A man moves along the streets of a neighborhood in Havana with a gigantic hog that follows him as if it were a dog or his younger son. The animal, with whitish skin, is a stud, the owner of some huge and valuable balls. As they stroll, man and hog seem equally happy, proud: the man knows when he makes his incursion that afternoon, he will get good money, and the hog –the instrument whereby the man will get to the money– knows it is going to copulate, as it always does when taken out for a walk. In a muddy puddle the hog finds on its way, the animal decides to cool itself down from the Cuban heat in its own fashion: it wallows in the mud, grunts satisfied, pisses and shits while being at it. The man, also satisfied, smiles with his battered cigar in his mouth, he almost grunts, entranced, and wipes a piece of snot from his nose which he then wipes on his trousers: he is a pleased being, almost envious of the animal’s bliss. It is not too difficult to discover that the man and his hog look physically alike. And if one is very observant, one can even discover that man and animal resemble each other in deeper ways, it could be said (with a lot of effort) that in spiritual ways. Or better, instinctive ways.
Next to the man and the hog, another man passes by and looks at them –better, admires them–, he is training his attack dog, a valued animal of the Stafford breed. The man pedals on a bicycle and the dog, chained up, trots alongside its owner on the scorching pavement, as it does every day it must fulfill its training. Man and dog go straight past, speed up their respective pedaling and trotting, enjoy the feeling of perceiving how their muscles toughen and both become fitter for the fights of life, which are solved by chewing them to pieces. Man and dog live on the fights the latter takes part in, and both on the money the man –thanks to the dog– gets from the bets and the deaths of other similar ones. Man and dog, curiously, are both chubby-cheeked, they have round and sly eyes, small ears stuck to the skull, but they share also a more recondite expression, it could be said (always with an effort), a spiritual one. Or definitely, an instinctive one.
Best friend, 2012
Near these four characters a cart goes past drawn by a horse. The animal drags, with its last strengths, a heavy load that includes the man who owns it, plus two friends, all shirtless, highly trained in spitting gobs on the street covering long distances, and of course, they are armed with a bottle of rum they pass around and from which theydrink directly that mix of alcohol and saliva. Thanks to that horse, which in the Cuban market is valued at around 15 thousand pesos, its owner earns a living transporting things and people. But the horse’s owner, who always holds the reins, whips over and over the animal’s back where some drops of blood and a foamy sweat are already oozing. The horse’s face and its owner’s don’t look alike: the man’s, badly shaved, chapped by the sun, has an expression clouded by the alcohol he has drunk; the horse’s is the revelation of exhaustion, pain, resignation. But man and horse do smell the same: of sweat, of shit, of a frustration their poor brains can barely rationalize, but that they equally suffer. From both their mouths there flows a trickle of drool.
Men, with their hogs, dogs and horses, or with their gamecocks ready for their combats, or with rams whose throats will be slit, pigeons that will be sacrificed on an altar, move through the city, they are part of its daily scenery, and so much so that very few people feel there is something too animal in the attitudes and relations of those men who live together with their animals, squeeze them dry and at the same time blend with them, even spiritually.
Less visible, but not less everyday, there is that other man who leans out of a flat roof or a window onto the city. The individual, who scratches his balls with rigor and malice aforethought, is upset, or a little less upset than a few minutes ago, and the cause of the slight improvement in his state of mind is because he has just vented part of his bad mood and his frustrations to the woman –his woman– whom he has dealt a beating until he made her bleed, just like the horse that was getting the whippings or the dog whose paws were all blistered after the long walk. The woman, for her part, with a deformed lip, still bleeding, and a black eye, cries in the kitchen in her house, but she does so due to the chemical effects brought on by the emanations from the onion she is cutting into pieces and with which she will season the food she is preparing for her husband –her man–, the same one who has brutally beaten her, never mind why. The woman bears in her face an expression that can very much remind one of that of the ram that just before went right past her house on its way to the slaughter. And, in addition, she carries guilt feelings: it was surely her, with her clumsiness and carelessness, who prompted her man’s rage.
Target of rams,2014
That man leaning out of the window or the flat roof, who had felt like going out there to do some more beating but never got to it, begins to forget the incident, first because it is no big deal, then because across the street, right on the sidewalk, some neighbors dance to the rhythm of reggaeton, which can be heard on the entire neighborhood, which shakes walls and foundations. The man also begins to move to the music, he cannot help it, it is stronger than he is, telluric, ungovernable. The neighbors who dance on the sidewalk, for their part, move with simian movements –not seismic but simian–, and among men and women, most of them very young and even some children, they make pirouettes and give clearly sexual strokes of the hips, they rub against each other, as if they were a group of orangutans in heat.
Along the street that separates those who dance in a simian way from the man and the woman, he who beats and she who gets beaten, a packed bus passes by at some point, at any point, from which some more music, but above all screams and insults, come out. Five, seven, ten minutes ago, aboard that bus where the acid vapor of the armpit and the sticky stench of dirtiness and poverty concentrate, a fight is taking place in which everyone beats everyone else, everyone shouts at everyone, as if it were an exercise to release tensions, frustrations, rages, accumulated hatreds which, on the smallest pretext, have found a violent way to be demonstrated and expelled outwards: the same way a pack of hounds would express their canine disagreements, or some jackals in rut or feeling hunger. Like animals...
The manifestation of the most primitive instincts of all those city inhabitants, the physical and spiritual closeness between men and their animals, in which differences are lost or mingled, is an everyday manifestation, so everyday, that it almost turns invisible or hardly perceptible. In the jungle, the law of the jungle prevails and with those codes, the cohabitation in the murky, tangled, wild entrails of that environment is organized. That environment is the Cuba in which we men, animals and anthropomorphic beings have come together with moral and intellectual genes in the process of mutation.
