Tomás Oliva: The decisive years | ART OnCuba

Tomás Oliva: The decisive years

/ 1 June, 2018

In the early 1950s the generation that emerges in the context of Cuban visual arts renounced the nationalist searches of the predecessors and a language in keeping with the international art lines in force at that moment is promoted.

A new promotion of artists starts to displace from the focus of attention the maestros of the Cuban historic avant-garde. Sculpture gains an unusual boost and for the first time dialogues in equal terms with painting. Among the figures that enter with a new aesthetics in the Cuban cultural panorama is the young Tomás Oliva. A graduate from the San Alejandro Academy of Fine Arts (1952) (…), the artist surprises everyone with his first exposition together with his friend, the also sculptor José Antonio Díaz Peláez, in the halls of KIKO’s Bar. They both presented a new way of approaching sculpture and used iron as a material unprecedented until then, made ductile in their hands.

(…) Tomás Oliva rightly joined the most avant-garde movement of Cuban visual arts of the 1950s, a group called The Eleven, making his triumphal debut in the collective exhibit Once pintores y escultores (…). He remained loyal to the group until 1955, when, because of diverse reasons, they separate and he starts his individual work or, by affinity, with some painter or sculptor friend. And thus Oliva’s work goes on the rise, in an unstoppable spiral movement. In his hands the iron resembles soft clay. He handles the difficult material in such a way, giving it unusual forms, of a surprising beauty. Thus the artist develops a new poetry, which emanates from the iron’s textures and the roughness of the plates welded with hard screws.

(…) Ten years after his debut Tomás Oliva participates in one of the most important expositions of the first half of the 1960s. It is the Expresionismo abstracto 1963, held in the Havana Gallery. In a historic context where figuration seems to again assume the principal role, this display confirms the strength and vitality of the abstract movement in Cuba, although those times are not favorable for non-figurative art and the group dissolves in favor of each artist’s individual expression.

In this complex panorama for the island’s visual arts, Oliva made incursions as a design professor, first in the National Art School (ENA) and afterwards in the School of Architects of the University of Havana, without abandoning his sculptural work. La dama de la chancleta belongs to this period. It was one of his major sculptures of the late 1960s conceived with a ludic spirit. His artistic work does not stop despite the fact that he is appointed director of visual arts of the National Council of Culture and he still participates in three events of extreme importance: Brazil’s 7th Sao Paolo Biennial in 1963, the Exhibition of Contemporary Cuban Art in the Ewan Phillips Gallery in London, United Kingdom, in 1967, and the 23rd May Salon, (…) Paris, 1967 (…).

After this Tomás Oliva decides to reside in the United States, and starting then a curse descended over all his work on the island, especially all those sculptures that had an environmental location. (…) On the one hand the hostility of the tropical nature with its implacable humidity and on the other (…) the complicity of cultural officials with a grey mentality who tried to erase the artist’s historic memory, whose production substantially diminished, leading to the total or partial loss of the rich patrimony of this talented creator. Thus the sculpture in front of the Ministry of Transportation, the base of the sculpture-logotype of the Coppelia ice cream parlor and the impressive monument made in homage to the victims of the criminal terrorist attack against La Coubre ship, made with the scrap metal from the blown up ship, among other works located in exteriors, disappeared, were destroyed or underwent cultural cannibalism. (…)

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