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José Emelio—Elephants on the move

José Emelio—Elephants on the move

10th Havana Art Biennial

Anyone who climbed around, crouched under, or peered above the herd of inflated metal elephants that made its way around Havana during the first week of the 2009 biennial is familiar with the work of José Emilio Fuentes Fonseca (also known as JEFF). His name was on the tip of the tongues of those who visited with the elephants—along with those who murmured about their gargantuan size or wondered just how they’d been made—and his work has now solidly found its place in the public memory of unexpected and wonderful installations in Havana.

The herd crept between locations at night, aided by Jeff and a crew of willing helpers as well as not a few heavy-load haulers: from the Plaza Vieja, it went to the Capitolio, then on to the Tribuna Anti-Imperialista, a brief stop at the historic University steps, out to 31 and 60 in Buenavista (a reference to the historic massacre Sucesos de Orfila), and back to the Plaza de la Revolución. In all, it was a whirlwind tour of the city in little more than one week. As Jeff explained, the sites chosen reflect the history of Cuba. Rather than install the elephants in sites that would chronologically explain the history of his country, Jeff had them jump to places that symbolize different eras in Cuba’s history. Perhaps because, as his wife, Mariam, pointed out one afternoon at their Buenavista home, elephants are among the only animals that can’t jump.

“The elephant is a symbol of the family as well as of power,” explained the artist. “It’s one of the largest animals, but people are not afraid of them. They’re vegetarians.”

The gentle giants of the animal kingdom unite contradictions, which inspired the artist. The resulting pieces mesmerized children and adults, Habaneros from the herd’s neighborhood homes and tourists from around the world. Tottering on their immobile, oxidized legs, they at once reference the monumentality of Louise Bourgeois’ spiders and the playfulness of a Claes Oldenburg or Jeff Koons sculpture. And the inflated animals served, for many, as a good introduction to Jeff’s work, which includes paintings, drawings and sculptures all revolving around the theme of childhood and infantile iconography.

“That’s what unites my paintings, sculptures, and other work,” said Fuentes Fonseca. “In the end, they are all my toys.”
July 2009

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