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Reinier Leyva Novo: From history to fashion

Reinier Leyva Novo: From history to fashion

Though at times art may seem detached and distracted, it never fails to perceive events and scenarios which, on the long run, will have a decisive impact on the fate of society. This gives rise to a process that usually lasts years and even decades, because for such a fundamental process to take place, a change in behavior and sensitivity is required, which the generations instilled with the concept of “responsible behavior” can rarely carry out. In discussing this phenomenon, I am describing a symptom observed during the last few years in the context of Cuban artistic creation, that is, we have begun to reap the results of a very young generation of artists, born in the second half of the 1980s, who became aware of the reality of the nation when the Soviet era, which was so crucial for us, was history, the Berlin Wall had fallen and Eastern Europe seemed part of an apocryphal geography.

From that moment on, our country experienced an abrupt change, not ideologically as many people thought, but as a result of the dramatic economic situation which occurred precisely when the protagonists of this new generation of artists—such as Fidel García (Micro X), Mabel Poblet, Lorena Gutiérrez, José Manuel Messiah and Reinier Leyva Novo (el Chino)—were either children or adolescents. This article addresses the work of the latter given that of all the artists in this group, I consider that Leyva Novo exhibits greater ethical responsibility, which is perfectly connected with a highly digestible aesthetic discourse, with excellent taste, and based mostly on graphic design.

Reinier Leyva Novo was invited to the past Venice Biennial, as well as to the upcoming Havana Biennial, scheduled to open in May. His work apparently has awakened a special interest among critics, curators and the public in general. The key to his success has to do with his choice of subjects and the audacity with which he is willing to address them. With regards to his poetics, everything becomes riskier and tense, because practically all that he incorporates and intervenes has to do with memory and collective destiny, or more specifically, with the manner in which those born in the island during that period constructed their own view of reality and the future.

There is no question that Leyva Novo’s creative discourse is essentially political. Aware of the advantages of this new sensitivity, he embarks on a new interpretation of the historical and ideological discourse in which the nation has been immersed for approximately a century and a half. The principal virtue of these new interpretations is that they question the sediment which has built up in the consciousness of those who continue to be actors in this plot. There comes a time when this sediment begins to function as an absolute and unchanging truth, and the urgency to transport it to the realm of doubts and mutations also arises. It is at this point when the language of art through diverse media seems better prepared to take on this challenge which definitely penetrates the work in question.

Reinier Leyva has chosen the book format as a means to explore the different alternatives, since a book always offers the advantage of its solid trajectory as one of the most enduring links with memory. Of course, this choice also seems ironic and sarcastic, since the very object used as medium will be subverted by harsh criticism that ultimately questions certain facets of its usefulness.

In some of his pieces, the artist uses certain national symbols as a starting point—for example, the national anthem and the national flower of Cuba, conveying a ludic force to these accounts, thus toppling routes once considered solemn, what the official discourse constantly filters out as sacred and doctrinal material. We must also add that both narratives have impeccable arguments, where the visual proof eventually becomes poetic, settling in like metaphors while enhancing the communicative scope of the pieces.

For example, the piece Acerca de los mensajes que no han llegado a su fin [About messages that have not reached their destination] in which he uses Cuba’s national flower, the artist extracts from History testimonies-cum-legends that narrate how during the wars of independence, Cuban women transported important messages in these flowers, and later, using manual printing on old paper, he stamps them on 140 pages, allowing us to become participants in a rich context that lends itself to endless mental compositions.

Los olores de la guerra [The scents of War] is an even more profound and ambitious piece, which conveys the impression that the artist has walked the entire time on a tightrope—although successfully—cleverly establishing a parallel between the lightness of perfumes and the density of death, especially if it occurs while defending the homeland. For this purpose, he chose the death of three well-known Cuban heroes, that of Ignacio Agramonte y Loynaz, Antonio Maceo y Grajales, and José Martí. The artist later explored the sites where each of these events occurred and from a sort of “survey” of the smells he created three bottles which captured the essence of these odors, and displayed them as different types of perfume. The characteristics of each would be determined by the time of year in which each death occurred and the climatic conditions of the place. With regards to structure, there is an exquisite interplay with a shop in the historic center of the city known as the Casa de las Esencias [House of Perfumes].

Another piece by Leyva Novo, related to the topic of Cuba’s wars of independence during the 19th century, is still in progress. It is an eminently archaeological activity, which, based on actual data, attempts to reconstruct the battle of Dos Ríos, where our national hero, José Martí, was killed. The project also involves the participation of a military strategist, a cartographer, a botanist and a group of historians, specialists in this period. In the end, the piece will be a sort of puzzle of the sequence of the battle which will be pieced together.

Now, let us move on to a more frontal and immediate area of his work, utterly linked to current times and with the rich nuances generated daily by a social and political reality so atypical, and to a certain point seductive and perverse, too; a reality that has built so many symbols and emblems that at times it runs the risk of becoming unreal. This is the dimension in which the spirit of Páginas Escogidas [Selected Pages] seems to unfold. It is a series of pages constructed from headlines and news items published in the official Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma from 2007-2010. The piece retains the same graphic codes of the newspaper, but the meaning is subverted by rearranging the text. Leyva Novo also makes an organic use of crucial events in the history of the Cuban Revolution and inserts them in this parodic game. Revolución una y mil veces [Revolution a Thousand Times] exhibits the same tone and questions another emblem of official discourse through the compilation of a thousand-page book in which the word “Revolution” is repeated 239,940 times with the same typography. The piece concludes by confronting intensions with results; in other words, the concept of change with immobility.

The Novo Aniversario collection seems to be one of the most attractive facets of Reinier Leyva Novo’s ingenuity. Inserted in the urban space, it exploits the drives of the body, confronting the intolerance of ideology to the lack of inhibition of the flesh. Here, the artist uses models sporting t-shirts stamped with slogans—again part of the political discourse—such as, “Revolution or Revolution,” “Like a sun of fire,” “50th Anniversary” and “An army of conscience.” With these interventions, the artist seems to ratify the way in which he goes from the frivolous to the pathetic, always looking for a sign or trail that will allow him to engage in the exercise of controversy.

February 2013

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