La Ubre del Humor

La Ubre del Humor (The Udder of Humor), an exhibition of graphic humor, was presented March 18-April 29 in the Old Havana headquarters of the Center for the Development of Visual Arts. Original and reprinted works by more than 15 artists were accompanied by talks and presentations by several of the show’s participants, including Reynerio Tamayo, Lázaro Saveedra, and the award-winning cartoonist Ares. Caridad Blanco de la Cruz, art historian and curator of the exhibition, talked about the show—and the particular humor that emerges on the island of Cuba—with Abelardo Mena, her collaborator on a new humor project.

Where did the idea for the exhibition come from?

It arose last summer as La Calle del Medio, a monthly cultural magazine widely distributed in Havana, went into its third year of publication. In those first three years, La Calle had included a central section devoted to humor, called La Ubre (The Udder).

Many young humorists from different regions had published their works in La Ubre, some for the first time. La Ubre writers cultivate humor of a thought-provoking type, which has become a tradition in Cuba. Cuban humor aims to elicit a knowing smile from readers rather than a loud laugh. Three years of accumulated work for La Ubre proved both the seriousness of the project and the expertise of its staff, Arístides E. Hernández (Ares) and Ramiro Zardoya Sánchez (Zardoyas). La Ubre has achieved the highest level in terms of graphic humor published in Cuba.

The exhibition, The Udder of Humor, was intended to convey the visual expression that La Ubre has assembled, as the voice of a generation ready to exercise a mature humor, and tracing the development of a visual language that encompasses many individual expressions.

For the Center for the Development of Visual Arts, founded in the 1980s, it was very important to spotlight this generation. The project is one part in a line of research, reflection, and essays about graphic humor in Cuba that was initiated by the Center. These activities focus on relevant humor publications, such as El Pitirre and Dedeté, and on artists of varied backgrounds. It has also focused on the way that humor has permeated the work of prominent artists, and the expressions of Cuban contemporary art in the last 20 years.

Is it possible to talk about a new Cuban graphic humor? What are the features that differentiate this humor?

There is already a group of new cartoonists with a “style”—artists with perfectly recognizable graphic identities. They give continuity to this thought-provoking kind of humor, and they enrich a tradition of humor that is more than 150 years old. For example, there’s the work of Rafael Blanco Estera (1855-1955), considered in the 1920s as the first of our modern artists, and whose work is characterized by an extremely short and fast line. Blanco’s work gave birth to ideas of universality that are very common in the works of contemporary artists such as Ares, Boligán, and Martirena.

If I had to highlight other specific artists or moments of humor in Cuba, I would mention Eduardo Abela, Conrado Massaguer, Jaime Valls, and Juan David. And it’s essential to point out the significance of El Pitirre, a humor publication that appeared from 1960 to1962, with Rafael Fornés at the head of a stellar team that included Sergio, Chago, Nuez, Posada, Muñoz Bachs, Fresquito, Guerrero, and Chamaco, among others. El Pitirre was decisive because, from that moment on, the image gained prominence [over the text] and expanded the universe of graphic humor.

With Dedeté (DDT), founded in 1969, this transfiguration was complete: the image, and the role of design in publishing, lent a deeper dimension to different aspects of humor—the so-called general humor, but also the absurdist, the philosophical, and even black humor. This was in contrast to the usual commentary on social issues published back then. During its first 20 years, Dedeté offered a unique and well-received chronicle of Cuban society, with award-winning artists such as Manuel, Carlucho, Ajubel, and Tomy, who brought national and international renown to the publication.

As part of the exhibition, you organized a series of talks with prominent visual artists such as Ares, Tamayo, and Saavedra. Are there any links among them and the artists of the printed image—cartoonists and such?

Those artists who participated in the public talks are linked to that tradition of Cuban humor. They are an essential part of it, although in different ways. Ares, who is a psychiatrist, has been closely related to daily publications. And he is a self- taught artist, as are most Cuban cartoonists. He is also the Cuban graphic humorist, living in Cuba, with the greatest number of international awards—121. His work shows his expertise and despite its prestige, it has not been frozen in time; his graphical expression and topics are constantly refreshed and renewed.

Reynerio Tamayo is a born humorist, a master cultivator of raillery, as well as an expert in watercolor, ceramics, posters, drawings, and sculpture. He graduated from the Superior Institute of Arts (ISA) in 1992. In 1989, he was awarded the Grand Prize, the Golden Aesop, at the Ninth International Biennial on Humor and Satire in Art, in Gabrovo, Bulgaria. In 1995 he earned a mention and an award for his installation Visite el cuadro del artista (Visit the artist’s picture), showcased in the first Salon of Cuban Contemporary Art. His works were included in the core exhibitions of the last two editions of the Havana Biennial (2006 and 2009), an important international contemporary art event.

Lázaro Saavedra is also an ISA graduate, and one of our most prestigious contemporary artists. Humor is a significant tool in his conceptual discourse. His works are included in important international collections and the permanent collection of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana. In this institution, in 2003, he presented his solo exhibition El único animal que ríe (The only animal that laughs). His work has been showcased in numerous installations, and since 2003 he has created video art and cartoons. He is also working on Galería I-Meil (disseminated via e-mail), an ingeniously sharp chronicle in which he blends textual references with photography, humorous drawings, and amusing anecdotes.

The works of these artists stand out and are connected. They also show the importance of the line of research that makes connections, without hierarchies, between cartoon humor in print publications and humor in the fine arts. Currently, I’m writing a book on this subject: Maneras de Inventarse una sonrisa(Ways of Inventing a Smile).

