By Abram Bravo Guerra
December 15, 2022
Adjusted to the keys of a past and present with their own dramas, the Cuban visual narrative has shrewdly played the game of reinventing processes, styles, discourses, even worn-out speeches. It seems to me a perfectly natural path in a context for which moving out of time has been, more than a matter of regret, a safe bet to take things with a certain reflective distance. The habit of “tropicalizing” everything was sedimented some time before that timely avant-garde and, to a certain extent, it has been reorganizing strata in each generation of Cuban artists. Needless to say that we are not talking about a cancerous syndrome; on the contrary, localisms have earned Cuban art its deliciously identifiable condition and have allowed it to boast a linguistic body of its own. We learned very early on that approaching the visual question from our exotic socio-historical reality works too well in an increasingly similar world.
Of course, falling into generalizations is a major mistake. There are plenty of examples of Cuban artists producing at the pace of ultra-contemporary visual demands; others who don’t even take the trouble to refer to a dissonant context with their individual discourse, or who simply find it narratively useless; or others who were formed in a symbolic framework already divorced from its beginnings, or who see renunciation as the most effective historical position. However, what about reflective dissent from Cuban art? Dissent, for the Cuban artist, seems to rarely extend the limits of positioning his work with respect to a political referent. The hot questioning remains in artivism. And, in this sense, each visual proposal organizes its repertoire from a readjustment, generation or suggestion of a referent directed towards the urgent local drama. Something that, beyond being wrong or right, seems a constant that is hard to overlook. The point is that, from Cuban art, there are other types of dissent, neither so urgently local nor so traditionally political: I would like to talk a little about one of them.
Since the 1980s, a number of Cuban artists have been making use of a discourse attuned to the geological, liturgical or ethnic origin of the American man. A discourse that did not focus precisely on what an indigenist movement could do or be, but rather on articulating the bases for the questioning of a logic of thought oiled in the West and exported to the whole world. Whether this was exploited effectively, according to certain impacts or presences, would be the subject of another text. What is certain is that this move, as far as the scale of thought is concerned, as far as the approach to dissent is concerned, is a perfect prelude to a work such as that of Ernesto Benitez. Because Benitez, like those of the eighties, knows himself to be universally uncomfortable, philosophically hurtful, historically disturbed and genetically rebellious.
A lucid debtor of his masters -perhaps Bedia, Torres Llorca or Elso Padilla- Benitez begins his work by throwing out the repertoire of tropical pastiche; he even ventures to renounce, to dislodge symbolic referents that easily connect with insular or Latin American archetypes. In other words, his discourse is not shaped from the usual postcolonial position or the up-scaled tuning: here we are talking about a very authentic artist, configured from a reference system of his own and, more than once, extra-artistic. If I were to establish an immediate visual inheritance, that would be disseminated in some mimicry to the analytical body dusted off in On Kawara’s work; or the basic question in the conformation of the Western being -very important this- to the order of Joseph Beuys’ work; also the uncomfortable expressionist debt of a great part of the postwar German neo-figuration, especially the hurtful formal whims of Anselm Kiefer. Of course, in addition to these possible proximities, there is also the interweaving with the aforementioned precedents of the patio and the marks left by Arte Calle: school of rebelliousness, marked positionings and the construction of an artistic discourse from non-traditional codes. This hasty mapping reveals clues of what seems to me the most recurrent formal aspect in Benitez’s restless work: I am talking about its uncomfortable nature, its defiant anti-aestheticism, its open fight with the pamphlet of the adequate, with the classic standard of the beautiful.
In the midst of a total detachment from the support, Benítez explores unbridled the reinforcement of a vertebral discourse and, to do so, he clings to his disturbing symbolic arsenal. Skulls forgotten in bowls of ashes, ship-shaped coffins, strangely functional high-tech tombstones, backlit organs, paintings of a calcined and voracious expressionism, ritual knives or table daggers, are some constants of Benítez’s visual universe. And, although it is nothing new, we understand the defiant attitude in the referential crisis in front of the symbolic body attributed to western art. Of course, this exercise has been going around since the European avant-garde of the last century, with the Surrealists and Dadaists as pioneers of the gesture. But in Benitez, the old gesture acquires a new dimension: the break with the traditional means of expression in Cuban art. Here he is not interested in any identity discourse, much less in resorting to localisms, he dissents from any banal apology or explicit opposition to any social system. Benítez reacts, first of all, to the supposedly immediate and, disregarding claims, goes to the beginning of an atropological interest that has long gone beyond social militancy. Because Benítez is a political artist, but from the horizontality that constructs the political as a guiding medium of the extra-individual interactions of the original human being; and he is interested in breaking narratives, but in the order of the toxicities that make up that “political” mass between person and person. Benitez is pretentious, his wise delirium of grandeur finds its urgency in dismantling, at the stroke of a symbol, the standards on which social, cultural and -of course- political processes are based in Western logic.
This pretension can be read in a conscientious bartering of the traditional idea of the political: not understood as a social system, but as a sociological entity. Let us see the political at the center of those social adjustments that exclude the individual as a concept, something like an intermediate space between man and man – vaguely skirting Hannah Arendt’s ideas on the fact. Then, that intermediate political substance is nourished in ideological and physical matters by permissibilities, exclusions or patterns that are replicated in the individual and condition his sensitivity, projection or determination towards the external: the cultural canon that traumatizes the Freudian individual (I). And it is the millenary alchemical recipe, of that intermediate substance, the corpse that Benítez has decided to eviscerate. Because its putrefied symbolic body is the only fuel for his work.
Now, this dismantling of the political link is stratified in highly cryptic discourses that probe the universal from the personal. The artist refers to traumatic intervals of his own crusades; intervals that -altering or adapting symbolic keys- are intentionally expanded towards a collective discourse. Leitmotifs such as migration, the agony of the “other” and the philosophical (dis)positioning in the face of an imaginary constructed from the Western canon emerge. And, at the center of it all, an ontological questioning related to the heartbreaking vindication of the “other” in a universal narrative that remains exclusive. Benítez starts from the split, from the cultural wound, and that is the infinite bowl of his agonies: there his installations, his twisted sculptures, his silent drawings, his melancholic photographs or his violent abstractions are born and return.
As an island, in the midst of reused languages, clever “tropicalizations” or political heresies, Benítez is a rara avis. A romantic at the wrong time, isolated from general movements, difficult to classify, a hermit, self-condemned to his own cavilings. He forgot about urgent history, revolted from books and great deeds, got fed up with stories to support his resignation and embarked, like an old knight-errant, on the never-ending task of dismembering the historical body into hidden pieces. His most fascinating side lies precisely in this conscious isolation from all linguistic traditionalism, in understanding the heritage in his own way and -as a last step- dissenting from everything to his own end. Benitez is a rebel of the “worst” kind, a rebel with a cause; and that, his own cause, his philosophical-aesthetic chimera, makes him the most rebellious of all.
 Artistic group active in the second half of the eighties and early nineties. Arte Calle functioned and organized itself from the reaction to the artistic management system in Cuba and the assemblages of cultural policies. They proposed a disruptive work against a traditionalist look, they used bad painting, performance, anonymity and direct struggle.
Published in the Art, Literature and Society Platform Hypermedia Magazine