Lázaro Saavedra during last month’s presentation of the 2014 Cuban National Award for Visual Art in Havana
Photo Alain Cabrera, courtesy Art on Cuba

When Lázaro Saavedra managed to make his personal crisis one of the themes in his work, he realized at that instant that he had overcome the first serious obstacle in his career. It was early in the 1990s. A graduate of the Instituto Superior de Artes (ISA) and eager to comerse el mundo, or succeed in life—he became a worker in the grass-roots construction project known as the “micro-brigades.” Without thinking he took a bunch of Baroque picture frames and inserted some of his “outstanding worker” certificates. This action gave birth to Curriculum Vitae, a piece created in a context utterly removed from artistic expression; only a not-very-conventional mentality like his could manage to turn an unpleasant experience into art. Taking his own story as a point of reference, Lázaro Saavedra proved then that the further he moved from art, the nearer to it he ended up.

“Paradoxes call my attention a lot. They’re a constant in my work, at both a formal and conceptual level,” says the artist now, 20 years later.

Premio Nacional de Artes Plásticas 2014

Although three decades removed from his start in the 1980s, Lázaro still believes in the supreme power of art as an effective communication medium. The recent winner of the 2014 National Award for Visual Art—the official distinction that Cuba bestows on its artists—Saavedra does not see obstacles as elements intrinsic to a certain epoch but as ways to prove himself as a creator, as a measure of his capacity to overcome them. “Unlike science, which has only one answer, in art it’s possible to propose several options. Artists have a different sensibility. They see something where others see nothing.”

When he traveled to Sao Paulo this year to participate in the biennial there, he had a priority: to see the space and then create afterward. The biennial’s organizers already knew his work. They agreed to include his work Software Cubano (2012), with the rest of the installation to come from the artist´s improvisation.

Partial view of Lázaro Saavedra, Bajo Presión (Under Pressure), 2014, installed at the São Paulo Biennial
Photo courtesy Lázaro Saavedra

With this approach, Saavedra intended to re-edit what had happened in Rio de Janeiro 2012 with his work Entre Trópicos, in which he referred to the system of work during the 1980s. He then used an empty wall, on which he placed a few previously constructed elements. The rest moved beyond his planned control, depending on improvisation.

A detail of Lázaro Saavedra, Bajo Presión (Under Pressure), 2014
Photo courtesy Lázaro Saavedra

“In the 1980s, we artists believed in a future. Although it was false, or did not exist, or was even overdetermined in some way. The generations of today don´t see that future, at least not in Cuba.  In my time, artists prioritized national projects before international ones. That’s unthinkable now. We were optimists. We saw art as a way to change problems.”

A detail of Lázaro Saavedra, Bajo Presión (Under Pressure), 2014
Photo courtesy Lázaro Saavedra

First René Francisco in 2010, then Ponjuán in 2013, and now Saavedra have received the National Award. Despite the broad recognition that the award implies, Saavedra and his colleagues agree that they were not completely understood at that time. This phenomenon recurs throughout the history of art; the justification, according to Saavedra, lies in understanding how “other mechanisms emerge with the passage of time, and the context unveils elements that had been overlooked before.”

Lázaro Saavedra, Detector of Ideologies, 1989
Courtesy Galería Nuble

I ask him: At this point in your professional life are you still worried about being misunderstood?

“That´s a concern for everyone working with communication media,” he replies. “And art is one of them. Every piece of noise between the product and the consumer implies a conflict. As an artist, my intention is that most people understand my work. Since my time at ISA, I’ve stuck to the point that the communication process has nothing to do with the complexity of the work’s content. For this reason I have insisted on work that is immediate, but complex at the moment of viewing (or consumption). I am not only interested in displaying on the walls of galleries or museums, but also on the walls of people´s minds.

