SANTIAGO RODRÍGUEZ OLAZÁBAL (b. Havana, 1955) is a son of the Yoruba deity Oshún. He’s an artist who, since the beginning of his career as a painter, knew that he carried his subject matter “deep inside.” His ancestors were practitioners of Regla de Ocha and he was raised in a profoundly religious home. His work has several main themes: memory, worship, and spirituality exude from symbols that come from the Cuban Santeria religion. Without a doubt, he is a man whose deep faith spills out in every gesture and word. It seems that his great-grandfather, Ramón Febles, son of Changó and connoted priest of Ifá, sowed the primal roots of which he feels he is both heir and mantle-carrier.
With great sincerity, Santiago Rodríguez Olazábal says: “I did not discover art, art discovered me. I entered the San Alejandro Academy almost by chance and I had different cultural references.”
He had a happy childhood in a Havana tenement house where he played ball, four-square, marbles, and quimbumbia, rode on Cuban-style skateboards, and flew kites. Definitely a far cry from the world of colors, crayons and poster board.
When he arrived at the San Alejandro Arts Academy, he said, “I felt very strange because it was a distant place for me, but little by little, it completely changed my way of perceiving life and behaving.”
He recognizes that he had excellent teachers, such as, among many others, Osvaldo García, Ever Fonseca, José Antonio Díaz Peláez, Juan Moreira, and Lidia Verdalles, and he visited the classroom where Flora Fong taught painting. Although he opted to specialize in sculpture, drawing was what “has captivated him to this day.”
When one sculpts, he says, it’s like drawing in 3D because three-dimensionality has its own characteristics and rules: “I always say that I am a frustrated sculptor because practicing that specialty in Cuba is very difficult since it requires resources and space. That led me to bet on drawing, which for me is a way of speaking, it’s like a calligraphy. When you write, you’re drawing, and for me drawing allows me to transmit thoughts and ideas through lines, points and shapes.”
Words have a deep strength within his work, which is very coherent if one takes into account that Santeria is based on a deep-rooted oral tradition: “When a spell is cast, an invocation or praise is used, called the omi tutu. That is, by offering an omi tutu to the deities you are making a libation with water and therefore reactivating your spirituality. All this is done through words, phonetics, ways of speaking, and the cadence in that prayer or in that invocation.”
Symbols also play a prominent role and help Olazábal communicate ideas and moods. “In my work, everything has a purpose and there are no extraneous elements; everything is based on the literary body of what is known as Regla de Ocha,” he says. But it should be noted that in his work he “doesn’t represent deities,” but rather reinterprets what comes to him through human figures: “It’s true that I have portrayed deities such as Iyami Osoronga, a cult that only very powerful women can belong to, which is ruled by three deities: Oshún, Yemayá and Oyá.”
The work of this genuine artist is distinguished by formal, clean, and uncomplicated compositions. This is surely the result of the refining process that is characteristic of him: “First the ideas arrive, perhaps from some Ifá text or dreams —because I enjoy a very active dream life— and, sometimes, I see things when I’m awake…. This doesn’t mean that I appreciate them physically, but that I feel them in another dimension. When these ideas come, I make notes that are either written or in small sketches of figures. These figures are what lead me to the foundation of the piece.”
From his pictorial work, which is ultimately his artistic platform, Olazábal has combatted the notion that religion or any religious theme is treated with a festive and folkloric nature, because “there is a depth of knowledge and so much to learn that those who appropriate this topic in order to make money do not respect the immense legacy of which we are depositaries. You cannot and should not do a piece thinking about how much you’re going to earn, because then you’re catering to the market and that’s a very serious error that, surely, will have consequences.”
He confesses that in the beginning, his perspective was very primitivist and he leaned towards the work of artist Manuel Mendive, whose influence is obvious in his early work; but soon he began searching until he found his own style. Within his generation, from the 1980s, several artists approached the topic, but Olazábal has the merit of being one of the first: “I touched on that theme, but always moving away from the carnivalesque and the colorful; I focused on the thought and cosmogony of religion, which has an endless and immeasurable heritage.”
Red, white, and black were the colors primitive man used to make art and Olazábal assimilated them from his own cosmogony: “White means bones, our bones; black has to do with darkness and the underworld. And red is life, blood; it is the color of that primordial essence with which we feed the deities. But if the work demands a blue or a green, I apply them without any inconvenience,” he emphasizes respectfully.
“I’m not interested,” he insists, “in whether they approve or not. I simply do my job because I feel that I am defending something that is above all of us: It’s not about my culture, it’s our culture, the Cuban culture. I don’t care if you like it or not. I do what I feel I have to do and I would be a coward if I didn’t do it because I’m defending my ancestors’ heritage. I have never felt censored, nor has anyone come to me to say that I can’t exhibit here or there. On the contrary, I’ve had the opportunity to exhibit at important museums and galleries in Cuba and abroad.”
And it’s true. In the recently concluded 13th Havana Biennial (from April 12 to May 12, 2019), Santiago Rodríguez de Olazábal participated in several projects. Perhaps the most provocative was the exhibition of contemporary Cuban art, ‘HB,’ exhibited in the Alicia Alonso Grand Theater of Havana. Olazábal was there with his work and the deities that accompany him.