Writings

Green Machine: Chronicles of an Everyday Lightness

Bárbaro Martínez-Ruiz
Cape Town, South Africa, 2016

Born in 1969 in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, Carlos Luna explores across a far-ranging body of work how memories and imagination affect temporal perception. His art draws deeply upon the rich rural culture of Cuba—the Cuba of the artist’s youth, academic training, and deepest memories. Over time, Luna has presented an optimistic vision of Cuban identity, one rooted in national pride, but removed from what he views as a Cuban preoccupation with politically charged western notions and overreliance on external contemporary art trends. At the core of this prouder vision of Cuban national identity is Luna’s view that art itself constructs a realm of pride, innovation, and renewal.  Through his focus on Cuba’s oft-forgotten rural lifestyle and its contribution to the island’s broader culture, Luna encourages his Cuban audience to learn how to understand their heritage and to unlearn historical elitist and politically charged notions. This necessary repositioning allows for an embrace of the ambiguity inherent in being both part of Western socio-political history and the natural to forge a uniquely diverse artistic cultural identity.[1]

Luna has unabashedly focused his artistic career on the medium of painting, remaining insistently committed to what he views to be painting’s unique capacity to offer seemingly limitless opportunities to extol what Cubans rarely find in their daily life: an imaginary that transcends physical boundaries; a visual tradition that surpasses cultural and political divisions; and a guiding moral philosophy. Luna’s is a narrative of unification that simultaneously acknowledges the legitimacy of diverse cultural references, and integrates complex political commentary into accessible, non-threatening vistas. Although Luna advocates for a coalescence of Cuba’s varied cultural strands, he does not shy away from challenging topics. Instead, he asks the viewer to wrestle with arguments ranging from the importance of social harmony to society’s predilection for beauty, questions that reveal themselves upon closer inspection beneath the painted surface.

Through his initiation into and decades of practice of Ifá, a Yoruba religion common in Cuba, Luna has had access to a literary tradition known as Pataki to Regla de Ocha practitioners, Oddu to Ifá priests, that has consistently informed his work. While written compilations of these oral texts traditionally used in divination ceremonies are available, no accompanying visual record exists and no consensus has emerged from scholars of African, African diaspora, or Caribbean art and culture, as to whether the scenes and characters described in Pataki/Oddu were ever previously articulated in visual form. However, using his own experience, and drawing upon fragments of shared cultural history, recounted memories and interpretation across generations of Yoruba and Yoruba-descended people, Luna reimagines such visual accompaniments to Pataki/Oddu. In the process, he both creates new visual memories and facilitates access to near-forgotten practices, intertwining their rediscovery with that of other undervalued contributors to contemporary Cuban identity.

In this effort, Luna’s work provides visual substantiation of an artistic system continually revising multiple visual legacies. He points out the characteristic features of each component art form, negotiating in real time the allocation of value and space between different kinds of media, celebrating the jostling of distinctive visual traditions, and embracing the combined potential for expressive strength. For example, the technical skills evident in a close examination of Luna’s drawings and paintings show him to be fully aware of Western notions of producing light and shade, but he opts instead to introduce another level of conceptualization of value associated with light and color by transposing literary formulations of the same ideas into the frame. This visual method recognizes that paintings have a certain affinity for literary works, a characteristic Horace observed in his famous simile “Ut picture poesis” (“As is painting, so is poetry”).[2] Luna, however, creates a new artistic imaginary not by associating his images with Western notions of poetry, but instead by linking them to the Yoruba literary tradition with which he is intimately familiar, having used it daily during Ifa divination practice.

                                               

Rural Icons

Empingated (Awesome), Dale, Dale, Huye (Giddy Up and Run Away) and El Gran Mambo (The Great Mambo) introduce core visual principles of Luna’s work and exemplify the artist’s skill in the Spanish academic painting tradition known as facture,[3] while also encapsulating his personal creed and his engagement with popular wisdom. Referencing the functionalist power of absurdity, these works visually evoke local moral archetypes from the vernacular oral history of a rural experience in Pinar del Rio informed by Afro-Cuban religious practice and contrast these memories with the prospect of uncertain modern life. They also allow the viewers to mindfully traverse Luna’s technical approach to composition—his varied use of paint, charcoal, unusual textures and surfaces, choice of color and incorporation of verbal aids to articulate a concept of “beauty” that builds upon the promise of verbal function—and his treatment of complex themes through sensually charged erotic depictions and sparkling political and moral observations expressed with a false political innocence. Collectively, they produce a verbal-visual punch of cathartic honesty, and map the artist’s ultimately optimistic journey from Cuba to Mexico and on to the United States.

In these early works, Luna developed a unique way of incorporating iconic symbols such as scissors, knives, pyramids, triangles, trees, bows and arrows, stars and horseshoes, across the surface of his paintings. Depicting these symbols in a conventional style and highlighting their pictographic quality, Luna isolates them using techniques such as graphite drawing, atmospheric backgrounds and high contrast composition. In using such conventional symbols, Luna created the space to develop a new vocabulary of form, structure and visual concepts, paying homage in the process to works by his Cuban forbears and contemporaries, including Wifredo Lam’s The Jungle (1944) and Hurricane (1946), Sosa Bravo’s Tribute to Almodovar (1995), and Umberto Peña’s Aayy, Shas, I Can’t Stand it Anymore (1967).

These three paintings convey a visceral tension; isolated calligraphic forms appear constrained and the vacuum implied by their separation conveys a sense of horror.  The symbols seek emancipation from their flat surfaces and strain for the freedom to converse among themselves about their respective cultural experiences, moral paradigms, and diverse religious traditions. This demand for a visual narrative through symbolic interaction is characteristic of Luna’s style, and he takes this graphic impulse further than the artists he references, developing a comprehensive analysis of forms grounded in specific cultural experiences, moral paradigms and religious awakening. In conveying this narrative desire, Luna both alludes to the rich Pataki/Oddu literary tradition and its role in the shaping of rural Cuban culture and strives to build his own narrative borne of contemporary Cuban experience.[4]

 

People Types, Mockery, and Antiheroes

Continually reflecting on challenges inherent in articulating the idea of Cuba, Luna is interested in what it means to be a guajiro (peasant), and how guajiros, especially those from Cuba’s Pinar del Rio province, present themselves to the world. In depicting peasant festivities, cultural practices, and domestic interiors, Luna explores rural customs and references a frequent theme in Cuban art that began with the traveling narrative tradition of colonial European printmakers.[5]  Luna revisits this tradition, but repaints the distinctive iconography of rural Cuba, using more allegorical suggestions and redeploying the rural subjects as forgotten heroes. In doing so, he depicts human archetypes: shifting from the ordinary peasant to the impersonated ruler, from generous and humble lover to gregarious trickster.[6]

As Luna recasts these rural subjects as forgotten heroes, he also reimagines political figures as caricatures. Robo-Ilusión challenges the iconic representation of Fidel Castro by transforming him from peasant, to ruler, to an elderly figure awaiting his end. The train’s metaphorical passage of time undermines the historical archetype of an all-powerful leader.[7]

 

Drawing form Art History Lessons

The painting tradition of bodegones in colonial Spain and pre-1959 Cuba, in which interior living spaces were portrayed in intimate detail, plays a strong role in Luna’s vocabulary of icons. Artists of the bodegone tradition whose work echoes through his include Theodoro Rios (Jar with Butterfly Aroma), Mario Carreño (Still Life with Fish), Victor Manuel García (Flower Vase), Antonio Gattorno (Fruits of the Tropic), and Julio Larraz (Conversation). While referencing such examples of the genre, Luna goes further, investigating the distinctive features and various guises he evokes.

In La Mesa (The Table), the traditional tablecloth found in every dining room in the rural province of Pinar del Rio becomes a cultural reference beyond a modest piece of textile. The tablecloth is an object that defines a rural culture and provides a physical connection to the artist’s past, but Luna’s two-dimensional representation of it plays with the idea of what culture is “popular.” He references iconic pop art such as Andy Warhol’s Icebox (1961), Alex Katz’s The Red Smile (1963), Robert Rauschenberg’s Retroactive I (1964), Tom Wesselmann’s Great American Nude #5 (1964), and Roy Lichtenstein’s Blam (1962), thereby raising questions about how we individually and collectively remember objects that define us nationally, culturally, and personally.

The rooster in the center of La Mesa’s composition as well as in El Gallo Negro (The Black Rooster) anchors the guajiro’s daily routine and echoes themes of agrarian imagination seen repeatedly across Luna’s body of work, such as La catedral (1997), Mi secreto abre camino (2002), Bum (2002), Café caliente Juliana (2004), and El kikiriki de Pablo (2005).[8] The rooster evokes an Ifá literary reference, the Ogunda di (Ogunda Idi) story of Orunmila, in which the bird protects the interior of a home by alerting the owner to treason being committed within, and reminding him to enter through an alternative entrance. This is a literal reference to weakening of the privacy of home, the vulnerability of what was once a protective dwelling, an inner realm. In Bum, the rooster is represented resting on a person’s hat, suggesting the inseparable relation of a person to their traditions. The sonic metaphor suggested by the onomatopoeic title Bum links the images—framed by a dark blue sky of the aurora—to a gunshot and the rooster’s crowing to greet the day.

The central role of the rooster in Cuba and other places in the Yoruba diaspora is also seen through its traditional placement on top of Osun chalices. Osun, the Yoruba-Lucumí creation story, tells of a rooster accompanying Obatala in their journey to earth in order to create mankind and spreading soil over the earth with its clawed feet. While the chalice itself is associated with the soul of the believer, like Ba the bird in ancient Egypt often represented hovering over the mummified body to assure its flight to the afterlife, the rooster contains the vitality required to offer life on earth to the believer after initiation. This reference to transcendence, the higher state of consciousness required of a Yoruba initiate—and to the bird’s role as a messenger of God and as a symbolic and physical manifestation of God’s protective presence[9]—intertwines in Luna’s work with other popular meanings associated with the rooster in Cuban culture.  First, as a symbol of cockfighting, an institution in large rural communities and associated with both the indulgence of rural life and the Christian belief in fighting the power of evil and darkness through constant vigilance and preparation for the second coming of Christ.[10]  Second, symbolized by the number eleven, the rooster is associated with the widespread yet illegal and fraudulent Chinese lottery in which it is used to embody important moral attributions such as hardworking and observant, confidence and honesty.

The rooster is but one example of Luna’s ability to create absorbing flows of multi-layered representations that transition seamlessly from image to text and emphasize physical cognition and link human experience to specific places we call home.  Memories of grandmother knitting, the sound of rhymed couplets, an exhausted horse, a house already abandoned in the valley, the leaves of the tree, a hero and a martyr—images and allusions that stand alone and yet, through their distinctive iconography, appear to transform into a physical realm before your eyes. This quasi-tautological visual stratagem is elemental to Luna’s approach, allowing him to allude to universal rites of passage as well as his own development of religious consciousness.

Also alluding to the Ifá divination system central to Yoruba religious practice is the interaction between the color black and various shades of gray in Black Bite, which, like El Gallo Negro, forms part of the artist’s 2014 “black series.” The variations across the low values of light that dominate Black Bite’s surface suggest a mysterious atmosphere in which unanswered questions abound. These graphic effects evoke the ambience set in Yoruba moral tales and suggest the continued contemporary need for the moral archetypes described in and ethical lessons imparted by such stories.

An important recent work that demonstrates a different angle of Luna’s engagement with the contemporary issues of racism and politics in Cuba society is Blanca Prieta (Blackened Snow White). The title of the piece refers to the social experience of racism in Cuban society that causes a person of color to seek to pass themselves off as a white person. This “passing” is very common among interracial families (mulattos) in Cuba, which used passing as a way to escape racial prejudice and oppression endemic to Cuban society. Widely attempted, passing met (meets) with varying levels of success, and Luna speaks of the painting’s title echoing the Cuban saying about a person who impersonates a white person until being discovered (“hacerse pasar por blanco hasta que se descubra”).[11] This specific topic has a direct connection to the Luna family’s personal history, a history characterized by the blending of many cultures through different waves of immigration. Luna embraces this process, terming it “becoming a type” rather than choosing what to be from among varied syncretic types. The absurdity in the painting’s title also refers to Cuba’s totalitarian political model and the passive-aggressive form of racism in a socialist society lacking a history of legal protection borne of a civil rights movement. Finally, the title also alludes to the double surprise of locating the character of Snow White in Cuba, and representing her as a person of color, a twist that plays on the irony of suggesting racism in Cuba to be as unbelievable as a fairy-tale.

 

The Art of Changing

Luna’s recursive sense of memory is also demonstrated by his weaving of iconic images into a visual narrative told through ceramic and metal. Steel-plate etchings and a series of eighty ceramic plates he created at the ancient Talavera pottery in Puebla, Mexico, provided new vehicles for the artist to interleave iconic imagery with a tale of the tension between fleeting beauty and temporal recollections that shape memory and imagination. These series utilize a doubling tactic that creates an echo effect for the referenced memories, while simultaneously enforcing a perceptual distance from the memory itself. The hard mirrored surface of the metallic plates present a duality of nearness and distance while the fragility and delicate handiwork of the ceramic plates—themselves vehicles for the depiction of iconic images of everyday rural life—highlights the contrast between the transient, ephemeral nature of memory and the physical form of a humble object used to provide nourishment. These competing characteristics suggest a deep ambivalence towards the act of remembering and a guarded, distrustful view of seemingly unblemished memories.

In playing with refraction and the unique ways in which lived experience fragments memories, Luna redirects his gaze from the familiar images of everyday life to outlying moments, otherwise spoken and forgotten. He seeks to embody visual lyricism by giving individual images a solid form and allowing their slanting testimony to be resurrected. In their reconstitution and subsequent repetition, the pictographic rendering denotes a shift toward the realm of tales, jokes, and proverbs. This shift challenges how our understanding can have an effect on the varied possible readings of the past, how we remember and ultimately challenge and reshape our memories. In tracing memory, Luna sketches an argument for the power of mind, asserting its ability to reconfigure alienated daily routines as a new kind of vernacular poetry.

In his most recent body of work (2014–15) Luna reintroduces themes from his earlier oeuvre, but now expressing them in the entirely new medium of textile. Shifting from painting and drawing to woven tapestries, Luna explores new modes of incorporating Ifá literary adages into his work, and seeks to portray Ifá divination as a harmonious system for the understanding and management of all creation. Viewing art as a metaphor, Luna challenges the audience’s preconceptions by providing repeated opportunities to rediscover what has been represented before on different surfaces and through other visual effects. The woven tapestries are the result of an ambitious collaboration between Luna and the renowned Magnolia Editions in Oakland California that sought to shift Luna’s work from analog to digital production. To create these masterful tapestries, Luna created individual sketches on paper, working closely with Magnolia as it translated these detailed works into digital renderings. A mechanical loom read the digital renderings, capturing a level of detail not immediately evident to the naked eye.

The seven large tapestries that comprise the series—Bailaora, In the Garden, Dreamer, Catalina’s Mirror, Who Eats Whom, Sometimes, and Heartbreaker—evidence Luna’s signature style of visually delightful, graffiti-like scrawls that subvert the calligraphic gestures of artists like Jackson Pollock into more stable, or literary, visual references and then introduce elements of vernacular culture into mainstream artistic practice. Vernacular cultural references drawn from Nigeria, Cuba, and South Florida, play into the tapestries’ pictorial compositions, complementing depictions of Ifá philosophical concepts that allude to the shared spiritual legacies in these communities. Some of the important Ifá philosophical concepts interrogated by Luna’s pictorial technique are the interrelated notions of ori (inner or spiritual head), edo (sacrifice), and iwapele (good character). In exploring these three complementary concepts Luna is attempting to find a visual form capable of expressing both the complexity of these relationships, and a clear understanding of the underlying religious concepts.[12]

