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The permanent collection of Contemporary Cuban Art at the Fine Arts Museum in Havana exhibits Santo de paseo por el trópico [Saint Visiting the Tropics] (1991), a sculpture of Saint Sebastian made of polychrome plaster. The saint was placed in this setting as a symbol of the imprints of all kinds of journeys, where the preservation of the body, and even of the spirit, can be grueling; a trans-cultured figure, kneaded with American elements to its very core, ranging from kitsch to Baroque, which achieved its maximum splendor on this continent in the Brazilian city of Ouro Preto.
The body seems somewhat more robust and no longer pierced by arrow—as depicted by El Greco—but by machetes wielded by Cuban patriots during the independence wars in the 19th century. This piece was made by Esterio Segura (Santiago de Cuba, 1970-), who is considered one of the most controversial artists of his generation. He made this sculpture when he was 29 years old and a student of the Higher Institute of Arts, a place where, according to Esterio himself, he absorbed all the knowledge that emanated from his teachers.
Due to the niche it occupies at the National Fine Arts Museum and the time when the artist made this piece, at times his St Sebastian is considered the starting point of a work of more than 20 years in full expansion; a work that apparently interprets art as the plane of human creation which should be and is committed to generating pleasure, leaving the more tortuous aspect of reality to other disciplines such as newspaper articles or documentary evidence. This does not imply, however, that the artist has renounced the conceptual element and its predictable symbolic skein. Quite the contrary, Segura’s poetics has consolidated many of its parables and metaphors on this basis, which eventually appears to be more solid, vis-á-vis the display of subjectivity. Apparently, great importance is paid to the title that accompanies each of his projects, thus confirming that for the artist, “a piece without a title is a disrespectful way of beginning a dialogue with the viewer.” The key lies in finding a suitable place within the dynamic combination of words to deposit the substances that stem from so many concerns.
Santo de paseo por el trópico was not the only piece produced by Esterio during that period with the same aesthetics. Most of those pieces have been purchased by private collectors and are currently located outside Cuba. Another group eventually became very popular thanks to the Cuban film Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate), where they appear as the work—which was branded as “being imbued with ideological problems” by a dogmatic discourse—of a friend of one of the protagonists.
Now, many years after having made these sculptures, whoever visits the artist’s studio in El Cerro district in Havana will discover that this vocation is not over, that similar creatures, in which one can easily recognize the lineage that links them to the aforementioned pieces, resurface. I would like to highlight an interesting detail and distinctive trait of his creativity: Esterio is currently one of the most “rhizomatous” artists in the present context, simultaneously involved in the execution of various projects, without finishing any. This situation has become a breeding ground resulting from interconnections with different zones, which ultimately provide feedback to each other.
Within his scope of action, which is excessively wide, sculpture is submitted to violent transformations as well as to difficult and risky interpretations of its boundaries. His statues come to life as unprejudiced creatures ranging from Lirio [Lily] (2009) to híbrido de Chrysler New Yorker [Hybrid of Chrysler New Yorker] (2003), including the cages with paper rockets in Vuelo blanco y vuelo negro [White Flight and Black Flight] (2009); or eyeglasses, where two essentially opposite elements usually interact, such as freedom and confinement, full visibility and blindness, generating in the viewer’s interpretation what can be classified as a conflict zone, from which the pieces become more attractive and bear a message or reminder that definitely reinforces their sense of being.
His own restless personality seems more inclined to performances that usually reach a convincingly high conceptual level thanks to the use of effective metaphors that accompany him. Balance, depth and wit-effects complete the artist’s creative actions, which move along this direction. Such is the case of Conversación sobre aeronáutica con Ana Mendieta y Robert Smithson [Conversation on Aeronautics with Ana Mendieta and Robert Smithson] (2006), where an airplane/sculpture dies amidst the flames, in reference to the enchantment of the ephemeral and the tragedy of death. Both of these artists—Mendieta adn Smithson—fell from the sky to the bitter cold abode of the dead, where perhaps they are not even entitled to rest. The words exchanged between Segura and the two absentee artists are precisely found in the theme which has fascinated Esterio for the past ten years—aircrafts—which he has interpreted in different formats and media. The effect on the viewer is so great, that I would dare use the phrase, “unmerciful flight.”
These aircrafts are mostly related to a sort of structure suitable for “the journey” conceived as a temporary and natural migration, which in any case responds to the innate need to move that we incubate at a certain point in time, a sort of Marco Polo within us. In this regard, Esterio seems to distance himself a bit from the frontal and incisive manner with which many of his contemporaries address this topic. He seems to focus more on the underlying causes of this phenomenon and dismisses temporary urgencies. In Esterio, travel symbolizes the magnitude of his mind, his nonconformity and the desire to always advance a little further.
Among the various families of aircrafts that he has created, our attention is drawn to one that has been rapidly gaining in importance since 2011 and whose components have been inscribed under the title Goodbye My Love—red aircrafts whose central part is shaped like a heart. Goodbye My Love makes us reflect once again about the pain and the bitter-sweet taste of farewells, which is a form of loss, of something we consider our own and which is suddenly torn away from us by circumstances.
For an artist of his generation who during the last three decades has witnessed the different—and adverse—situations his country has lived through, political, ideological and historical themes often seep through as part of an inevitable organicity. Many of us who during our childhood perceived politics, especially its ideological content, as the space where our faith played an important role, always demanded that these discourses should not fail to meet the expectations they generated in us. The failure to do so, given the evolution of history itself, led to a territory of doubt and distrust; or something with a more scientific name ranging from disenchantment to disappointment. It is precisely from this territory or mind frame that other works appear: Altavoz contra la pared [Loudspeaker Against the Wall] (2000), Papá, ¿cómo es la sangre de los héroes? [Dad, What Does Heroes’ Blood Look Like?] (2006) and Pinocho y Napoleón cuentan la historia [Pinocchio and Napoleon tell the story] (2006). In the latter, the thorny topic of manipulation is addressed with refined irony once again.
His most evident feature is that he cannot stop and reappears over and over again, attempting to surpass himself, transferring the previous meaning to other velocities, especially to mediums that are capable of tolerating it. His daily work brings us closer to the essence of a word, very much in vogue now, which we recognize as factory, on this occasion invaded by energies as spontaneous and ambitious as his project of building a homemade submarine.