical teaching methods for creation that facilitated the recycling of images, taken from high or low sources, as the leitmotif of his work.

Alejandro has made use of the Cross as a visual pretext for many years. But this peculiar quotation does not specially imply an intimate relation with catholic religion; it did not happen either with those artists commissioned by the church for the Counter Reform in the XVIII century. As a symbol, the Cross is definitely associated to a long period of universal history, but it is also connected to the Cuban history. With a sword and a Cross in both hands, exhausted after dissuasive discussions with his sailors, Christopher Columbus arrived to Cuban shores on October 12th, 1492. There were also crosses hanging on the seed-made necklaces Fidel Castro’s barbudos (rebels) used to wear when they marveled all Cuba in 1959. Pope John Paul II waved a cross in his hand when he landed in Cuba in 1998, in a trip to reaffirm the catholic nature of the Cuban people.
All these contents may be associated to Mendoza’s works, but only in a partial approach. His wood Crosses are medium size format sculptures, with finish resembling, metals and other academics techniques. They are ready to be placed on the wall of a house, or a church…who knows…and their central part is a peculiar stage where no dramatic representations of saints’ images appear, but reproductions of objects coming from real world. A fine ironic accent in the titles of his works is combined with the surrealistic tradition of the found object, as Joseph Cornell, and Rauschenberg did in the American art. Unlike Chicanos artists that manipulate the Virgin of Guadalupe, and relate it to feminist approaches or current situation at Mexican communities in America, Mendoza’s crosses are not meant to cry, pray or bow in front of them. They are containers where the artist has placed questions that kindly challenge the spectator thoughts. It is a very particular way of reusing the most popular symbol of Christian religious art within a contemporary cultural proposal.

Mendoza’s work falls within one of the largest tradition of Cuban art: the religious theme. It dates back to the XVI century, with the work of Juan Camargo. While It became more visible during the XVIII century with the mulatto painter Nicolas de la Escalera, it seemed to vanish by the end of the XIX century, with the symbolist poetic trends and Art Noveau. However, recent research works (De la Fuente 2001) has traced the living nature of this topic in Cuban contemporary art. Since the 30’s with Fidelio Ponce, a mayor figure within the anti academic avant-guard movement, up to contemporary artists like Juan Francisco Elso, Bedia, Mendive, Carlos Estevez and Esterio Segura, the Cuban art records the presence of several religious believes: catholic, Yoruba, Jew, new ages; all of them integrated now in a public way to the Cuban spiritual life and with no atheistic or theological restrictions in the communist horizon. Together with these artists, Mendoza contributes to the new reality with a more universal vision of religions, less linked to orthodoxies and closer to common men.

Hemingway said: “A writer should perpetuate the place he best knows.” Mendoza’s crosses reenact the religious tradition of Cuban art, perpetuating this theme in his distinctive manner, inside the parameters of the contemporary art, while expressing -with irony and irreverence- the need for faith of the current man.

Abelardo Mena, La Havana, Dec 2005
Curator at the National Museum of Fine Arts, Cuba.
Art Critic and Cuban Art Consultant.

Nobody fucks with me.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: