By Ivonnett Arcia Zamora
An aspect of Cuban plastic arts production developed in the 1980s, taking advantage of the interdisciplinarity established by post-modernity and, consequently, the expansion of art into fields considered by tradition as “extra-artistic”, based its reflections on man on anthropology. Thus, the introspective research was supported by the epistemic, methodological and practical principles of this knowledge. The artistic proposals became disturbing disquisitions on the nature of man, the complexity of his processes of meaning and the structures of social and cultural interaction. Art was assumed as a gnoseological exercise, as an active vector in the debate of universal human problems, inasmuch as the sharpened visual referents were subordinated to the effective transmission of the idea; that is to say, the billing -according to traditional criteria- of the work was “sacrificed” to stimulate the communicative effectiveness and optimize the sociocultural function of art, a position that translated into solidity of the aesthetic-artistic discourse of the piece and that updated our visual arts.
While it is true that the creators immersed in this trend set guidelines in the treatment from art of issues related to man; they renewed our paradigm of artisticity, concept of artist and work of art; they possessed an invaluable experimentalist eagerness and a strong iconoclastic character; We must also say that they enjoyed institutional support -even though at times there was strong tension between the two spheres-, most of them were trained at the National Art Institute (ISA), their works were promoted in the island’s exhibition spaces and the founding of the Havana Biennial made possible their international diffusion and, over time, they have been favored by specialized critics.
And to be fair with the history of Cuban art, we must point out that these searches have the precedent of figures of the stature of Umberto Peña, Antonia Eiriz, Chago, who, against the tide, addressed their existential concerns -with frightening abandon for their time, they delved into the scatological, the “different” sexual orientations and death, through an aggressive expressionism; They counterposed individualism, intimacy and isolation to the hegemonic collective, massive discourse implied by the epic of the sixties.
It is evident that there is a fundamental difference between these artists who emerged and overflowed the sixties and those who came to the fore in the eighties. In the former, the penetration into human psychology and existence is due to an inner need to express their subjectivity and assimilation of the context in which they lived; let us say that it is an approach to the subject from an emotional perspective. The latter, on the other hand, have endorsed in anthropological knowledge their explorations of man’s psyche and existential conflicts, with the aim of reaching generalizations about the human essence and rescuing lost values; such an approach manifests a cognitive motivation, a conceptualization of the artistic fact.
Ernesto Benítez’s work, especially that presented in his recent personal exhibition One and a Thousand Eyes, is located within this creative line that links art and anthropology, and reinforces the plurality of discourses that converge in it; it seems that the inquiries into the essence of man, his complex psychology, his behavior and ways of meaning the world around him, can always surprise us, as it is a subject as rich as the individualities that inhabit the planet and it is difficult for anyone to say the last word.
Benitez’s proposals move away from the intellectualism that emanated from the productions of the eighties, but they are not naïve; in his works emotion and intellectual act cohere and balance each other, in such a way that the principles of the anthropological corpus appear overlapped. There is a strong reflective and abstraction capacity that allows the creator to distance himself from the anthropological base, without losing conceptual density.
The reading of texts from the aforementioned epistemic corpus reveals that centuries of human existence and scientific research have not deprived religion. Science and belief have accompanied man in his passage on earth, because both spheres coexist and, although it may seem unusual, can interact, to the point that today there are “consultations” via the Internet. This is one of the regularities of human behavior examined by Ernesto: religion has historically been used to explain those unknown phenomena and the protection of the deities has been a palliative to our insecurity in the face of uncertainty.
The suspicious journey of the museography describes the imposition of man on the unknown, on his fears. We begin with an imperceptible eye in the midst of a great darkness and end with a medium shot of the artist that covers the entire surface of the painting, where it is hyperbolized that the watchman is within ourselves. We ourselves are god. It is unfortunate that if we extract this image from the whole, it would not be a successful piece, however, according to the thesis of the exhibition, its functionality is unquestionable.
Before reaching such illumination, we pass through an immense darkness where only one eye observes, a fine metaphor of creation, of the beginning of the world. It also alludes to the practice of drinking hallucinogens to reach a sacred state that allows to obtain wisdom, immortality, restores vision, health, youth; annihilates evil spirits; causes bodily mutations, or enables communion between cosmic zones.
The artist makes us meditate on a curious fact: through religion man has made up for his helplessness, but those divinities that assist him have human form, because when he created the deities he made them in his image and likeness. So the man-god transmits light, energy, knowledge and strength to man; then, the man-god is man, the watchman is within man himself.
This journey is not without playful and satirical passages. When he appropriates the symbolic charge of the sickle in our context, he also refers to the work of Flavio Garciandía, who explored the expressive qualities of this code. The sickle, in Benítez’s composition, rather than “mowing”, “blinds”. Likewise, it manipulates the receiver through the construction of myths. Several anthropological texts point out the dual structure of myths, which inspired the artist to contrast the knives with the artificial light emitted by a light bulb; such dual condition is also evoked when he opposes black and white ribbons, which in turn are associated to good and evil respectively, and is manifested, again, when confronting in an image objects resulting from human rational activity with mystical icons.
The eye is a recurring sign in the pieces, worked in different ways, whether the eye is painted, a close-up of the eye open, closed, covered by ribbons or covered by paint. And the eye is a mythological symbol, in some civilizations the gaze of a deity can cause the death of a man, perhaps this is the origin of the well-known “evil eye”, evil power of some people that falls on what is looked at; on the other hand, the deities have the ability to see, although they are invisible to ordinary mortals. Actually, the eye is the organ of sight, a sense that allows individuals to know the physical appearance of people and the world around them.
For this journey, in which man sets himself up as the center of all things, doubt and answer, compos sui, it is not by chance that the artist sublimates the creative capacity of the human being and exalts the power of his senses.
The re-centering of man, which implies the transition from a human detail to his complete figure, is reinforced by the luminosity that the backgrounds take on; it is man freeing himself from/imposing himself on the shadows, the unknown, mysticism. Simply, backgrounds worked on the basis of gradations of black. Greater synthesis was missing. In order to emphasize how man, due to his ignorance, is tied to religion, the artist adds fragments of ropes to the painting. And through black and white photographs of personal geography, many in an act of meditation, Benítez compels us to look inside ourselves. Self-representation is the strategy implemented to sharpen self-knowledge.
A debtor of so many creators who have placed man as the ideo-thematic axis of their poetics and have relied on anthropological knowledge to base their suprahuman egoism, he knows how to distance himself masterfully from all of them and show his creative singularity, his particular apprehension of the art-anthropology pairing.
 Ernesto Benitez’s exhibition One and a Thousand Eyes has been on display at the Havana Club Foundation/Rum Museum since December 2004.
 I refer to religious consultations.
Published in the Tabloid News of ArteCubano, National Council of Plastic Arts. Havana, Cuba. Edition No. 1, Year 6, January 2005, Pp-6.