Tapestry proves an ideal medium for capturing such details, as it stacks multiple surfaces and effects to create a deep field of woven layers with alternating vibrant and somber colors. The production process and its physical results mirror the functions of the human eye, which observes a broad colorful composition from afar, but up close it perceives the infinite abstraction of individual colored threads, serving as a visual metaphor for how divination can convey a broader message across the details of individual readings. The use of textile also creates an intimate relationship between the viewer and the piece that mirrors the artist’s own relationship with the tapestry’s surface during the production process. By inviting the viewer into the process of engagement with the piece during its production—and replicating the hyper-attention to detail that it required, the tapestries raise questions about the complex interaction of distance, comprehension, and connection.[13] Decorative, functional, imaginative, and complex, these tapestries simultaneously look back to a venerable history of artistic expression and yet are firmly embedded in the age of mechanical and digital reproduction, like the guajiro the connective thread between Cuba’s past and future.

There is a creation story told in the anonymous notebook known as “The World of Ifá as Philosophy, Itatumo 39”[14] used by a babalawo (priest) in Cuba during training and as an ongoing reference for a life of religious learning that describes a “divine-sphere” and tells of the origin of “good” and “evil.” The central figure, Ogbeidi, exists in what appeared to be an otherwise empty space described as a lagoon and named Orima or Aima, which means beginning or absolute darkness. It was a realm inhabited and managed by Esu (keeper of divine power, authority, principle of order, harmony and agent of reconciliation). Within this realm, Olodumare (God) dwelt in a miniscule core of translucent light and water and there, came to recognize that while the dark realm represented the plenitude of our existence, it could not bloom or beautify. Engaging with one another, Esu and Oludumare discuss their limitations and Esu laments to Olodumare that he had the most space but could not bring life into fruition. In exchange for creative power, Esu allowed Olodumare to share his space with the condition that he, Esu, be able to move freely into Olodumare’s space and mix with the creatures Oludumare had brought forth.

Luna interprets this story and replicates its setting in the black background of the final tapestry. The tapestry’s title, Heartbreaker, appears in red, a stark contrast that suggests a dichotomy of dark and light and alludes to the tension and negotiation required for the sharing of realms between Esu and Olodumare. In the tapestry, black overpowers the intensity of the red in the upper part of the composition and red hesitantly leaks into black in the lower part of the composition. Black rises up in the realm of red, calligraphically spreading in the form of knives, blades, eyes and death’s horsemen. Similar backdrops are visible in Luna’s other tapestries—In the Garden, Sometimes, and Who Eats Whom—and provide further opportunities for the visual to be linked to the themes of a well-known religious story.

Luna’s use of the story is important for several reasons. It allowed him to create a new visual rendering of Yoruba literary figures, weaving a conceptual imagery without parallel in Yoruba culture in West Africa or seen in the diaspora. His creation can be described as a fitting celebration of African continuity in the Americas and understood as a new conceptualization of Yoruba philological notions using Yoruba-diaspora visual tools. At the same time, Luna’s integration of the creation story promotes a new religious visual literacy and encourages a broadening of responses to identity in the new world. Finally, in its retelling, Luna prompts audience to seek a deeper understanding of the story’s core message, to think about the relationship between two important Yoruba religious archetypes—Olodumare and Esu.  Their attributes comprise key moral Yoruba paradigms on both side of the Atlantic, emphasizing the fundamental, traditionally binary nature of good and evil. Here, however, they are presented as complementary, a reminder that the two formulations—through words and now through images—are as inseparable as the concept of existence and the moral values assigned to Olodumare’s creatures.[15]

 

 

Conclusion

In Ernest Fished’s seminal book titled The Necessity of Art, he addresses the fundamental questions about the role and purpose of art in society, asking why is it important to us, and what constitutes its inherited power. Carlos Luna himself asks these questions, and uses new visual art forms to explore ways in which older forms—both visual and oral—were able to convey complex religious, spiritual and moral teachings and facilitate journeys into conceptual mysteries of the mind. His curiosity, and the persistence with which he has sought both answers and new ways of asking the questions calls to mind another Cuban artist, Manuel Mendive, whose own artistic journey challenged Western artistic practices in Cuba aesthetically and conceptually by embracing other artistic legacies in the country. Like Luna, Mendive focused on Yoruba visual and religious culture and explored its impact on broader Cuban culture.

