He graduated in 1997 from the San Alejandro National Fine Arts Academy and, since 2005, lives in Berlin. In spite of being given recognition with a work made in Havana, he is barely known there. His work, with a strong inspiration from the eighties generation, is a testimony of support to the thinking of the citizens through artistic expression, especially oral expression. In it he has created a social portrait exploring the spontaneity of urban poetics as a resistance speech and a sign of inconformity.
Yoel Díaz Vázquez (Havana, 1973) has exhibited in important spaces in Europe and has been invited to several events with an international prestige among which the 29th Sao Paulo Biennial highlights.
I have understood that you have just taken part in one of the most important art events in Medellin, Colombia. How were you chosen and with what work did you participate?
I took part on the third edition of the Encuentro Internacional de Arte MDE15 (MDE15 International Art Meeting) whose topic was Local Histories, Global Practices. The event brought together international artists with a very interesting social speech. Edi Muka, curator of an Albanian origin established in Sweden, chose my work after having seen it installed in the Göteborg Biennial, Sweden. The piece is entitled Torre de Ruido (Tower of Noise), a project for which I invited some 38 Cuban rappers to sing, in the intimacy of their homes, their most critical topics, many of which had been censored because of being considered rebellious. The work consists in a video installation, 26 home TV sets piled in a concave and pyramidal form, functioning in unison. In each one of them, an a capella performance of a different rapper is shown, thus transmitting an effect of cacophony to the spectator. I started this project in 2005, produced by the Sternesen Museum in Oslo, Norway, and extended it to 2010 thanks to the production of the Sao Paulo Biennial Foundation. The first version of this work was entitled Ruido (Noise) and was part of the itinerant group show Latido (Beat), curated by Sandra Sosa and Andrea Sunder Plasman in 2006 for several museums in Norway. Torre de Ruido was an attempt to reflect on the historical context which was being lived from the nineties in Cuba, where the economic situation drastically worsened and, little by little, people began to lose the fear to express their more critical opinions.
Your work has a strong implication with urban cultures. Apart from Torre de Ruido, do you have other projects exploring that context?
I have tried to approach that field of urban culture covering what is oral, what is linguistic and what is performance, also including some social activism, depending on the case. Video, as a media, has the quality of testifying not only the immediacy, but actions that gain a documentary value when registered as visual material for posterity. As video-artist, I am very much interested on the interrelation of the subject with the audience and, in turn, on the new spaces generated through this interrelationship. That is how I made Cuco (2006), a video whose main character was a retired elder gentleman who, since the early nineties, used to dance with a very peculiar style, and for some coins, at the entrance of one of the music stores on the populous and touristic Obispo Street, Havana. It was for me a sort of shock to start seeing these street performers in a country whose social system promulgated just the opposite. But I did not want to register Cuco’s dance on the street with a touristic view, but from colleague to colleague, in his own house. The result of this video is provocative, sensitive and with many levels of interpretation.
In 2007 I made an experiment with Osvaldo Acevedo, aka Osam Linch, a Nicaraguan baritone, student of Art History and living in Cuba, to whom I asked to perform some classic opera theme, with the peculiarity of just repeatedly singing the word “No” which, besides, is the title of the piece. I filmed this performance in a private space and in the midst of the noisy and ordinary chaos of Carlos III Avenue, Havana. Many of the passers-by enjoyed the show as something burlesque and sublime at the same time. From my work with urban poetry in Havana, Túmbenlo (Knock Him Down, 2010-2015) was also born, in collaboration with young rapper Alexei, aka El Tipo Este (This Guy), in whose theme Calle G demands the demolition of the statue of José Miguel Gómez, second president of the Republic of Cuba and liable for the lynching of the leaders of the Color Independent Party. My project consists in an expanded sculpture which visually synthetizes the architecture of the monumental complex where the statue is. It is a platform on which various academics, activists and artist, mostly Afro-descendants, would express their opinions on topics like decolonization and identity. Among my present investigations there is a video I recently made to Colombian rapper Aka of Comuna 13 in Medellin. Aka is founding leader of a community program called Casa de las Estrategias (House of Strategies) dedicated, among other things, to agro-art, a project that through the sowing of ornamental and fruit plants helps to give life to those areas of greater poverty and conflicts of violence in the city.
For a long time you have been living and working in Berlin, that great art laboratory of Europe. You have also exhibited in emblematic places like NGBK or Bethabien. What has been your experience as an emigrant and as an artist?
As an artist of the Cuban diaspora in Germany I feel enriched with the experience this life has brought me. I developed a new type of sensitivity when finding the multiculturalism of one of the most effervescent cities in Europe and that, apparently, does not make you feel a foreigner. It has been meaningful to somewhat separate myself from the insular context and penetrate into these realities emigrants bring on their shoulders from so many parts of the world that coincide and cross paths in this city that “admits” us. Besides, there is some curiosity here in knowing the poetics of Latin American artists. I think that our sensitivity is very peculiar when we become interested in the subject. From this point of view, the German public it is very receptive. The domestic scene in many of my videos and the actions of the subjects, in spite of referring to a given social and local context, are situations that visually take place in non-specific places. That absence of local color opens a little more the spectrum of my narrative. Because of that, I think my works have always had a good acceptance.
In 2010, moved by the seriousness and activism of the local hip hop in Berlin, I made the performance Unruhe (Perturbation) in Radial System, where I asked two German rappers, with Turkish and Iranian origin respectively, to take part in the hall where I projected videos of their private spaces and sang some of their themes a capella and in unison.
As you were saying, my participation in emblematic spaces as NGBK, in which I had the luck of exhibiting twice, helped me define my social responsibility as an artist. Continuing that praxis interested in documenting social activism from the artistic perspective of the subject, in 2012 I made Spricht Deustch oder Stirb (Talk German or Die). The main character is a young gay, actor and deaf-mute, born in Germany but of a Turkish origin and an active leader of the deaf-mute community of Berlin. My intention was to establish a parallel between the existential poetics of those who have the physical impossibility to talk and the common difficulties of the emigrant to correctly express himself in the language of the country, as a basic parameter, in both cases, to be seriously accepted by the society in which they live. And in 2014 I was in the curatorial project BEBOP: Spiritual Revolutions and The “Scramble for Africa” Black Diaspora, directed by writer and curator Alanna Lockward and presented in the Grüner Salon of Volksbühne. It was there that, for the first time, I presented Túmbenlo (Knock Him Down).
As future plans I especially have two works very much influenced by the socio-political context of Berlin. The first one, Árbol de Napuli (Napuli Tree), is inspired in that courageous action of Sudan activist Napuli Langa who took a tree in Oranienzplatz as a platform to demand with her hunger strike her rights as a political refugee. The other work in process will be devoted to the storytellers of multicultural cities as Berlin and I will work for it with professionals and non-professionals of oral narration, with the advice and participation of the Cuban writer and narrator based in Madrid, Francisco Garzón Céspedes, director of the Oral Narration Itinerant Chair.
Berlin, December 23rd, 2015