The economic hardships during the Special Period dismantled the movement of Cuban humorists, which became known in popular publications such as Dedeté and Palante. How does current Cuban humor manage to survive? Does it have space in the national press? Do today’s cartoonists use the Internet and new technologies to communicate with their audience?

During the Special Period, many artists emigrated to other countries, and this had consequences. The crisis also resulted in a shortage of paper, which was essential for publications, and this was destabilizing. Currently the situation is quite different. However, editorial production has not achieved the level of that era.

Cuban humor persists in some areas of the press. For example, the last page of the daily newspaper Juventud Rebelde (Rebellious Youth) is dedicated to Dedeté, and every 45 days it’s issued as an eight-page tabloid. Palante is currently issued monthly. There are also publications in other regions of the island, such as Melaito in Villa Clara and La Picúa in Cienfuegos. The International Biennial of Humor is held in San Antonio de los Baños, and there are other national salons.

Graphic humor has had an outstanding place in Cuban websites and digital publications for some time now. Many Cuban artists publish their works in different parts of the world and attend various international competitions on humor. But while some benefit from the Internet, the new technologies still haven’t achieved significant public access.

As a curator, you’ve persisted in the study of Cuban humor since the 19th century. You’ve researched important personalities such as Santiago Armada (Chago), and you’ve curated exhibitions such asCiertas Historias de Humor (The Unknown Face of Cuban Art) and this current exhibition—all of which proves your unwavering determination to unveil the less serious side of Cuban art. Do Cubans laugh… in spite of everything?

Humor is very serious, despite efforts to minimize it. It has an extraordinary power; it reaches places that other artistic resources cannot. It’s a detached way of depicting reality and confronting it critically. José Marti—a 19th-century writer, poet, and Cuban politician—used to call it a “whip with bells.” It’s a philosophy and an attitude that enables one to face life and survive amidst obstacles, a keen way of reading and interpreting reality.

To confuse humor with the comic is reductionist and simplistic. Comic elements may or may not be present, but above all it’s a matter of wit, mental agility, sarcasm, sharpness of thought, irony, and even cynicism when it comes to observing reality. Humor is a challenge to the intelligence and not an invitation to the easy laugh. It challenges us to understand reality through satire, parody, absurdity, and sometimes through a defiant poetry, grotesque elements, and even through an apparent obscenity.

Undoubtedly, Cubans laugh as much as they can and they also joke or mock. Cubans like to use the familiar “tu” form of saying “you” and thus, with a knowing smile, they eliminate rank, power, and circumstances. A 1996 work of Reynerio Tamayo illustrates this attitude even in difficult circumstances: A Cuban, living in a ruined and buttressed building, defiantly shouts at a terrible blast of wind: “Let the hurricane come, I am waiting for it.”

Tell  us about the institutions, museums, and events that you consider the most relevant today in disseminating Cuban humor.

Essentially it’s the Museum of Humor, which hosts the San Antonio de los Baños International Biennial of Humor, but mainly the Union of Cuban Journalists (UPEC) which is in charge of organizing the event. We also have the National Salon of Humor Humoranga and the Ignacio Rodriguez Suriá, the National Salon El Loquito, and the Juan David Personal Caricature Salon. It’s also worth mentioning the International Salon of Erotic Humor, headed by Pedro Mendez in Villa Clara, and the work developed by the UPEC team of caricaturists in Las Tunas in an attempt to promote humor in that province.

Does Cuban humor participate internationally in museums, biennials, and artistic events?

I think that Cuban humor hasn’t been seen in museums as much as it used to be some years ago. Cuban graphic humor has appeared in events sponsored by the University of Alcalá de Henares General Foundation, Spain, as well as in various Latin American countries and numerous international competitions.

Among the best-kept secrets of Cuban art are the cartoons of the 1960s and ’70s. You’ve researched this topic extensively, and we’re working together on a project about it. What can you share with Cuban Art News readers about this relatively unknown art?

Cuban comics gathered momentum during the 1960s. Those works set new paradigms, coupled with the dreams of a new human being, concrete desires for social justice, and an education for all. Unprecedented characters appeared, with no powers other than their own courage, willingness, and vital energy. They came from literature or from original plots that dealt with the most dissimilar stories.

In the graphic stories of Roberto Alonso, heir of the classic U.S.comics; in the humor of Elpidio Valdésby Juan Padrón; or in Matías Pérez by Luis Lorenzo Sosa, we can find some of the concepts this genre had in the late 1960s and early ’70s, joined to a more avant-garde practice of Cuban humor represented by Sabino by Rafael Fornés, or Salomón by Santiago (Chago) Armada, or Gugulandia by Hernán Henríquez.

Cuban comics [strips and books] was one of the cultural industries that found a faithful audience in the first boom of Cubans born amidst the demographic onrush at that time. The project you and I are working on is intended to rescue a submerged vision, to recover the Cuban cartoon of that time, through which people can read about that epoch and its epic sense. The retrospective exhibition, under the title Héroes y anti-héroes: el comic cubano de los años 60 (Heroes and anti-heroes: the Cuban comic of the 1960s), will be the first project to approach what was done in those fruitful years of the flowering of Cuban humor in the first decade of the Revolution. We are eager for this exhibition to be known in those countries and communities where people are interested in cartoon history.

Abelardo G Mena Chicuri (La Habana 1962) Formerly a curator at the National Museum of Fine Arts, Havana, he is curator of the Farber Collection, Miami. He recently became CEO of RM Estudio, an arts advisory company in Havana for private and corporate collections.