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The exhibition that opened a few days ago at the new gallery in Havana’s emblematic theater, the Gran Teatro de La Habana, has been the most visited and commented in recent times, at least at a popular level. “Sacrificio en la encrucijada” [Sacrifice at the Crossroads] is a kind of retrospective proposed by Alexis “Kcho” Leyva, one of a number of Cuban artists who have managed to position themselves better ahead of their peers in the international art market. Also, he is perhaps the best known artist by the common man.
Kcho’s popularity comes not only from the excellence of his art. One area of his work has gone beyond the premises of museums and galleries onto the street. “Vive y deja vivir” [Live and Let Live] at Plaza Vieja was a unique installation in that the artist encouraged the people who live around the plaza to take home his boat-shaped bricks. Some took a few, perhaps as a souvenir, while others filled wheelbarrows with his unusual bricks. Many neighbors now proudly exhibit a piece of wall built in their homes with Kcho’s exclusive bricks. Another installation was his “La historia como un carrusel que aparece desde la oscuridad” [History Like a Carousel that Appears from the Dark] at Plaza de San Francisco on the occasion of the 10th Havana Art Biennial. Both of these installations addressed the controversial and sensitive topic of emigration, a topic he insistently goes back to (many people know him as “the fat boat guy”).
But his fellow countrymen love Kcho most of all for extra-artistic reasons. A few years ago, Cuba was hit by several hurricanes with particular vengeance and “the boat guy” quickly organized an artistic brigade, which he named Martha Machado, after his mother (who taught him how to draw when he was 13). The brigade was made up of musicians, actors, dancers, visual artists and writers who traveled to the worst hit areas with clothes, blankets and food. They helped recover what was salvageable from the rubble, and joined the locals in building furniture and shelters with the remains of the wreckage. But most importantly, they relieved the terror produced in these people, who had practically lost all of their belongings, by the devastating fury of nature, and lit up the unfathomable darkness of the nights with songs, improvised plays, poems, storytelling and humor. And that is something that people do not forget easily and are extremely grateful for.
Hence, this new exhibition by Kcho, which opened on his birthday and is by far his most important one in Cuba, has been visited by a mixed audience—from ministers and diplomats to building workers and housewives, from elders to children, ready to enjoy an exhibition that the artist himself has stated has been intended for them: “I am very excited about the idea of being able to share an exhibition of this magnitude with my people, the Cuban people…My purpose is to let people see where my ideas come from, know their origin, how I build them and structure them.”
To achieve his objective, the artist has made no secret of his didactic resources. The texts that hang on the walls are complemented by videos and pictures that document the genesis and development of the exhibition. His piece “La memoria construida” [Constructed Memory] comprises his notebooks from 1989 to 2002, so that, besides interacting with the work of art, the viewers may envision the complex process of his creation, which includes both the “spark” of inspiration, sensitivity and culture transferred to his sketches, and the meticulous and handcrafted workmanship with the unusual materials the artist often works with.
Be aware, however, that Kcho’s “sketches” are not of an ancillary nature. There is as much art in these impressive drawings—two-dimensional representations of his eventual three-dimensional work—as in the installation itself. These drawings confirm that Kcho is an extraordinary draughtsman, a fact that he ratified a few years ago when he claimed: “For me, the smallest drawing is not a sketch, but a work of art in itself which carries energy because it is a living thing…Everything I do is an extension of the hand. I draw a lot because I like its intensity.”
“Sacrificio en la encrucijada” puts new pieces to dialogue intelligently with others that have been exhibited before as a sign of continuity, but also of the constant renewal in this artist’s career, who at the age of 20 entered one of the consecrating spaces of contemporary art, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, where the work of only one other Cuban is exhibited—Wifredo Lam. One of the pieces on exhibition will be proposed by the artist for the next Havana Art Biennial—“David,” a huge spring reminiscent of his “El camino de la nostalgia” [The Road to Nostalgia] of 1995, which is a denial to those who believe that Kcho has fallen into a vicious circle of reiteration, or to those who circumscribe his theme to the hackneyed spectacle of the “boat people” who cross the Straits of Florida from Cuba to the United States.
Included in the exhibition are two of his famous boats, symbolic pieces of the multiple interpretations suggested by this artist’s work. One of these vessels, whose sail displays flags from many countries, seems to remind us that migration is a universal phenomenon of all time. The other one, fitted out with garments, could refer us to the “inner journey.” Both these and the well-known “Mi casa es tu casa” [My House is Your House] (a rustic shack mounted on oars) and “Núcleos del tiempo” [Cores of Time] (different objects of daily use also mounted on oars) place us before the changing nature of existence, the ephemerality of the here and now. Kcho has exploited the infinite angles offered to him as a man of double insularity: he is from Cuba and from the Isle of Youth. Cuba, the big island, was originally populated by Arawak who came from the Venezuelan Amazon, was visited by Caribs, Mayans and Seminoles, was conquered and colonized by the Spanish, and repopulated by Africans, all of whom arrived by sea, while the former Isle of Pines became a refuge for pirates and corsairs, home to Asian and American colonists, and known for the huge prison established there, precisely because of the security of a place from where it was only possible to escape by sea.
The closeness, dependency, interrelation of the sea marks the art made by Kcho, who clearly sees it, like some anthropologists, as a communication link of cultures—and source of creation, as well as personal dramas—on which he has built an art of solid conceptual bases and splendid make, using recycled materials previously used by man (and often patinated by the salt in the air), which he loves to work with “because of the concentrated energy that emanates from them and the light they shed. I do not work with waste materials, but with past lives. This has been fundamental in my work. These materials have a prior history. My works are concentrated in their energy…” “Sacrificio en la encrucijada” is an oxygenating intellectual, emotional and visual exercise that Kcho invites us all to share with him.