José Antonio Rodríguez Fuster is a ceramist, draftsman, painter and printmaker. He has made illustrations for several publications, participated in a number of international symposiums and events, and received various national and international awards and mentions. Fuster has made a major contribution over 18 years of work in the town of Jaimanitas in the outskirts of Havana. He has decorated over 80 houses and parks with murals, paintings, sculptures, etc. Having involved the neighbors in this work, Fuster’s project is a unique display of public art.
With Fuster, at his palace in Jaimanitas Fuster now summons us to celebrate with him the joy of living here on this Island.
PABLO ARMANDO FERNÁNDEZ
José Antonio Rodríguez Fuster, known to all simply as Fuster (Caibarién, 1946), is an exponent par excellence of luminance and joy. With his mastery of technique in painting, drawing, sculpture and ceramics, his work shows remarkable conceptual and stylistic unity within the diversity of techniques and materials that he usually uses.
A graduate of the School of Art Instructors in 1965, Fuster began his professional career in the Cubanacán Ceramics Workshop with renowned artists such as Alfredo Sosabravo, Reinaldo Gonzalez and Julia Calvo. Considered one of the founders of the New Cuban Ceramics, Fuster’s work since then has been so assiduous that one is inclined to identify him mostly as a ceramist–his excellent pieces on display at the Ceramics Museum bear witness to this. But if we look at the firm brush strokes, the absolute mastery of color and composition in his paintings and drawings, held in many Cuban and international galleries, then we prefer to speak of the painter. And what about the amazing sculptures with which he has embellished his home and surroundings? This man is definitely not easy to pigeonhole.
Determined to uncover the “mystery of Fuster,” we visited his home in the town of Jaimanitas, several kilometers west of Havana, where he has lived since 1975. After climbing the stairs–almost on tiptoe trying not to touch the beautiful mosaic-covered steps–a warm, friendly and restless human being, whose travels and successes throughout the world have not eroded the unaffected and cordial courtesy of Cubans from the provinces, confirmed the initial image that is transmitted through his vast creation.
I have no preference for any modality. I put the same passion into everything I do. For instance, I hadn’t worked with clay for two months and precisely today I began teaching two of my children–to see if they take a fancy to it–and I was filled with happiness. Today, I want to work with clay. Painting is also a spiritual need. I prefer oil painting but I also enjoy painting in acrylics and drawing. Besides, I can’t abandon painting because that’s what supports my project, all of this that surrounds me, which requires considerable investment.
When the artist speaks of his “project”, he opens his arms as if to embrace everything about him and the emphasis in his voice resembles that of a sovereign speaking of his kingdom. Born in the coastal town of Caibarién in the province of Villa Clara, Fuster moved to the also coastal town of Santa Fe, in Havana, and finally to the neighboring town of Jaimanitas, also very close to the sea. This may explain the regular–and at times obsessive–presence of fish and blues in his paintings and ceramics, and the Gaudilike coral shapes that make his home a sort of tropical Park Güell decorated with majolica and mosaics, an enchanted palace that delights both children and adults. In Jaimanitas, Fuster has carried out a huge amount of work in the beautification of facades and public areas, which some critics see as a successor of the scale models with which he invited the public to design their ideal habitats at Galería Habana in 1987 in an exhibition called The City; and also of the imprint left by him in hospitals, such as CIMEQ and Hermanos Ameijeiras. Of his work in Jaimanitas, he speaks with pride and emotion.
When I began this work in 1995, my plan was to embellish my house and little by little I became more excited and got my neighbors excited about the idea, too. At first, the people were surprised, but they got used to it. The first intervention was here in my driveway, and then I asked my neighbors’ permission. Some of them are aware that they are exhibiting a work of art on their walls, others are not. Some adults explain to their children the importance that this effort has for the community, while others allow their kids to throw a ball against the ceramic-decorated walls. This is an indication that we have to continue working.
Have I gotten into trouble? Oh, yes. I’ve even been fined several times because the bench at the family doctor’s office has invaded the sidewalk, or because the mural that pays tribute to contemporary art exceeded the allowable height, or whatever. Can you imagine? A street mural made on the occasion of the 9th Havana Art Biennial with paintings by Zaida, Adigio, Fabelo, Sosabravo, Kcho, Choco, and there’s still space for other painters to add to it. I pay all the expenses, and I am happy to see how the front of many homes that used to look like chicken coops are now beautiful, filled with art and colors. We even fixed a neighbor’s roof!
And I will not stop dreaming. I want to develop a cultural movement in Jaimanitas beyond visual art; create a theater group, for example–the Ópera de la Calle (Street Opera) company, which is reviving the Cuban musical theater, was born here; arouse people’s creativity. Human beings are essentially creative. We are all creators, but you have to work hard.
During our conversation, Fuster, who is wearing a flowered shirt of warm colors, has continued to greet every passerby with a smile and an affectionate expression. He also watches what his children are doing. He asks his grandchildren where they are going or coming from. His eyes follow the work of masons and other workmen who are in the final stages in the construction of a gallery that he will open during the next Havana Art Biennial.
His way with people, his loving disposition, a harmony with the ordinary man rings throughout his work, unwittingly chronicling the everyday events in the life of his country. Hence, the popular characters in his paintings (many of whom have their roots in Picasso), who play dominoes, make love, ride bikes, play the guitar or maracas, dance, work, walk through fields and cities or pack public transport. And hence, too, the popular religious motifs that go from pictures to walls, from walls to sculptures, and from these to exquisite pottery. And the many symbols of Cuban mythology which intermingle, with hints of very diverse nature, in an iconography that behind its apparent simplicity reveals a deliberate conceptualization of profound ethical and existential repercussions, and even flirts with abstraction.
