Ileana Sánchez in duty-free zone

Tastes and colours in the Biennial.


Zona franca (Duty-Free Zone) is the title of the extensive display of Cuban art that the Morro-Cabaña Complex is hosting during the 7th Havana Biennial. With it, the National Council of Visual Arts wanted to take a space that was relevant in other editions of the event and which its current curators rejected to throw themselves into numerous urban interventions.

To live up to its name the exhibit is an extensive display of the work of live Cuban creators. It includes painting, drawings, installations, sculpture and a long etcetera in which the always unclassifiable mixed techniques fit in.


It is impossible to ask for aesthetic or conceptual unity from what is simply conceived as a panoramic view of the island’s present – or a very recent past – art in its entire heterogeneity. The achieved work, the incomplete project and even the simple ingenious artefact that brings on just a smile exist side by side.


To go back and forth through its halls has in store certain surprises. I am pleased to evoke the group of acrylics on canvas titled Jardines invisibles (Invisible Gardens) offered by Arturo Montoto. Those still lives usually painted with hedonistic details are decorated in another way, with a voluntary barrier: a metal grille or wire netting painted on the fruits creates an obstacle that the spectator must overcome, to the same extent that in the taste, as a sort of suffering by Tantalus, its startles and strengthens itself.


Not far from there, Eduardo Abela offers a group of canvases in which some icons of animated cartoons or comics are introduced in classical pieces of universal art: thus Superman takes the place of Archangel Gabriel in The Annunciation and Cardinal Niño de Guevara by El Greco acquires the head of Homer Simpson with a cigar in his right hand and an iruke in his left. This is about a process in which western and Byzantine Christian art is demystified and is syncretised in a postmodern way with images revered in the culture of masses to highlight the growing banality of certain discourses and symbols in current societies.


With his Viajes al paraiso (Trips to Paradise), Agustín Bejerano recapitulates several of the figurations that have accompanied the diverse stages of his work, as if trying to formulate an ironic apotheosis of his art. It mixes a morbid sexuality that does not hide too much a certain degree of violence and a virtuous formal realisation that helps give a disquieting taste to the whole.


One would also have to make a stop in the conceptual wealth of the creations of René  Ponjuán, in the water paintings of Duvier del Dago that comment on the immediate and harsh reality with a certain taste of old fashion and in the artefacts that Tomás Núñez gathers in Renaissance that know how to take advantage of the surrealist poetry of the “found object” as well as the mastery of Antonia Eiriz to produce very attractive works.


However, I prefer to leave aside the heat and the noise of the general display and seek refuge in one of its halls, in which only the canvases brought by Ileana Sánchez Hing from Camagüey are grouped together. The creator presents us with an unexpected gift by offering a group of paintings that are portraits of persons or animals that inhabit her daily life or appropriations of iconic images as occurs with the very small Marilyn Monroe that is beside the entrance door.


What is interesting is that these pieces base themselves on the technique of photorealism but conceived with very particular purposes. Each painting derives from a photo, but the idea is not to reproduce it faithfully in detail and impersonally, as used to happen in the initiators of this tendency. She prefers to use that mechanical image as the base or sketch of the piece, and the true art starts then, when she paints the surface not just to distribute the colour and light on the surface, but rather, especially, to characterise psychologically her character – be it an artist or a turtle – so that the stains reveal that which the exterior tends to hide.


The result is bold and at the same time refreshing. On the one hand it pays tribute to the procedures of Renoir and other impressionists; on the other it does not discard a certain taste for the pop art that for decades has marked her work. The artist distances herself from the photos to offer us a progressive humanised deconstruction and reconstruction of them, but with an elegant freshness and apparent simplicity that the spectator appreciates, so that that space, within the total whole of Zona franca, oozes that intimate taste of someone who has known how to create a very personal world, rich in artistic incitements.


Whoever has known the work of this artist in leaps will be surprised if they remember that in the last Biennial her intervention followed an absolutely different line. Many of us participated in that Proyecto Gatos (Cat Project) that took place in La Maestranza Children’s Park on the Avenida del Puerto.


A group of children and adults from that barrio and visitors to the installation were called upon to draw and paint on the pavement, according to their fantasy, one of the recurrent symbols in Ileana’s work: cats. While the cement started to light up with the feline troupe, small actors belonging to one of the divisions of La Colmenita animated the pictorial work with songs, dance and games. The result, free of any manifestation of whining or paternalism, was of an authentic cultural value. The merging of artistic manifestations, the animation, though brief, of a recreational space, the mobilisation of persons from the community and even facilitating their contact with journalists, writers, artists and other intellectuals, turned it into a memorable morning.


One should not be surprised at such variations if we recall that the artist’s work began as a process of trial and error throughout the 1980s while she taught the secrets of painting to groups of children. She worked with the most diverse manifestations: ceramics, graphic design and even couturier creations. One day she experimented with paint rollers to make monotypes, others she submitted fabrics to dyes invented by her to make dresses with them. Out of all that poetry of extreme freedom or of arbitrariness, the same she taught her students, a trade started emerging, a way of expression that will make her creations unique.


In the first half of the 1990s her relation with painting became systematised with the exhibit Tropicolas in the Provincial Centre of Visual Arts of Camagüey. The definitive turning point took place between 1996 and 1997, but not in Cuba but rather in the Mediterranean island of Mallorca where she had been given a scholarship.


Then Ileana had great amounts of acrylic and with it she could obtain clean colours, with a metallic reflection, which dried faster than oil paint and made it possible to work with certain ease and freedom. With this she was able to give free rein to poetry and started to paint a group of small format paintings with a world that was the reinvention of the tropics: a town of blacks, drawn with the same ease and freedom she learned from the children, she played, loved, partied, flew through the air with a limitless optimism. There was no categorisation, not even local references; it was a sort of Paradise where all dreams could come true.


The artistic and commercial success of the series did not take long in coming. Ileana’s “little blacks” got to Spanish calendars as well as to murals in different cities and institutions in the world. Collectors would disturb her at all hours. But she refused to make her finding rhetoric and returned to her pop experiments, to work with photography, to the manipulation of icons, always assuming the risk of disconcerting admirers and detractors. Her workshop, located in the historic centre of Camagüey, under the emblem of a blue cat, is full of those creative preoccupations.


Readers will think I am somewhat partial, but I confess that in the face of so much display of art povera that was really poor, in the face of so much conceptualism without concept, plus the reiterated presence of those who live sheltered in bad painting as the last resort for their insufficiencies in the trade, Sánchez’ portraits were for me one of the most attractive wholes offered around these days by the arid fortress of San Carlos de la Cabaña. I am sure many critics do not agree with me, but when it is a question of tastes…. (2015)

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