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Critique: Reflection and the Diasporic Epic

Ricardo Pau-Llosa

Cuban-American poet, art critic of Latin American art in the US

Sometimes overlooked in observations of an artist’s work over a span of time, especially during the formation of a definitive aesthetic personality, are the dynamics of convergence among the themes, passions, and influences that have surfaced up to that time.  An aesthetic personality is a deeper and more comprehensive concept than style and usually results from the coalescing of various concerns and tendencies that the artist has engaged.  Style marks the mostly chosen participation in tendencies and patterns which can be identified in various artists, while aesthetic personality is the revelation of the self-formed center of philosophical and existential gravity in the artist’s work across various thematic, conceptual, and stylistic currents.  Pedro ‘Piki’ Mendizabal (b.1982, Havana)—who fled communist Cuba in 2008 for freedom in the United States, settling in New Orleans in 2010 (where he has lived since)—is the quintessential Cuban-diaspora artist of his generation for he has mastered oneiric, narrative, abstractionist and figurative-expressionist currents within the Modernist tradition to generate a unique and transcendent aesthetic personality that articulates the epic of exile and locates its hero and point of view in the realm of Reflection. 

In Mendizabal’s work the viewer is given a real-time link to the process through which the artist’s mind travels, from wrenching testimonials of the oppression he and all Cubans experience in their homeland, to a complex and nuanced expression of expulsion and survival, and what these disclose about the mechanics of the  unconscious.  Mendizabal grounds these expressions in theater and its tropes (metonymy mostly, but also metaphor and synecdoche), hence the immediacy they attain for the viewer.  The scenes are both archetypal and poignantly specific—real-life scenes of the harshness of Cuban life which also resonate with a global public.

Reflection is what pulls memory out of the realm of emotions (which leads to nostalgia—an ever present danger for exiles) and into that of ideas. So varied yet unified is the work of this mid-career artist, whose work is finally gaining the wider audience and critical scrutiny it richly deserves, that it also mirrors the dynamics that bind individuals to cities and societies.  In other words, a forum of emotions and ideas runs through these paintings and their depiction of people, plazas, and buildings—many in the ruins that have sadly come to epitomize Havana after six decades of socialism. This forum dimension of Mendizabal’s work is only one of the factors which situates him as one of the most original, penetrating, and universal artists of his generation in the Cuban diaspora.  It is important to note that the terms ‘exile’ and ‘diaspora,’ are not used here interchangeably.  Exile is a transitional condition of flight from a nation due to persecution, while diaspora denotes the trans-territorial evolution—across generations—of that nation’s tradition.  The origins of diaspora are exile, but it is in the vital progression of values across time that the diasporic imagination finds its home.  Diasporas is a fidelity to core values whose growth, generated by the on-going creative dialogue between artists and their public (both within and outside the diasporic community), confirms the maturity of that tradition. Little wonder, then, that regimes that make exile a necessity for many of its citizens dread the simple truth that a nation’s traditions can only live beyond their grip.

During the first five years of his life in America, Mendizabal’s work manifested an intensity both cathartic and elegiac.  A desire to capture the torments of the life he had abandoned combined with a tragic recognition that return is impossible.  Already one glimpses in his indignant valediction the seeds of a diasporic sensibility that will lead to deeper explorations of the epic sense of life which such displacement imposes.  The cathartic elegy, in fact, began during Mendizabal’s last two months in Havana, for he had lived the reality of internal exile since his teenage years.  His astonishing series Ultimos 60 días/The Last 60 Days consists of 12 works, acrylic and pastel on heavy paper, 40 x 28 inches.  They are unsparing visions of the grinding poverty and fear endured in the crumbling colonial sector of Havana.  Stylistically they emerge from the expressionist tradition which emerges in the early days of Cuba’s vanguardia of the 1930’s and 40’s in the work of Fidelio Ponce de León and includes such subsequent figures as René Portocarrero and Antonia Eiriz, among others.  The latter, in particular, is a prominent influence on Mendizabal.  Her paintings of monstrous figures of the 1960’s, such as Anunciación/Annunciation, was deemed irreverent toward the Revolutionary order and she was dropped into a marginalized limbo for decades. 

