“What does the self-portrait mean in my work?
History mixed with fiction.”
Where it begins
Once upon a time there was a young man, back in the 1970s, who took painting lessons with an excellent teacher named Pedro Amador, at the Lenin School. One day the boy made a caricature for one of those student newspapers and signed it as Tony. One of his classmates recommended that he look for a more original pseudonym or signature. Then the young man started thinking, and since his name was Antonio Eligio, he decided to join TON with EL, and that’s how Tonel was born. The story goes like that, unintentionally.
Between December 2018 and February 2019, Tonel presented in Cuba the exhibition Ajústate al tema, with which he made a tour of his forty-five years of work (1973-2018). I have already referred to it in an essay titled De la tonelidad y sus alrededores, which appeared in the February issue of the tabloid Noticias de arte cubano.
On February 28, when his exhibition was being taken down at the National Museum of Fine Arts, Tonel gave a lecture in the semicircle of the universal rooms of the aforementioned museum. While listening to him, I understood that his work is a journey. But from where to where?
Through those mysteries of the mind, thinking about his work I remembered an ironic Irish (Ironish, as a say) author who wrote one of the most succulent books in history: Gulliver’s Travels. Jonathan Swift dressed as a fictional character to satirize his contemporaries; Tonel does the reverse, he strips himself to tell us his experience, which is very much ours. With one foot in history and the other in fiction, this Cuban travels aboard himself and by telling himself stories, he tells them to us.
Travel to Lilliput
“When I woke up I couldn’t move….”
Gulliver’s Travels (Chapter One)
The first thing that led me to suspect his status as a tireless navigator was his aerial views. I felt that his eyes had seen the world as if it were tiny, as if it were down there or far away. What else are El bloqueo (1989), País deseado (1994), Mundo soñado (1995), A Limited Engagement (2014) or Los cuatro grandes ríos (2018)? A vision of the world in miniature speaks to us, rebounding, from the height of the observer or, perhaps, from its distance.
Let’s look, for example, at El guante el simbólico (1987). On the horizon of a world populated by red circles with green leafs, shadows in sienna and some stars, a distant pyramid, a phallic coconut tree that prefaces a cloud from which a penis urinates a rainbow, a toy car, Saturn and the author’s gigantic torso with glove, beard and ball can be discerned. (…)
Autorretrato como puente has two versions: one is a painting (1990-1992), the other a sculpture (1993). In the first, a yellow and bearded Tonel links two green shores (two hopes?), on a blue that changes to or from a reddish and violet horizon. In the second, the metaphor becomes a path, it takes shape in his body when some steps, which link his arms and legs, invite us to explore the anatomy of the artist. (…)
Finally, on a line that draws a pillow, the body of the artist on his back rests. His outer being sleeps; the interior looks at us. That’s why the title of this piece from 2018 is Dormido (Dentro de mí despierto) although it could also be titled Despierto (Fuera de mí dormido). Tonel is like a wave, a tip of foam and deep cycle. The apparent is visible but blind; the essential, invisible but it sees. (…)
Travel to the country of the Houyhnhnms
“Their grand maxim is, to cultivate reason, and to be wholly governed by it…”
Gulliver’s Travels (Chapter Four)
(…) Elsewhere I defined Tonelity as the ability of the work of art to contain ideas that go beyond the obvious. Formally this is expressed in the perennial counterpoint between the word and the image, linked by humor, in Tonel’s work. From the content’s point of view, the opposites are the historical and the fictitious, which are knotted in the self-portraits. Or at least I think so.
The above can be seen again in Autorretrato con Lenin y Gramsci, which is one of the pages of the book Dispatches from the War Zone (2009-2014), where both thinkers flank Tonel. At their feet, a field of sugarcane and a cart drawn by oxen simulate the scene; above, a starry sky with a sputnik make up the setting. Tonel, at the center, is faithful to the balance between two concepts of State: that of the Italian and that of the Russian.
Where it ends
As if this weren’t enough, Tonel has made, throughout his career, several artist books in which he narrates the odd self-referential journey. Not counting that Cuaderno de bitácora that he did with Fernando Birri in California, where he narrates the Argentinean’s journeys through the Parana, there is one titled Estuve casi todo el invierno en Rheinlandia escribiendo estos boleros (A Fully Illustrated Winter Book) (1999). It is a book that, incidentally, he made in England, the homeland of Captain Lemuel Gulliver.
(…) In the book, one is Swift, another Gulliver. But in the case of the Cuban, author and character, subject and object of the work coincide in each self-portrait. So here not even the focus is on the travels but, let’s say, on Gulliver himself. Hence, recalling Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, and Cortázar’s surrealist paraphrase, La vuelta al día en ochenta mundos, I assume that Tonel’s self-portraits are the Gullivers of the journey.
And that’s what Tonel is: a journey from Tony to Eligio; a trip, still in progress, half story, half fiction, in which this Cuban born in December 1958 talks to himself. This journey began in the 1970s, the day when a young man in senior high signed a caricature with a pseudonym. Today, that pseudonym has become his real name because it marks the moment when he found himself.
And somehow I’m convinced of that because I also took painting lessons with Professor Pedro Amador, I also illustrated student newspapers in senior high and I also found my way in Lenin School (1980-86), only a decade later, but that is another trip and another Gulliver.
PS: After finishing this work, Tonel confessed to me that in the 1980s he made a couple of “drawings” about Gulliver’s Travels for the now-defunct magazine Moncada.
 In 2012, Tonel had an exhibition at Factoría Habana that was called El viaje (paredes que hablan). The title not only had to do with the fact that many of his works had been conceived in different cities of the world (Havana, Austin, San Francisco, Vancouver) but also with his conviction that every learning process is equivalent to traveling. Pessoa himself, in his Libro del Desasosiego, conceived traveling as knowledge. As if that were not enough, what else but that does El caminante, which is on the cover of the catalog of his last expo in the Cuban capital, symbolize?