Large detail of Pedro Pablo Oliva, El gran viaje, 2015

The exhibition of bronzes by Pedro Pablo Oliva, En cuerpo y alma, recently closed in Havana. It had been on view at the Wilfredo Lam Contemporary Art Center since mid-February.

Inexplicably, the show had almost no national media coverage. This would be nothing out of the ordinary, in our context, if we were talking about simply one more exhibition among many. But in this case we’re talking about a winner of the Cuban National Prize in the Visual Arts, exhibiting in one of the most important art centers in the country, with an exhibition that is unprecedented in the artist´s career.

Courtesy Wifredo Lam Center

Based on the status of the location and the artist, and the new perspective on his that the exhibition offered the public, En cuerpo y alma deserved the widest possible promotion. But that didn’t happen. And since, in our environment, the reasoning behind such decisions are not articulated, on this point we are left pondering, with a sense of amazement that leads us to unprofitable speculation.

Never before had Pedro Pablo Oliva done a solo exhibition entirely of sculpture. Some works were known, having been previously seen in isolation, as if by chance. Visitors to his Studio La Mina in Old Havana might have enjoyed some works, such as La gran carrozaEl beso, or El gran viaje.

Pedro Pablo Oliva, La gran carroza, 2013, from the series Navegantes
Courtesy Wifredo Lam Center

But with these 17 bronzes arranged, with a curatorial eye, as a population of extravagant, tender, beautiful characters, immersed in situations and as avatars only understandable from the imagination—because it is from the imagination that they were created—we have finally had the true dimension of this facet of the artist’s talent. It is perhaps one of the later mediums that Oliva has undertaken in his long and prolific career.

A view of the exhibition Pedro Pablo Oliva: En cuerpo y alma
Courtesy Wifredo Lam Center

Therefore, this exhibition and its catalogue—with a clean, elegant design and precise information—have not only been greatly enjoyed by the public, who turned out in droves to see the bronzes. They are also important for art criticism and historiography.

From this point forward, both the criticism and historiography of Cuban art can, without hesitation, refer to Pedro Pablo Oliva as a great painter, draftsman, engraver, ceramist, and sculptor—a master in all traditional media, although Oliva is not a traditional artist. To be contemporary there is no need to venture into installation art, performance art, or new media.

The contemporary aspect of Pedro Pablo Oliva´s creativity emerges in the conceptual force of his art and visual tenderness of his poetry. He is one of the few artists who do not grow old, for the simple reason that he has not stopped thinking. It is in his spirit, in his Heideggerian form of being-there, trying to understand the world and transform it.

Pedro Pablo Oliva, Muchacha condenada a vivir con una piedra en la cabeza, 2009, from the series Eternas condenas
Photo: Ana León, courtesy Horamerica

His commitment to arreglar sueños y esperanzas, to “fixing dreams and hopes,” is equivalent to that of his girl with a stone in her head. In this disturbing and beautiful sculpture, the angelic young woman has been condemned to live between two rocks—one that serves as a pedestal and seat, and another that oppresses not only her head but her whole body. A shrunken body in a fetal position, just born to the world.

The lower rock may be interpreted as the physical environment into which we are thrown and where we must survive. A stone hanging over the head has been a constant symbol in the painter´s work. It is a metaphor for the weight of all limitations, obstacles, constraints, which society as a whole imposes on people, and on the full development of individuality.

But this delicate being, though caught between stony structure and superstructure, is the pure image of spirituality, moderation, serenity, meditation—the trance of wisdom that knows how to create parallel horizons of the imagination.

Detail of Pedro Pablo Oliva, Muchacha condenada a vivir con una piedra en la cabeza, 2009, from the series Eternas condenas

Meanwhile, a chameleon, stunned, perched on one leg, looks up at the face of the nymph, incredulous that there can be so much peace in the world. The chameleon—another recurrent archetype in Oliva´s iconography—reflects simulation, opportunism, timely camouflage. It seems tame, contemplative. But it embodies the danger of inconsistency. It is the reptilian version of the mask, the false costume, shifting with the wind.

Thus the artist has made his way between hostile extremes, dealing with various chameleons, but without losing his tenderness, inner peace, or naivety of spirit—accumulating wisdom and renewing each day the desire to fix dreams and hopes, those that a country once had and wanted to project into the future.

Oliva has been faithful to the ideal of utopia, as he learnt during his training in the distant 1960s. And he has had to fight, up to the present moment, for the right to keep that faith in just and beautiful ideas alive.

Entering the gallery at the Wifredo Lam Center was a leap into another dimension, a time and space built for art. Led by curators Isabel María Pérez and Silvia Oliva, the exhibition and its design insisted (with success) that this leap—this sudden transition—must be taken as an aesthetic experience in itself.

Another view of the exhibition, with Los juegos de Lucas, 2013, at center
Courtesy Wifredo Lam Center

The intense red of the walls, floor, and pedestals created a first impact of sensorial immersion. Bronzes then began to glow on white surfaces, apparently lit from within, while the gallery lighting threw expressionist effects on surfaces and textures.

The arrangement of the works, in irregular double rows throughout the space, motivated a walk around Oliva´s sculptural oeuvre. The view of the whole was like the vision of a great fable fragmented into many individual tales—stories of sailors, drunken lovers, joys and sorrows lived on the boardwalk, sleepers in wicker chairs, toys, animals, balancers, and eternal travelers without direction.

The sculptures are offshoots of many series in painting and engraving, developed by the artist over decades. They have the same poetic tone, charm, humor, visuality, and semantic potentiality.

Pedro Pablo Oliva, El gran viaje, 2015
Photo: Ana León, courtesy cubanet

As in the two-dimensional surface, Oliva’s chronicle of divine and worldly affairs flows into the volume of three dimensions. His characters have jumped into space, their contingent existences permanently fixed in bronze; and their creator, after giving them life, can now touch them, walk around them, and listen to them.

What better representation of the courage and tenacity of a people, surviving as they do: the Island has become, or been transformed, into to an umbrella that closes on itself, and the people, together with their leaders, continue El gran viaje, the great journey, towards future.

A young girl has gained the top of the mast and taken the oars in hand. Below, the commander-in-chief leads the ship. His eyes are fixed on the horizon. The sea is raging. Only with arms outstretched is he able to balance the situation. The wisdom and inspiration of José Martí accompanies them.

Detail of Pedro Pablo Oliva, El gran viaje, 2015

And here we are, talking with this allegory—this vastly compressed image of a great historical adventure. It is an epic journey that resists the shipwreck as its final end,  navigating the turbulent waters in a fragile boat. The young will have to row with determination and cunning, pushing forward the burden of history.

In Pedro Pablo Oliva, that journey has one of its better chroniclers—one of the most attentive, most sincere, and sharpest. Continue speaking to the subject, Maestro.

Visitors at the exhibition Pedro Pablo Oliva: En cuerpo y alma
Courtesy Wifredo Lam Center