Mendizabal’s Ultimos 60 días constitute a blunt mise-en-scène of Havana’s cavern  quotidian, a bleakness that belies its latitudes, traditions, and the festiveness of official propaganda.  There is, in other words, no hyperbole here.  The relentless crisis of any random moment is as real as it is an obvious instrument of state control over a population compelled to think only of meeting basic necessities.  This is the darkness of a labyrinth, eclipse by edict.  And it is this opacity which triggers a dazzling metonymy.  The pigment becomes shadow, blood, and figure, the darkness light, the flatness of Modernist foreground the burning closeness of biological despair.  Hence, the figures buckle and melt in the chthonic furnace of groped paths among lightless pyres.  Metonymy clarifies into datum what would otherwise seem extravagant contradiction, for in the world Mendizabal’s Ultimos 60 días, beings are natives of entrapping paradox, hence they’ve been stripped of the conceptualizing, imagining senses of distance—sight and sound—and have been reduced to the primals of taste, smell, and touch where no trope can linger nor from which ideas can called forth.

Thus we come to understand how Expressionism, previously associated with the purgatorial soul, becomes the hyper-realism of lives under totalitarianism.  This is metonymy springing from everyday life as a structure of thought and perception, not a clever tool—a recognition which comes only with diasporic reflection.  That is, the dramatic scenes of the quotidian unexpectedly connect an existing style and its semantic textures to an ineluctable condition to disclose its essence (i.e. its unbracketable reality) and, simultaneously, cohere the aesthetic and philosophical personality of the artist.  This redirection of Expressionism is made more convincing, even natural, given that in Latin American art, of all periods, styles do not disappear once their heydays are over.  Instead, the region’s imagination is characterized by how multiple pasts converge in the present.  No style goes out of style.  Expressionism, which re-emerged with a ‘Neo-‘ prefix in North America and Western Europe in the 1980’s, continued its vitality and progression throughout Latin America after the 1930’s.  In Cuba, its post-vanguardia figures included Eduardo Abela, Antonia Eiriz, and Gina Pellón.  Luis Cruz-Azaceta, a Cuban-American painter identified with Neo-Expressionism in the 80’s, and Mariel-refugee Carlos Alfonzo both fit naturally within the on-going development of this style in the Cuban Modernist tradition, as do subsequent painters such as Humberto Castro and Alexander Morales.  Mendizabal is the latest innovator in the diasporic life of this tradition.

Mendizabal’s Expressionism of the quotidian, and the metonymic transferences of meanings associated with it, is not the only Modernist style which he has redirected toward new duties.  Surrealism and its vault of metaphors and juxtapositions has long comprised a principal current in Caribbean and Latin American Modernism, linking the region’s fascination with dream to ancestral roots in its myriad indigenous cosmologies, West African religious and cultural survivals, and Iberian baroque aesthetics.  The Oneiric—which draws on personal and collective aspects of the unconscious to conjure through metaphor compressed images that evoke multiple meanings—has been familiar ground for explorations by the artists of the region.  In Mendizabal’s case, and that of others, the scenes and implied narratives triggered by metonymic theater are joined with new symbols that fuse two or more referents into one dominant, stable image. 

An excellent example of this process is El Muro, 23 y Malecón/The Wall, 23rd and Malecón, an on-going series Mendizabal began in 2017 but whose approach to the human figure has roots in his previous works, especially those dealing with the balseros or rafters who fled Cuba for decades, most notably in the 90’s. The ‘muro/wall’ is, on a literal level, the parapet which separates the famous Havana seaside boulevard from the crashing waves of the Florida Straits.  On a more existentially resonant level, the ‘wall’ is the sea itself, its envelopment of the island functioning, since the rise of totalitarian rule in 1959, as an effective imprisoning device.  The intersection of 23rd and Malecón has become infamous as an area where prostitutes of all proclivities can be hired by tourists with hard currency.  Like all areas of the Malecón, this intersection is also visited by ordinary habaneros for its splendid views of the ocean, sunsets, and the city.

