By Fabiola Santiago
Posted on Sun, Nov. 12, 2006
Humberto Castro’s route to freedom was his art — Havana-Paris-Miami, and now, New York — and the journey is reflected in his enigmatic, poetic canvases.
Black birds in flight, a blue snail carrying the map of Cuba on his back, the haunting circle of an inner tube cradling a figure that may be dying or being born, or both.
Man and beast stitched into one in a painting Castro calls The Eternal Spiral.
The red ”apple of discord” bitten into the shape of his island.
A creature spewed from a serpent’s egg — a desirable woman, or a monster, or both.
”I leave my paintings open to all kinds of readings,” the 48-year-old artist says, standing in front of El pescador de almas (The Fisherman of Souls), one of the most striking pieces in his 15-year retrospective of paintings and drawings on exhibit at ARTSPACE/Virginia Miller Galleries in Coral Gables.
A member of the daring 1980s generation of avant-garde Cuban artists who broke through government censorship, launched independent art collectives, and for too short a moment, staged exhibits and performance art critical of the island’s totalitarian regime, Humberto Castro left Cuba in 1989.
The owner of a Parisian gallery, who like many European art dealers began visiting Havana after the first biennial of 1984, offered him the opportunity to live and work in Paris.
”France was like a gift life gave me,” he says of the 11 years he lived in the City of Light. “It’s my second homeland, a country that opened its doors to me.”
The transatlantic move immediately changed his award-winning art, which in Cuba was dark and critical, personified by drawings on paper and etchings of contorted, chained figures struggling to free themselves, and sculpture installations that featured distorted bodies and torsos upside down, as if taking a plunge into the floor.
From his early Paris era, the exhibit at Miller includes two paintings that are strikingly different from everything else — his 1990 series Signs of the Zodiac. The Iron Fish and The House of Virgo, both exuberant in their splash of color, are revelatory of what happens when an artist is set free.
”I went wild,” Castro says. “It was cafe life, partying, living and working. I worked, then partied into the dawn hours, then worked again very hard.”
But it wasn’t long until he returned, not to the darkness of his Havana drawings, but to his studied explorations of journeys and flight in yellows and reds, the chant of a free man looking forward and back.
The style, still charged with the issues of confinement of his Cuba period but infused with color, remained his trademark through his move to Miami in 2000 in search of ”the experience of living in the United States” and the connection to the exiled wing of his family.
”I needed the sun, to spend time in a place with a tropical climate,” he says. “I needed that light.”
From the beginning, Castro’s approach to his work has been to create in series, using mythological themes and figures like the Minotaur, Icarus and Ulysses to explore the labyrinths in the struggle for power and the human desire to flee confinement.
In the process, his art speaks of contemporary migration — he notes that Cubans are not the only ones fleeing their circumstances in treacherous sea voyages in which the waves become ominous, “like a wall.”
Born in Havana in 1957, Castro comes from a family with no connections to the art world, but one that supported his early fascination with paints and pencils.
”I wanted more and bigger boxes of them and my grandparents indulged me and bought them for me,” Castro says.
His only familial ties to design came by way of his uncle, Emilio Castro, an architect who designed most of the sports stadiums in Cuba (he died two years ago). Emilio’s brother, Castro’s father, Humberto Castro Díaz, owned the nightclub Cabaret Nacional before the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959.
Castro’s mother, Lucía María García, was a housewife and her side of the family supported the Revolution. His parents divorced after his father’s business was confiscated by the new government and he was sent to prison for one year ”for the crime of owning a nightclub prior to 1959.” His father fled the country shortly after his release and came to live in the United States. He died recently. His mother remains in Cuba.
”Mine is the typical story of the Cuban family split apart by the Cuban Revolution,” Castro says.
After his talent for art became apparent, Castro followed the formal art education channels in Cuba, starting at the prestigious San Alejandro Institute at 14 and studying alongside breakthrough artists like José Bedia and Rubén Torres Llorca. Like them, Castro went on to higher studies at Instituto Superior de Arte and became part of a generation that radically changed the Cuban art scene.