In using art to fluidly create and re-create spaces of reflection and reinterpretation, Luna alludes to the importance of the rain forest, known as “El Monte,” as a scared space in Afro-Cuban religious tradition, as well as in the popular imagination of Cubans.  The rainforest—the original Green Machine—is a place of origin, an African source of life that continues to implicitly serve as a source of vitality and physical as well as spiritual healing. An ocean away, the green Cuban countryside is celebrated as an equally vital space, one populated by those who farm the land—the guajiros—whose connection to nature and contributions to the emergence of Cuban culture Luna believes to have been overlooked.

From early in his career, Luna’s work has foreshadowed the accelerating development of conceptual art and has made fascinating and enduring contributions to the reconciliation of multiple artistic and cultural paradigms in the African diaspora. His preferred aesthetic—one equally informed by Western and African visual culture—has become increasingly common, a mainstreaming likely to continue for some time to come. In facilitating a lasting shift in artistic production in this era of globalization, Luna’s work should also be recognized for giving permanence to specific artistic creations, ones that might otherwise fade from conscious recollection.  At the forefront of this shift, Luna’s work is continuing to evolve as he experiments with new media and revisits and expands the myriad ways in which to use painting to tell, retell and reimagine personal, national and trans-national awakenings.


Endnotes

 



[1] Annegreth Nill, “Introduction. A Matter of Life and Death”, in Pablo Picasso Ceramics: Carlos Luna Paintings, pp. 20–34.

See Jaime Moreno Villarreal, “Carlos Luna: The Artist as Is”, in Carlos Luna: Step-by-Step, pp. 17–26.
[2] See Horace, Ars poetica 361; Plutarch, De Gloria Athenensium III. 346f–347c.
[3] Faktura comes from the Latin word factura, which means a making, manufacturing or a thing that has been manufactured. Factura in Spanish, spelled like the Latin original, was a term used in the 1920s by Russian constructivist artist Alexander Rodchenko and other artists affiliated with the Constructivist movement. This word became critical to a generation of Cuban artists trained in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and early 1980s, whose return to Cuba shaped the curriculum at the two most prestigious art academies in Cuba. 
[4] Lisa Phillips, The American Century: Art & Culture 1950–2000, 0p. 114–38.
[5] Such as Federico Mialhe, Cockpit and Day of the Magi, compiled in the Album Picturesque of the Island of Cuba, 1853; Victor Patricio de Landaluze, The Zapateo, 1875; Federico Amerigo, Landscape, n.d; Postcard view of Cuba early twentieth century, Cockfight; Joaquin Blez, Peasants with General Molinet, Chaparra Sugar Mill, ca. 1910; Carlos Enríquez, The Abduction of the Mulatto Women, 1938; Eduardo Abela, Peasants, 1938; Antonio Gattorno, The Siesta, 1939–40; Lorenzo Romero Arciaga, The Cup of Coffee, ca. 1940; Rene Portocarrero, Woman at the Window, ca. 1940; and Mariano Rodríguez, Rooster, 1941.
[6] Enrique García Gutiérrez, “Carlos Luna: Keep Your Eyes on Me”, in El Gran Mambo, pp. 13–21.

See Jesus Rosado, “Carlos Luna: An Island for the Road”, in Carlos Luna Personal Histories, pp. 18–31.
[7] Henry John Drewal, Yoruba Arts and Life as Journey, p. 194.
[8] Ibid., p. 194.
[9] Ibid, p. 38–39.
[10] J. C. Cooper, An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols, pp. 38–39.
[11] Personal conversation with Carlos Luna, Miami, June 2014.
[12] Bárbaro Martínez-Ruiz, Things That Cannot Be Seen Any Other Way. The Art of Manuel Mendive, pp. 19–20.
[13] Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess, pp. 13–21.
[14] Robert Farris Thompson, Face of the Gods, p. 161. See Anonymous Facsimile. The Ifá World as Philosophy, Itatumo 39. Personal Collection, p. 56.
[15] Frank Willet, African Art, pp. 78–82.