Mendizabal has approached this iconic setting in a radically new way.  The view is closely cropped, allowing a view of the sea, horizon, sky, and the wall, but the  elements are reduced as to seem props on a stage or monochromatic backdrops.  The lighting and darkness is heavily contrasted, augmenting the theatrical context, but the figures themselves are painted renditions of statues.  Some are direct quotations from classical or Renaissance works, and others simply evoke the coldness of stone, plaster, or clay.  Havana’s Malecón assumes openly in these works its quintessential stage identity, except that the characters are representations of statues, or more precisely of art-class casts and copies used to teach modeling to students.  They are shells disconnected--exiled, perhaps—from the complex narrative to which they are native.  Their combats and poses dwindle like Plato’s ripple of ever weakening truths—versions of echoes of copies of . . . .  Erosions of the soul disguised as memories of epics gone, beauty disowned, their struggles tumble into mangled erotics.  They wait for the future, but nothing and no one waits for them.  And thus they are icons of Mendizabal’s Cuban generation of emptied citizens, hardened shadows in search of a softer sun and a kinder night. 

The Oneiric impulse in Mendizabal dominated the preceding decade of Mendizabal’s work, since the time he was a student at the National Academy of San Alejandro.  The ruins of La Habana Vieja where he was born and raised provide incandescent scenarios whose details recall the apocalyptic scenes of early European Surrealists, Salvador Dalí in particular.  This eschatological vein also had at least one important Cuban precursor—the visions of wastelands from the 60’s of Mario Carreño who had moved to Chile in 1957, never to return to Havana.  But Dalí’s scenes were infused with the limelight of the dream state, whereas Carreño’s paintings aligned the deserts of his new homeland with Cold War apprehensions about nuclear Armageddon and therefore were tonally more about drama than dream.  Mendizabal’s early paintings of Old Havana tenements (solares) and of battered buildings unmoored from the city streets and floating like ghost ships, galleons without sails or purpose, into the Gulfstream, are more about parable—projections of a young artist’s turning the ruins in which he is compelled to live into valedictions of a more decorous and humane past.  The intricate details denote his desire to master every aspect of his craft, at this point in his late teens and early twenties.  The scenes, however haunting many of them may be, are overcharged with pathos and the predictables of historical reference and oneiromancy.

However, those scenes have provided the basis for a new splendid series, the finest of his current work, simply titled Cuba.  It began in 2017 and already the series comprises a powerful set of images that coalesce all the elements of Mendizabal’s evolving and complex aesthetic personality.  Scenes of the capital’s colonial sector are now more nuanced.  The light that once crowded into crannies of depiction now fills and highlights the grand sweep of pleasures from pondered walls and streets, rooftops and plazas.  The denizens of despair from Ultimos 60 días have absorbed the stoic composure of the Malecón casts and become genuine characters who live out their tragedies and captured joys in the labyrinth of Havana’s brokenness. 

El cuerpo en llamas de Juanito/The Burning Body of Juanito (2016) describes a crisis in the tenement: a man on fire is carried out by five neighbors, the glow tainting the faces and torsos as if with blood.  The  rush of scene captures the movement of the men without missing two faces that conjure the paused hopelessness of the situation.  It is, the theme notwithstanding, a truly beautiful painting of superb chromatic tensions—dark browns and greens against brilliant red, yellow, and blue, lighter blues, lavenders—that heighten the action of the characters.  In the background a terrified neighbor, back frozen against the wall, hands shielding the face from the horrific scene.  Of Juanito we see an arm, knotted hand, and the lower legs.  The tragedy unfolds, yet the neighbors take on the gruesome task, poor and gaunt as they are, heroes even in the failed mission.  From the same year, Tata ganga el renacimiento/Tata ganga the rebirth describes a familiar scene in the tenements of La Habana Vieja: a ceremony honoring a dead high-ranking priest or ‘tata’ in the Palo Monte religion, whose origins are in the Congo.  The ‘ganga’ or offering is the large pot in the foreground, with a living tata performing a ritual to clear the deceased tata’s path to spiritual elevation.  Clustering bodies and faces in these cramped, foregrounded scenarios has become a varied and insightful recurring theme in Mendizabal’s pictorial imagination.  In this one, the blues, greens, and yellows smoke into swirl as the spirit of the tata mingles with Elegguá.  The line between life and death is tenuous, at best, as is the line between religions.  Elegguá is a Yoruba deity, but such syncretisms are common in popular Cuban religious life.  Indeed, the diverse African legacies of Cuba mingle and mix with each other and with Roman Catholicism and scientific (or secular)  Spiritualism.  Mendizabal depicts a theatricalized scene—of a kind he witnessed many times during his life in Havana—that is governed by personalities that include us in the action with authoritative glances, and not by folklore or allegory.  We can perceive an action and its agents with intimate wonder, but, despite its mystery, we feel no dread.  We keep the characters in mind as complex subjectivities and not as anecdotal or exotic types.  