Video still from Lázaro Saavedra, Sindrome de la sospecha, 2004
Courtesy Galleria Bianconi and Artibune.com

However, for Saavedra, conceiving works on these semantic levels implies a certain degree of self-censorship, and he knows this. Working in his studio, he feels free to express himself, but when contemplating the final destination of the works, he accepts the necessity of submitting to some determining filters. With a finely tuned sense of humor, he explains that, for instance, he would never display a Satanic work at the Vatican.

But his wit and ingenuity have guided him in everything, from the simple drawings he first made as a child, and continues to make today in his sketchbooks, to painting, video, installation, and performance. “Aesthetics are beyond art, and art is always trying to replace aesthetics,” he says.

In an early self-balancing of the elements in his creative arsenal, humor was the only one to get away from him. “It´s something that flows naturally, which I have never rationalized,” Saavedra explains. “I have never laughed at any of my works. Humor came as my work began to develop, and I understood that was an ingredient that caught people´s attention, even back when I wasn’t yet an artist and only did drawings. “

One of the resources that Saavedra calls upon to bring humor into his work is a character who has often functioned as an alter ego. This character has also been a sort of self-consciousness, he says, an element that wouldn’t have materialized had he not embarked on a career as an artist in the 1980s.

Lázaro Saavedra, Un ataque de asma, 1992, from the Metamorphosis series
Courtesy The Farber Collection

“I wanted to make visible in my work both my thinking process and the possible reactions of the viewer. It was at that point that the language of graphic humor came to my aid. Through characters and comments I could give material expression to the internal conflicts involved in the creative process. At the same time I was sharing my ideas with the public, and I thought that perhaps I could replace the system of the artwork with another system in which that work was one element within a complex network of interconnections. This alter ego penetrated each of these ideas, but it was quite difficult to determine where he began and I ended. Despite being a constant in my work at the conceptual and formal levels, delimiting those boundaries has been complicated.”

Now, I say, let´s talk about political commentary in your work. Is Lazaro Saavedra a political artist?

He is silent for a good while. Then he says that many things come to mind. He refers to history and says that logically, the relationship between art and politics is not new. He mentions Courbet as an example. In art, he says, the areas related to race are an undefined richness. Then he talks about Enema, the project he is doing with ISA students, and Suelo Raso, a performance intended to work with the concept of a collective body. That project began at 2 a.m. one morning in the town of Santiago de las Vegas and ended at about 8 a.m. in the leper colony called El Rincón, in the midst of a religious procession to San Lázaro. At that point, neither he nor his students could determine the boundaries between art and religion. I asked him about politics again, and he answered:

“When an artist is labeled as political, it’s because he’s crossed a boundary and gone into that arena. To be a political person, the artist somehow has to renounce to the mechanisms of expression that artistic language gives. I don´t like to define myself as a political artist but I know I’ve approached some hot issues. Many of the pieces displayed at Galería I-Meil (2007), which started the intellectual debate known as the guerrita de los emails, the little war of emails, had that character. I’m interested in how the city is considered, and this idea will be filtered through the contents of my work. From this perspective, I could be considered a political artist.”

Partial view of Lázaro Saavedra’s installation in the Cuban Pvailion at the 2013 Venice Biennale.
Courtesy universes-in-universe.org

Each of these internal conflicts has registered in Saavedra’s sketchbooks, a sort of archive to which he always returns when it’s time to analyze the past and discover its inconsistencies. Perhaps for any other artist, receiving the National Prize would be an opportunity for such reconsiderations. But Lázaro is full of paradoxes, and more than an opportunity for questioning or for personal pride, the prize implies a problem: that of commitment. “I don´t see it only as something I’ve won, but as something I must defend and maintain from now on,” he says. “I have not won a prize but a burden, as there are so many years ahead. I used to see a 50-year-old person as someone very old. Now I think life begins at 50.”

Here, a video interview of Saavedra, produced by Havana Cultura as part of its article about the artist. Though it’s in Spanish without subtitles, it offers an interesting glimpse into the artist’s work and life.