The artist’s people-oriented vocation, his intensive search for the human essence in simple things has led some critics to speak of naivety where much more complex relationships are actually shown, not only with large universal art movements, such as surrealism and even romanticism given the close communion between man and nature, but also with the great social and political conflicts of his time. Entering into the topic of influences is in no way thorny because he proclaims them candidly.
I have represented that symbol of Cuban identity, which is the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre many times, as well as St. Lazarus and St. Barbara, and many elements of the Yoruba religion. I am not a nonbeliever, but I am not a practicing believer either. I respect all religions; the person who goes to church and the one who worships a rock. And in my work I depict the unorthodox religiousness of most Cubans.
In my art, there are constant references to the sea–fish, mermaids, ships–because I was born and grew up and live on seacoast towns: Caibarién, Santa Fe, Jaimanitas. And there are many other references to the fabulous world of the Cuban farmer, to the mountain men who I met on the Loma del Aura in the Sierra Maestra Mountains where I taught how to read and write when I was 14 (and turned 15 there): the sun, horses, cows, palms, and especially roosters, which have such an artistic and symbolic force.
Moreover, I am not concerned with classifications or the critics’ disquisitions. My only interest is to create. To those who say that my work is naive, I reply that they are the ones who are naive, because my art is filled with surrealism, and I prefer to define it as postmodern, although I do not like installations, without categorizations or rigid compartmentalization. My spiritual father is Picasso and my favorite uncle is Gaudi.
But Brancusi has influenced me the most. During a visit to the city of Targu-Jiu, Romania in 1976, I was able to admire the Gate of the Kiss, the Column of the Infinite and the Table of Silence. I was so moved and overwhelmed with admiration that I promised myself that one day I would pay him a tribute, and here you have the Fuster Gate, the Table of Cubans (which, of course, is never quiet and always accepts one more guest) and the Rooster Tower.
Although Cuban exuberance is a poor reminder of the almost ascetic Constantin Brancusi, who would influence Cuban sculptors of previous generations, perhaps the link lies in the rejection of both of them to the realism in sculpture required by academy art. Only Fuster knows what subliminal relationship links his colorful and cheerful gate, table and tower to the severe sculptural ensemble, which is a homage to the Romanian heroes of the First World War. Mysteries of art!
Making a tour of his home, one can see explicit tributes to other influences as diverse as the Cuban artist Eiriz Antonia, for whom he confesses great affection and admiration, Paul Gauguin and Michelangelo, whose Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is celebrated on one of his own ceilings in his gallery-workshop-home. He has been influenced, however, not only by artists, but also by writers such as Onelio Jorge Cardoso, Cuba’s principal storyteller; the great Pablo Neruda of “Black Island”; and the magic realism of Alejo Carpentier’s “The Kingdom of This World”. Perhaps this is why filmmaker Roberto Chile has considered Fuster’s art as “a shipwreck between reality and fantasy.”
Yet, everyone who has been introduced to his work agrees on the enormous joy of living that it radiates, the manifest goodness of the artist, and his optimistic prying into the lives of his fellow countrymen, including circumstances which other people would consider somber.
I’m a hearty and cheerful guy. I can deal with any topic with joy–power failure, for instance, which is not a happy situation–but we Cubans make the most of any situation thanks to our sense of humor, which I incorporate into my work.
I place my work on the street, in parks, on walls to make it not the privilege of gallery owners and collectors, but to give happiness to everyone.
I feel an infinite love for my colleagues: Kcho, Nelson Domínguez, Zaida del Río, who smothers me with kisses whenever we meet, Alicia Leal, with whom I have so many things in common, Ernesto García Peña, Roberto Fabelo, Adigio Benítez, so great and so humble. I enjoy each of their triumphs as if they were my own and they fill me with happiness. This is why I’m so excited about my gallery The Child in Me in which I will depict artists when they were children. The gallery will be opened for the coming Havana Art Biennial.
The same thing happens to me with musicians. I love Frank Fernández’s piano playing, the love theme he composed for the TV series The Great Rebellion, the music he composed for Roberto Chile’s documentary “Guajiro de costa” about me; the songs from the trova, Silvio, Pablo, Vicente. Leo Brouwer’s music…
Working gives me joy. I wake up every morning with the urge to work. Like Hemingway, inspiration takes me by surprise. I have many projects. I’ve even thought about making films, both documentary and fiction, but it has to be like Chaplin, who wrote, directed and acted. Or at least like Hitchcock, who made silent cameo appearances in his films.
I comment that they would be surreal films, and he smiles, undecided about revealing the stories that already he must have going around in his head.
Evil is the only thing that saddens me, that can mar my happiness. Someone once said that the only way evil can triumph is for good men to do nothing. And this is why I believe also in the power of art as a way to face injustice with very special means. Here you have my tribute to the five Cubans imprisoned in US jails; it is my way of fighting for them, of joining them in their struggle. I will always be on the side of justice. “I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”
As a memento of our visit, we take back with us a piece of Fuster’s heart–colorful, cheerful, loving, just like the man who waves goodbye to us standing at the door of his palace.