To the Tune of the Barrio, of Popular Wisdom

On Julio César Peña Peralta’s Havana

/ 1 December, 2018

Making an X ray of society has been one of engraving’s longstanding thematic virtues. Its narrative imprint, its quality of reproduction of the image and the exquisiteness of its technical procedures, with which unique formal and visual effects are attained, have been decisive in this distinction. There’s no doubt about its transcendence as a manifestation that has bequeathed the best documentary testimony of our colonial spaces, fundamentally on an urban scale, and the way in which the cigar industry used it in the manipulation of a stereotype of Cubanness and of nation.

Seen from that perspective, the graphic work of Julio César Peña Peralta (Holguín, 1969) seems singular in the framework of contemporary Cuban art and, at the same time, rooted in a tradition. Sincere and easy going, fond of using sayings and partying, smoking a cigar, Julio is still, already almost in his 50s, a town boy from the barrio of Belén in Old Havana, perhaps one of the protagonists of his own work, from which he takes and translates the popular. Although his action flirts with folkloric themes, these are transcended by a mosaic of scenes in which Peña unpretentiously represents how to dance, how to wait, how to love, how to believe, enjoy, live and survive in the most common of the populous barrios, in the deep Cuba, in the average Cuba. His works show domino games, scenes in an eclectic interior of a tenement house, women hair braiders, the playing of drums or scenes on the Malecón seaside wall. There are the boys from the workshop (the one of the Callejón del Chorro), Marilyn Monroe, interpretations of scenes from Dante’s Divine Comedy (in his open series Apropiaciones indebidas), and even his own version of the Kama Sutra (in Esquelesutra); an entire versatile convergence of influences that also inspire and define the Cuban.

Peña tried to enroll five times in the San Alejandro school, and five times he was turned down. However, he continued trying, and through the Carmelo González community workshop, in the Julián del Casal House of Culture of Old Havana, he stayed close to creation—and especially engraving—thanks to what he learned from Antonio Canet. When he showed the maestro hisfirst skulls, Canet considered there was a road he could follow and he referred him to the work of Guadalupe Posada, who our self-taught artist did not know. But for Peña his skulls are not, like for the Mexican, a symbol of an ancestral culture, but rather a metaphor of the essence of the human being; a parody of his circumstance, especially in the Cuba in crisis of the 1990s. (…) finally, the personification of the skeletons has been legitimized as an iconography that identifies him and functions for him as a form of carnivalism an artistic strategy derived from that capacity to subvert, demystify, parody and satirize, to make a connection through the smile, the sense of humor, as a way of resistance (and survival) developed by Cubans. His modus operandi could be summed up this way from the conceptual point of view.

(…) Although he is constantly experimenting in a tireless mood, Peña is an engraver par excellence. He has made incursions into photography, installations, illustrations, art books…, he even draws and paints with some regularity, but there is no doubt that his superb work is in engraving, and especially the techniques derived from xylography (…) Thus his work translates the rhythm of an intense, contrasting Havana that astounds and seduces, trapped in diverse spaces and times, represented in street characters, transcendental in the trivial, dialogical in the stereotypes: eloquent in the fondness for popular sayings, dramatic and at the same time happy, singing while crying, sublime and provincial; where the complex and seducing of the most sublime and simple parody is best illustrated.

Onedys Calvo

Onedys Calvo

She holds a master’s degree in Art History. Lives and works in Havana. She is a curator with the City Historian’s Office and contributes to various specialized publications, such as ArteCubano, Revolución y Cultura and OPUS Habana. She also contributes to the radio station Habana Radio as a journalist, and is the director of the Center for Interpretation of Cuba-Europe Relations, Palacio del Segundo Cabo, Havana.

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