In 2015 Mendizabal executed one of the simplest and most exquisite paintings of his Cuba series, Esquina Cuba/Cuba Corner, referencing the nation’s name on one of its Old Havana streets, corner of Cuarteles (Barracks).  In chromatic play and textures, it has the cunning hedonism of a Wayne Thiebaud, the compositional subtlety of a Piet Mondrain and the spatial strategies of a Richard Diebenkorn.  Compressed to the right is Cuarteles street which leads, in golds, greys, and creams, to the dawn-lit dome of the once Capitol of the Cuban Republic.  The light from Cuarteles cuts into the foreground on Cuba street, a clean wedge that balances the textural tactics on the right with the muted, frontal chess of the blue façade that dominates the foreground.  It is a breathtaking study in the beauty of a simple corner in a city that history and power have pummeled.  The pointed arch recalls Havana’s European legacy of ecclesiastical architecture.  The intricate yet easily apprehended mosaic of shadow and light in the doorways bring us to the plane of unsurrendered order in a place so abused.  The geometries of light and the angles of half open panes and doors also pay homage to the paintings of Emilio Sánchez, the nation’s premier visual poet of Caribbean architecture and its arias of light and shadow.

Various other works in Mendizabal’s Cuba series are set in La Habana Vieja’s streets, and particularly in the area of Cuba and Cuarteles streets.  Near the entrance to Havana Bay and the neighborhood where the artist grew up, it is, beyond the attachment of personal memory, a place of confluence.  Some of the city’s still beautiful colonial residences, military forts, and churches are nearby, as is the sea and, but a few blocks away, the once thriving economic and political heart of the Caribbean’s first metropolis.  But it’s in the confluence itself and the fusion of metonymy and metaphor in Mendizabal’s mind when conjuring this historical and emotional aleph in Cuba’s history and identity, that we get a fuller sense of his profound and expansive imagination.  In the painting Angelus de Roberto (2016), the Plaza de la Catedral is glimpsed from a side street.  In it, as well as in the arcades that grace many sidewalks of the old city, various citizens are being stopped by uniformed police donning blue berets and black clubs.  Zones of light and shadow and some of the figures themselves are outlined by bands of red or yellow, and the entire composition is radiant with a dazzling choice of intersecting planes of color.  The Plaza is glimpsed partially through the space the corner buildings allow, but for all the painting’s delectable spaces, balances, and luminosity, the action is centered on the six pairs of police and citizens scattered across the scene, a sadly normal pattern of heavy handed routine surveillance.  Ironically, the figures also seem to be engaging a scene of incongruous confession.  A placid combat is going on in the scene, a Manichaean exchange between twelve individuals.  It is an angelus, after all, a prayer, a call, a bell ringing in a time of anunciation. Revelation and revolution are at hand, calls to rebirth in the hearts of individual human beings and the societies they build and inhabit.  Yet, it is unclear who will triumph in this stage of the Cuban epic, power or the children of the light?  It might depend on how we remember what brought ordinary people of conscience to take on the epic of a nation’s survival, and how we understand the role which the imagination of its artists plays in it.    

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