Roberto Fabelo, loaded with his weapons, bears witness to a widespread reality. For some years –I would say many years– images of human beings with zoomorphic alterations move about his work as a painter, draftsman, sculptor and engraver. Sometimes Fabelo sees the kind part of the closeness or conjunction of men and animals, as those languorous or lost-in-thought sirens he has created reveal, the winged women with dark flesh and ample proportions, the conchs that, as possible helmets, crown the head of certain nymphs or muses, the dispassionate men-unicorns that lie on canvases or papers, with their gazes fixed on the nothingness, or beyond the nothingness. All beings that are markedly sad, with no expectations, resigned to their fate of oneiric or wished images.
Persistence of animal, 2012
For some other years, these ones nearer in time, that passion for the vicinity of man to his most animal nature, has been gaining obsessive dimensions in the artist’s works and they have given a decisive step towards the environment they belong to. What at some point were external features have embarked on the journey towards spiritual interiorization where the characteristics of the species come together and the frontiers blur.
The cockroach men that one day in the year 200? appeared climbing the walls of a museum in Havana, with hieratic and threatening expressions, as if they wanted to seize the fortress of beauty and appropriate it to turn their destiny, were a clear warning that the artist’s aesthetics and human and social concerns had begun to go down towards the well of the most disturbing essences.
The path taken by Fabelo, a man who is consistent with his aesthetics and his pursuits, could not lead him anywhere else but to the grotesque and alarming explosion visible in the great canvases that make up the fundamental and closest body of No somos animales (We are not animals), the show with which the painter has brought to an end the year 2012’s work in an art gallery in Havana.
Cuban artists who live and create in Cuba do not have the option of the ivory tower, unless the tower is just made of plaster with ivory pretensions, that is, false and feeble. Living in Cuba entails, inescapably, the need of peeking at (and getting contaminated with) a social and human universe that goes through the walls and pursues them in almost every act and decision in their artistic and daily life. Faced with such a circumstance there can be two options: to close one’s mind and try not to realize the proportions of the chaos and degradation, to escape from it and even to sustain that escapism with the opportune word and the hollow artwork; or the most honest alternative, the one committed to the truth, of looking straightforwardly at the context and holding talks with it, to immerse then in Heredia ?s “horrors of the moral world”.
Fabelo’s choice has been that of such a painful dialogue. With a pictorial language that takes resorts and ways from expressionism, from surrealism and even from the old artistic schools –his altarpieces are group portraits with Dutch resonances; his characters can be emanations from imageries by Bosco, Durero or Goya–, with a somewhat baroque representative way which nevertheless does without the baroque’s contextual fuss to focus on an essence, and above all, with an eagerness to participate that is capable of revealing the existence of an artist’s awareness of the ethical and citizenly responsibility, Fabelo has sat down to have a conversation with his time and context, to grasp from his sensitivity, style and mastery, the sweeping and disquieting evidences of a social and human degradation in which the accepted beauty codes no longer seem to have a place.
Art, it is known, is essentially synthetic and connotative. In its limited space –a novel, a painting, a poem or a photograph–, the artwork sums up and brings a world, a story, a feeling to a stop in order for it to be expressed in an exercise of concentration that affects sensitivity and intellect. Fabelo’s art is all that has been said above –which turns out to be enough, almost too much–, but it is also something else: it is premonition or warning, that extreme quality that manages to distinguish art from great art.
The five large-format heads specially created for No somos animales, appear in the exhibition space along with a series of rough drafts, sketches and several drawings that date back to even the year 1997 and in their consequence and perseverance reveal the courses of a pursuit and, at the same time, the dawn of an obsessive concern. If in sketches and drawings Fabelo, using the figuration that distinguishes and characterizes him, enters into grotesqueness as a way of expressing that terrible and galloping closeness of men towards their most animal condition, in the large canvases, made just yesterday, he flies the nest to make a loud statement against the existence of a patently obvious dehumanization that each day knocks on our doors and moves along the city streets. In the artistic space, the creator brings us face to face with men who bear attack-dog features, stud-hog attitudes, mistreated-horse fevers, submissiveness like that of the rams whose throats are going to be slit. But at the same time he is out for more, a lot more, for if it were possible to say, Fabelo sets out to attack our consciences by showing us we live in a regrettable physical and moral closeness to those animals identifiable by their name, both surnames and marital and legal statuses.
The man-hog’s head, the dog-human’s, the severed and served head –with reminiscences of Holofernes’ classical beheadings–, the man-toad’s blank stare, the brutality coming from Persistencia del animal (The Animal’s Persistence) that names a painting but moves along the entire collection, constitute a cry of repulsion, and atthe same time, of alarm and commiseration towards a humanity that is degraded in its loss of values, in its exaltation of frenzy, in the spread of what is primitive and wild, typical characters of a world in which the artist lives and, whether we like it or not, also the rest of his contemporary fellow countrymen.
In a time in which lightness, artifices, easy and narcotic entertainment take over the media, the publishing houses, the art galleries and all the stultifying mechanisms we suffer, Roberto Fabelo’s proposal resounds like a slap. Maybe the market, more keen on what is easy and on what is dazzling for the sake of being dazzling, on a vacuous taste that tries to con us (giving us shit for art), does not react with too much enthusiasm towards revulsions like these. Fabelo knows it and he takes the risk. But the risk is also a component of the exercise of true art. And taking aesthetical, commercial and even political risks, constitutes a civic and ethical stance when the aim is, from the artistic production, to point out a reality and to go to extremes with it in order to, while the creator throws it back at us in the face, make it more visible and give it more soundness on its way to the consciences of those who make up and live such a reality.
Mantilla, noviembre de 2012.