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Stone Zoo: Somewhere between nature and art

Stone Zoo: Somewhere between nature and art

by Ailyn Martín Pastrana

Photos: Karel Pérez Alejo and Frank Baltodano

They said self-taught sculptor Ángel Íñigo Blanco was crazy when he left his job as a coffee picker in the 1970s to devote himself full-time to his passion: carving sculptures from stone. Without an ounce of pretentiousness he says that he just “chips away the extra rock,” but his chisel has made a remarkable impression on the world—a zoo made in stone.

At an elevation of 750 meters above sea level, in the eastern province of Guantánamo, there is a natural park covering an area of approximately two kilometers and containing over 400 works sculpted by this artist in his lifetime. Not only was he interested in depicting Cuban animals, but his subject matter covers fauna from other parts of the world such as lions, elephants, rhinoceroses, giraffes and kangaroos. Most of his pieces appear to be in motion, as if they were struggling to survive in a wild setting. Others look like they are about to attack, surprising the visitors as they walk through the place. Each of the sculptures was done in situ out of the limestone rocks so typical of Cuba and he uses simple tools such as axes, chisels, hammers and files.

The guides in this Guantanamo park say that Ángel has never relied on pictures or sketches, only on his photographic memory. His son Ángel Íñigo Pérez has the same skill but he has chosen to take a different road in his work, more in keeping with the life of a man living in the countryside. His self-assuredness has won him the admiration of visitors who cannot help but get their pictures taken inside the Stone House, a colossal piece of work that took him two years to complete. He gave form to a huge limestone crag three meters high and four meters wide. The artwork is made up of stools, a VEF radio, a shelf, two children, a married couple…the three-dimensional depiction of typical peasant life.

The Stone Zoo was declared Cultural Heritage Site of Cuba on June 25, 1985 and today it is a mandatory stop for anyone touring eastern Cuba. One of the guides there, Ana Margarita Lelier Peran, told Lahabana Magazine that currently the park is undergoing expansion and improvements through the addition of a workshop where the artist can make smaller pieces and sell them as souvenirs to visitors.

The sculptures are repaired and maintained by a specialized group at the park because the limestone has a tendency to erode relatively easily, losing the initial shapes created by the artist. Some of them show signs of being restored and all of them have been treated with formol, a chemical substance that prevents the humidity in that location from turning the stone green and having it lose its visibility amidst the park greenery. The facility also carries out the educational task of preserving the setting and looking after the environment.

The Stone Zoo of Cuba can be compared to a diamond in the rough, a one of a kind place in the world where art and nature interact for the delight of all.

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