He has presented more than 30 solo exhibitions in Havana, Paris, Brussels, Toronto, New York, Miami, and other cities around the globe. His pieces have been part of virtually every major international exhibition of Cuban contemporary art. He’s won national awards for curatorship and for distinction in the arts. And his work has influenced generations of younger Cuban artists.

This past weekend, José Ángel Toirac was awarded the 2018 Cuban National Art Award, the country’s highest recognition for artists.

José Ángel Toirac at the award ceremony for the 2018 Premio Nacional de Artes Plásticos
Courtesy Rosmery Echarri Martínez

The presentation of the award, made by Minister of Culture Alpidio Alonso Grau and Norma Rodríguez Derivet, president of the Consejo Nacional de Artes Plásticas (CNAP), took place on Saturday, January 26, at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.

In a career spanning more than 30 years, Toirac has explored Cuban history and the process that transforms it into myth. Re-reading iconic figures and events, his art often questions the version of history constructed by archival images and opens them to alternative interpretations.

José Ángel Toirac, «Pantócrator,» 2012
Courtesy Cuban Art Database

“Toirac’s works could be easily defined as a non-official chronicle of Cuban history in the last half-century,” curator Abelardo Mena Chicuri wrote in an essay about his work. “The artist proceeds in the manner of an archaeologist, compiling and processing the images of historic events and personalities presented by the island’s news media.”

Toirac’s art include paintings, videos, and installations. Among his internationally acclaimed works is “A Brief History of Cuba as Told by Other Things.” This series of paintings juxtaposes well-known images of Fidel Castro and other figures with American advertising logos.

José Ángel Toirac, «Eternity,» 2009
Courtesy The Farber Collection

Other paintings depict Castro, Che Guevara, José Martí and other figures in a blurred, hazy style. In these works, wrote Mena Chicuri, Toirac “has appropriated the ‘Gerhard Richter technique,’ a personal take on the blurring that the great German artist has been using since the 1970s in his series on politicians and historical personalities from that European nation.

“This blurring, related to the wear of time and to a palette of grays born from black-and-white movie nostalgia, is a distancing mechanism used by Toirac to preclude any complacency in the viewer, to sabotage any certainty or transparency in the meaning of the images.”

José Ángel Toirac, «Untitled 8,» 2011l, from the series Alma Pater: José Martí with his son, José Francisco Martí
Courtesy Pan American Art Projects

Throughout his career, Toirac has worked both individually and in collaboration with other artists. From 1988 to 1992, he was a member of Grupo ABTV, with artists Tanya Angulo, Juan Pablo Ballester, and Ileana Villazón.

He has also worked with such artists as Ricardo G. Elías, Octavio César Marín, and artist-curator Meira Marrero. A longtime collaborator, Marrero worked with Toirac on many influential works, including the installations Ave María (2010) and Solve et Coagula (2012), and the 2005 video Opus.

José Ángel Toirac and Meira Marrero, «Ave María,» 2010, installed here at The Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh. The inscription on the edge of the table is a quote from José Martí: «Either the republic is based upon the full character of each and every one of its sons and daughters (…) or the republic is not worth a teardrop from our women or a single drop of blood shed by our brave fighters.”
Courtesy queloides-exhibit.com

In its award statement, the jury extended special recognition to Marrero for her part in the conception and execution of the duo’s joint projects.

José Ángel Toirac and Meira Marrero, «Vanitas,» 2013, portraits of 23 first ladies of Cuba
Courtesy Pan American Art Projects

The jury for this year’s award was chaired by last year’s winner, Eduardo Roca Salazar (Choco). Previous winners José Manuel Fors, Ever Fonseca, Ernesto Fernández, José Villa, Osneldo García, Nelson Domínguez, Pedro de Oraá and Lázaro Saavedra were also members of the jury, as were artists Luis Enrique Camejo, Rafael Villares, and Ariadna Contino, and critics and curators Hilda María Rodríguez, Maikel Rodriguez Calviño and Gabriela Hernández.

The 2017 Premio Nacional winner Choco (Eduardo Roca Salazar) with the 2018 winner José Ángel Toirac
Courtesy Cuba50

In announcing their decision, the jury had stated that Toirac is «a mandatory reference in the history of the most current island art.”

Receiving the award, Toirac noted that the jury’s decision had not been unanimous—a situation that pleased him. «I value sincerity more than unanimity,» he told the audience. «And the ‘contra’ votes are, in reality, the recognition of all those artists who also deserve the award but have not yet received it.»

He went on to thank his creative collaborators, the people and institutions that have supported him throughout his career, and those whose anonymous work enabled him to have the time to devote to making art.

Initiated by the Ministry of Culture in 1994, when it was given to Raúl Martínez, the Cuban National Art Award is the nation’s highest honor for a visual artist.

Courtesy CNAP