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No one knows the true dimension of art until one discovers popular art, or the art of the ordinary man. Freeing ourselves from the old school of thought and attitude towards art, we feel that a load has been taken off our minds. The spirit rises to experience true art in which, with great fanfare and passion, anything goes.
This is what you experience in Gallo’s Garden of Affections, a huge garden conceived in the name of love and optimism, which grows from within the heart of a noble and wise artist. A space that is free of the deforestation and drought of the soul that abounds out there.
Hector Pascual Gallo Portieles has lived with art, even unknowingly, since early childhood. He was born in Campo Florido in eastern Havana to a 50-year-old mother, who raised him in an environment brimming with love and affection, and the town judge. He grew as an artist should grow—immersed in the pleasures of following his nose freely. In his youth, he took up many trades: baker, carpenter, auto mechanic…his attempts at work were always marked by a common notion—to experiment. He even earned a degree in journalism at the age of 58 and served for many years as a diplomat. He traveled to over 20 countries in four continents, which led him to discover his talent: to experience all human feelings, and question everything around him as a true philosopher who never ages, a man whose beauty grows with every passing day. In his spiritual endeavor, he has always had the company of his wife Emilia, his childhood sweetheart and the love of his life forever. They’ve been together 67 years and have had three children. Their life together is a tribute to love.
Back in Cuba, he moved to “Siberia,” the far end of Alamar, a housing development to the east of the capital. For years he worked as a barber, enjoying the prestige that came from his ability to cut and dress hair. In the 1990s, led by the shortages of the Special Period, he decided to abandon his trade of many years. He had been an exceptional barber and did not want to let his customers down by inventing and reinventing products to be able to do his job.
The Special Period was a time of uncertainty and survival in which the vast majority of Cubans spent much of their time ensuring their daily bread. Many flower gardens became vegetable orchards, and chicken coops were set up in backyards and small patios. The situation called for exhausting any resources in order to survive, and many people let spirituality and the hope for any hint of prosperity fly out the window. It was at this critical time that Gallo decided to become an artist. This was how he began to plant pride and dignity in the Garden of Affections, where he grows exotic plants of human nature. Recycling junk, he endeavors to recover lost values.
Many of the objects that he uses in his art have been brought to him by other people in the form of gifts or souvenirs, while others he has retrieved directly from the trash can. These objects have become sculptures or installations that have filled his garden and home–by home meaning inside, outside and all around. When you enter the premises, you find a ceiba tree that will be his final resting place. A little further along, an iron mat allows visitors to remove the mud or any other unwanted litter that may have stuck to the soles of their shoes.
The garden is baroque and eclectic in its beauty and the constant recycling is also spiritual, including his many personal sayings in which he lets his imagination run free. Written on pieces of metal, dry leaves or cardboard, these sayings are scattered all over the garden, like the one that says, “Trust people with all your might! Let your feelings jump out of control! Turn your weeping into laughter! When you feed your soul, the heart is thankful.”
Eyeglasses, phones, old kids’ shoes and walking sticks are permanent symbols in his work–the nearsightedness and farsightedness of the present and future in our lives; the communication with the here and now, and the spiritual world (his intimate gods, divinities, all aligned for prosperity); the children’s shoes which one day walked, ran, jumped and played until they broke; the guiding walking sticks adorned with shells, feathers, bells and his grandchildren’s milk teeth.
He once gave the King of Spain a book about his life, “An X-Ray of Gallo,” in which he states the pillars of his Ethical and Moral Compass:
Never let down those who trust me; reciprocate sincerely the hand that has been stretched out to me from wherever it may come, even from my enemy, should I have any; honor the years that I have lived and deserve the years I have yet to live.
This ensures me the liberty to look whoever wants to listen to me in the face without having to look at them straight in the eye, although that is included, and enjoy the pleasure of using shoes of my own size although loose-fitting.
At the Garden of Affections, there is room for those who love as well as for those who don’t because love is contagious.
March 2015 This article formed part of the March 2015 issue of What’s On Havana The definitive monthly travel & culture guide to Havana Download our current issue of What’s On Havana, your definitive travel, culture and entertainment guide for all things happening in Havana, Cuba’s bustling and enigmatic capital city. We include features from around Cuba written by the best international travel writers covering Cuba. Our monthly online digital magazine is also available in Spanish and French.
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