Castro’s series of black-and-white drawings in 1981-82 depicted distorted human figures bound by wires, sporting pins coming out of their heads, and always looking pained but struggling to break free. It is powerful work, reminiscent of the paintings of the Cuban master Antonia Eiríz (1929-1995).
Castro avoided the censors by telling them the figures represented the indigenous population massacred by Spaniards. He went on to win many prizes for his artwork, both in Cuba and abroad, in Germany, Puerto Rico and Poland.
While Bedia and Torres Llorca created Volumen I, the best-known exhibit of that generation and an unprecedented collection of critical art, Castro founded the group Hexágono with artist Consuelo Castañeda and some photographers. Many other artists formed similar groupings in those years to stage performances, collaborate on exhibits, and to protect themselves from being singled out for prosecution as traitors.
“I was lucky enough to live in years when there was a little bit of an opening, where we broke with the socialist realism that had been imposed in the [1960s and 1970s] era of painting militants, peasants, tanks and the figure of Fidel.”
He got to travel, Castro says, “because I won so many prizes abroad that they had to let me go.”
Once, he was sent to Moscow after he won a drawing prize at a Berlin show.
“I was supposed to go to Berlin, but for some reason they said, not there. There was a trip of cooperation between Cuba and the Soviet Union, so I could go to that. And I said to myself, fine, I’ll go. At least I get to see The Hermitage.”
With the collective, he staged performances on the beach, at Galería Habana, and even at Castillo de la Real Fuerza, a fortress built in 1558-77 to protect the city from invasion. Castro’s pieces were all gray, black and metal and spoke volumes about repression.
”It was a very fruitful time,” Castro says. “It wasn’t so much that we opened anything, but that we came with new ideas and the influence of [Soviet] glasnost made it so that there were some people in the government who wanted to open up.”
The ’80s generation, Castro and other artists and curators from that era say, was able to stage ”conflictive exhibits,” largely because of Marcia Leiseca, a progressive vice minister of culture who allowed it.
”People were sure that there was a desire to change,” he says.
But when the government began to shut down exhibitions after just a few days, it soon became obvious ”they weren’t going to put up with the criticism,” Castro says.
That was the case of his 1989 exhibit titled Poder y existencia, Power and Existance, featuring somber paintings in grays, muted blues, olive greens and black-and-white, as well as metal pieces and text that was “socially reflective.”
Leiseca was removed from her job, and the last Castro heard, she had been sent to Mazorra, the Havana mental hospital.
As for Castro, he accepted the invitation from France and became somewhat alienated from all that. ”In France you don’t hear talk of Cuba everyday — unless a musician is coming to play,” he says.
Castro, whose work also was exhibited as a retrospective at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale in 2001, doesn’t give the story of his life as much weight in his art as some art critics do.
”Life in a way does influence the work of an artist, but I channel my work very consciously,” he says. “In every series there is a theme of study that I work through composition and color.”
He is now living in New York and plans to spend at least a year there, although he is also keeping a house in Miami and travels to Paris frequently.
”I’m the kind of person who likes to move, to insert myself in a new culture, to acquire new friends,” Castro says. “Some people like stability. I like change. If I could live each year in a different city I would.”
He chuckles at the irony of his Cuban wife’s name — Gipsy, a website designer who also studied at San Alejandro, and always accompanies him on his journeys. They have a 2-year-old daughter, Carolina.
Castro is now working to expand on canvas his last exhibit at the Kendall campus gallery of Miami Dade College, three installations titled The Hunter, The House, and The Bait.
The installations included a 12-foot tall man — ”the hunter” — walking on a tight-rope with his arms extended. The bait: 12 oars against a wall, and in each oar, a piece of an arm, a hand, a head.
When he’s done, Castro says, he expects that ”the new winds of New York” will inspire his next voyage.
Fabiola Santiago is The Miami Herald’s visual arts writer.