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The Giant ‘JEFF’ Sculpture in the Middle of Vedado
Photo: Alba León
Photo: Alba León

During the 10th Biennial, in 2009, artist José Emilio Fonseca Fuentes (JEFF) invaded the streets with his most popular sculpture: the herd of elephants that later took up residence in the plaza at the Miramar Trade Center. If one looks carefully, there are other sculptures of his to be found in the city, easily identifiable by his inflated metal technique.

A painting hangs on one of the wooden walls in the small house—the house is actually called Coco Blue y la Zorra Pelúa (roughly, Coco Blue and the Furry Fox). It’s a canvas with a white background where he appears dressed in a yellow robe, taller than a tree, and much larger than a house. It could be said that the scene was painted by a child.

José Emilio Fonseca Fuentes is sitting and leaning on the glass table. Several sculptures are scattered on the surface. There is the apple that is his smallest piece of all. He looks at me calmly and says: “The center of my life is in this place.”

In 2015, JEFF heard about a plot of land on 14th Street in Vedado measuring almost 500 square meters, between 11th and 13th streets. Only two rooms in the original house were still standing. It was inhabited by drunkards who people paid five pesos to in exchange for throwing their rubble there. JEFF says he had to extract the sum of all those five pesos. In the end he was left with an empty space, which is like a blank canvas.

“What I’ve done during these four years,” he says, “is to deposit a little energy.”

JEFF began filling the void with his own sculptures. He put up a flagpole. In the rooms he stored steel, scrap metal, wood and any scraps that might be useful to him. He took his red bicycle, the Niagara, and left it out in the open. Piece by piece he patiently put together his car, a Willys. He planted a sign: La Finca #112 (Farm #112).

“A farm in the middle of Vedado,” he says. There are banana trees and other vegetation, and a dirt floor. There is a sculpture that is a vessel for roasting a pig, and a small sugar mill to extract guarapo—that sugary liquid that is best enjoyed very cold—from the cane. There is also a colander to make strong black coffee, typical of rural areas in Cuba, and served in glasses made from beer bottles chopped in half. He always manages to achieve the same aesthetic: rustic, unfinished, functional. It’s an aesthetic that is now fashionably called “vintrash”: a mix of vintage and something that one day had been garbage.

Photo: Alba León

Coco Blue y la Zorra Pelúa, for example, is built with wooden boards and iron beams. Both the boards and the beams used to be waste, boxes that Russian elevators arrived in, iron removed from old elevators when new ones are installed. Recycling is the solution to the scarcity of resources, the country’s and his own.

“This is my office, my space, my sanctuary. From here I can broadcast to other places in the world, and so, using this as a large base of operations, I am getting organized,” he says.

He takes a rather long pause. A pause that actually takes place in silence without the intention of bringing drama to this story, and he continues: “Let’s see, how can I explain it to you. I spent so much time without a studio, unable to produce, that now that I have this here, I forgot about the world, about parties, craziness, bars, exhibitions. I don’t go anywhere, this is my refuge.”

El Coco y la Zorra—let’s call it that for short—is just one of the spaces within La Finca. At some point, JEFF—who says that the first lesson in art is knowing how to part with things—will turn it into a bar.

With the income generated by the bar, JEFF will be able to finance another one of his plans, the creation of scholarships for artists, be they academics or self-taught, of any nationality, as long as they are in line with what he is trying to promote: nothing extremely conceptual. “The idea, for the idea’s sake, doesn’t interest me. I believe more in a type of work where there is something to be had beyond the memory, the idea, the performance. Something that remains. I’m an advocate for tangible art.”

When he was a boy, JEFF wanted to be a doctor, a pilot or a painter. Now he is a man who paints like a child. “Behind that apparent ingenuity I can say the things that I think as an adult. Furthermore, we were all children once, we all know that iconography, that language. So the communication is more direct,” he says.

Later he became a sculptor and, since then, everything that he comes into contact with somehow becomes a piece.

La Finca is a large sculpture made up of many others, a work in progress. There is not a single object that JEFF has placed st random.

Photo: Alba León

The Niagara, red, rusty, old, rests a few meters from the entrance. I ask him about it and he replies that it’s just a bicycle. But it’s not. Several years ago JEFF had one, he left it at a friend’s house, and lost it. A little stubborn, I think, JEFF bought another and wound up giving it to his brother. His brother then sold the Niagara in order to leave the country. “He is not here now, so I bought that one. It’s like a symbolic presence, and it has to deteriorate by itself.”

When Jeff got married—because of course he got married at La Finca—the Niagara received the guests with a basket full of flowers.

Working, getting married, throwing parties, receiving friends, organizing exhibitions, attracting future scholarship applicants is, for him, how he brings the world into his space. Otherwise, he believes, it wouldn’t exist. “Here it is the other way around,” he declares: “the mountain comes to Muhammad.” Put like that, it sounds a bit contradictory. The same place that serves as a retreat is also a place for meeting (with people, with art, with the city).

“For me to be alone now, retired, producing, so that tomorrow this can become a place where people want to come and have a good time, is not a contradiction. I enjoy the process of doing everything in here, of changing it all the time, of seeing how each space takes on its own energy. And it makes me happy to know that everyone who arrives feels the change and that energy, however simple it may be.”