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Leaving a Record of My Time
Photo: Otmaro Rodríguez
Photo: Otmaro Rodríguez

Outstanding Cuban artist Pedro Pablo Oliva’s participation in the 13th Havana Biennial during the months of April and May can be described as active, committed, and relevant. Oliva, recipient of the National Prize for Visual Arts in 2006, is part of the selective list of artists involved in the project Detrás del muro (Behind the Wall). The art installation that runs along the emblematic Malecón seawall is curated by Juan Delgado and delights viewers with several sculptures located in the entrance of the Hotel El Terral. Oliva has also been commissioned by María Milián to be part of the collective exhibition of contemporary art, Hb, which will include three spaces and will culminate on the top floor of the Alicia Alonso Grand Theater of Havana. His studio-workshop in Old Havana will be open to those who wish to catch a glimpse of the latest work by this artist who, according to OnCuba, has taken up a battle against demagoguery and simulation: “I have the right to speak with my own voice and I lost any fear of repression. I don’t understand creations that are so far removed from the society I live in. Creation is part of society, and the essence of it.”

Pedro Pablo Oliva, creator of El gran apagón (The Great Blackout, 1994) —a piece cataloged by the artistic press as the “Cuban Guernica”— has said of his piece: “I am not capable of judging it with total certainty, I only know that I gave birth to it.”

His iconography, one of infinite tenderness and clean lines, may be reminiscent of comic strips, because it is “full of worlds and ambushes. Like video games, it surprises by morphing into something else on each canvas, sometimes it’s a rabbit or a fish; other times clouds or a stream,” he says.

From the series 'Fantasmas de la utopia' (Detail), 2018 (112 x 152 cm)
From the series “Fantasmas de la utopia” (Detail), 2018 (112 x 152 cm)

The beginnings of this artist born in 1949 in the western province of Pinar del Río, where he currently resides, are “a mystery,” perhaps because origins always are, and the full explanation isn’t always apparent, but rather “is hidden like an almond or colorful like mangoes and guavas. I don’t know what percentage I owe to my obsession with comics; how much to the patio of my childhood home; how much to that childish desire to imitate other friends; how much to my mother, who decorated the tablecloths of the old dining table, full of tenderness. That eagerness to record my time with colors, papers, brushes, and canvases must have come from somewhere,” says Pedro Pablo.

On the other hand, his work —both universal and profoundly Cuban— goes far beyond a color, transparency, or theme: “it is above all a spiritual condition that ties you to a cup of coffee or to the enchantment of a way of walking, talking, and laughing. My generation is leaving a legacy: utopia.”

Another of his obsessions is to communicate, to engage in dialogue with others, and to leave a record of a specific moment in the Cuban context in which he lives, because, as he emphasizes, painting is another way of speaking: “my work will be one more testimony to a lived moment. It will be nothing more than a fleeting reference to a time when reality was much more crushing than any other word. The usefulness of a piece is infinite or finite. After these years some vestige of life will emanate from it and someone will say ‘a man lived in a place, he expressed his life in his own way, he loved and suffered, he kicked and was kicked, he screamed, dreamed, but he did not stay silent.'” And because remaining silent is not his thing, he recognizes that the allusion to childhood appears as “a real ghost in his work: perhaps that’s why even the most serious issues take on a shade of tenderness, which I can’t avoid,” he emphasizes.

From the series 'Fantasmas de la utopia', 2018 (152 x 112 cm)
From the series “Fantasmas de la utopia”, 2018 (152 x 112 cm).
Novia llorando, 2015 (107 x 26 x 82 cm)
Novia llorando, 2015 (107 x 26 x 82 cm)

Vehement in his drawing and “liberal or excessively rational” with his use of color, his work is a true feast for the senses and the soul. However, over the past nine years he has had to overcome a complicated obstacle. In 2010, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease which, beyond the limitation it implies, has become a stimulus and a lever for his creation. Starting from that reality, Pedro Pablo Oliva began an intense career as a sculptor with a background in ceramics: “I developed that art form before the condition that I now face appeared, and I firmly believe that ceramics is a way of making sculpture. I wanted to see my characters sharing a physical space and I just needed to bring them to life.”

Today, he proudly exhibits a consolidated sculptural body of work, expertly fused in bronze that has followed a coherent theme and aesthetic line because —without being tracings of his pictorial work— he does maintain the spirit that has animated him in the four decades that he has dedicated to the visual arts.

From the series Sillones de mimbre: 'Espantado de todo', 2018 (37 x 24 x 23 cm)
From the series Sillones de mimbre: “Espantado de todo”, 2018 (37 x 24 x 23 cm)

Convinced that life is a permanent battle, he assures that “it is a war to attain a stability that rarely is achieved. Triumphs are ephemeral, like insects that never get to see the sun: I painted what I lived and therefore, I was unexpectedly astonished.”

And although he recognizes that he is by nature “elusive and, sometimes, a sharpshooter,” there is in fact a very poetic element in all his work that melts or intersperses with textures alluding to the fantastical worlds he is immersed in. But his work also speaks of a clearly human condition, of feelings and motivations, of desires and hopelessness, but not approached from a resentful or bitter point of view but rather with a curious, sarcastic perspective, in which underlying mockery and jest are so well conceived as to be disguised.

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