José Manuel Mesías’s False Apocryphals

/ 1 June, 2016

(…) There are many things I would like to say on the research and artistic activity of José Manuel Mesías, but I will try to avoid definitions and explanations on his complex creative system which, to offer a greater intellectual, spiritual, aesthetic benefit, must remain more or less dark, blurred, underground. It is the same things we do in some religious practices when keeping silence or saying the opposite on secret, esoteric aspects. So with small, miniscule letters, I will jot down some ideas that should be read in a quickly and superficial manner with the purpose of forgetting them.

  1. Mesías uses facts and historical characters in his most recent works, but his interest is not properly “historical”; which is always an objective narration and with a generic, panoramic nature, where events are seen at a distance, as a bird flying. On the contrary, his work is interested in anecdotic details, curious and enigmatic data, the rumors and legends surrounding those events and historical figures. At times he approaches the magnifying glass so much to these realities that the images may seem atrocious, shocking or deformed. Although probably what is deformed is our vision, our mentality.
  2. Mesías represents officers and soldiers of the mambí army, but not in the moments of their war activity or in victorious attitudes, but only in the moment of their death, or where their wounds are present. It might be said that they are not represented as heroes, but as martyrs, or even as victims. Just on one occasion, that I remember, the Cuban soldiers are about to enter into combat, sitting on their mount, ready to throw themselves at a gallop, but it is difficult to distinguish them because an enormous rain curtain is before them. The death, the wounds, the martyrdom seem to be more evident topics than what is historical or patriotic.
  3. His work is not only interested on the renowned personages of war (Céspedes, Agramonte, Maceo, Calixto García, and so on) but also on negative characters, “bandits” (as the case of Matagás[1] and his gang), on illegal, immoral scenes which should have not happened among pro-independence troops. He leaves the historical narration with a noble, honorable, ethic nature so as to also point out the vices and blemishes that were present. (…)
  4. His documental sources are not mainly the canonic texts of wellknown historians (although he consults them), but the marginal, secondary texts, especially the “campaign journals” or the testimonies subsequently produced by direct participants in the proindependence conflict (as José Isabel Herrera’s, Mangoché, book of memories). In this type of documents there are more possibilities for those anomalous situations to appear reflected, out of rule, although totally habitual in any war.
  5. It is curious that Mesías is interested on the independence wars in the 19th century. In spite of the patriotic, nationalistic, anticolonialist enthusiasm, which might be deduced from this thematic (or pseudo-thematic) option, his work reflects a distancing or a disinterest for the most recent Cuban history.
  6. If Mesías intends to demonstrate with his work that art is capable of convincing us through the use of simulacrums, through fictional “truths”, through apocryphal means that however result believable, then, in an inverse sense, History as narration (with its censorships, omissions, idealisms and so on) may be seen with suspicion, as a gigantic invention, as a series of fictions. To me, this seems not only a provocative, but an absolutely subversive gesture. (…)
  7. It is ridiculous to only consider the historical discipline (historiography) as the primordial, or even unique, source to analyze and understand History (historical facts, historical characters) and do not include art and literature as one of those sources, of those tools. Mesías’ art offers new, challenging visions, not only on the history of Cuba, but on the role of historiography.
  8. In contemporary Cuban art I can only compare the work by José Manuel Mesías (his present stage, indisputably already mature) with the initial work by José Bedia. Mesías uses objects he himself created as if they were real historical evidences and presents them through the use of museographic media (showcases, explanatory texts). As José Bedia, he is also capable to discourse with erudition on the study objects he uses to make his work, in this case on the mambí army and the wars of independence.
  9. On one occasion, Mesías bought a CD with recordings of birdsongs: Cuban grassquits, smooth-billed anis, Cuban blackbirds, mockingbirds, warblers. He devoted himself to listen and study them to be able to recognize them. With no other purpose. Years later, one of his paintings on the death of Antonio Maceo (…) presented a sort of whirl of different birds. Perhaps that musical knowledge was not necessary to make the painting. But what the artist knows is unavoidably reflected in what he does. One feels that his work has many things inside and, because of that, what he expresses acquires weight, depth, density, importance. One looks at that painting now and may be able to hear, one by one, the song of all those birds.

[1] José Alvarez Arteaga. See: Fernández, José. Matagás. El bandido y la gesta. Editorial Oriente, Santiago de Cuba, 2005. (Editor’s Note).

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Jorge Amaro

12 July, 2016

José manuel . Uno de los grandes jóvenes de la pintura cubana que he conocido en los últimos tiempos . Gracias a Rafael Domenech por introducirme a su obra .



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