Visiting Cuban artist provides perspective


This article by Caille Miller appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.

Every apartment in Nelson Enriquez‘s building in Oakland has a small balcony facing the street. If you happen to walk by and look at them, you’ll see that they are crammed with his neighbors’ bicycles, hammocks, snowboarding equipment – all the common detritus of the weekend warrior professional’s life.

Squint your eyes, though – one of those balconies is not like the others. Look closely, and you can see Nelson’s – instead of expensive sporting equipment, there’s just a big table with a butcher’s block, and instead of an atmosphere that conjures leisure, the paint-spattered, sandblasted, tool-strewn space speaks of industry and intensity.

“They call me the painting neighbor,” said Enriquez. “I’m out here on the porch every day. At first it was a little strange for them, I think, but now everyone’s gotten used to it, even if they don’t know what’s going on.”

That’s probably not the only thing Enriquez’s neighbors don’t know about him. Enriquez, 33, is a native of Havana who will return to Cuba next year. Since November 2012, he’s lived in Oakland on a two-year artist’s visa granted by the Castro brothers.

“My work in the (Havana) Biennale was recognized by some of the Americans in the embassy,” said Enriquez with a smile. “So for me the visa process was easier than it is for many Cubans.”

It’s a delicate situation that he’s in, and since he will be going back, it’s even delicate to talk about it. “I don’t want to print anything that would get you in trouble,” I told him.

He laughed. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I know how to be careful by now.” Then he paused. “Well, maybe you should worry a little bit.”

What I can tell you without having to worry: Enriquez is an award-winning painter and video artist. His best-known work centered on the idea of the “tourist photograph.” He took banal tourist photos, painted them, reprinted them, then painted them again. By effectively swaddling common sites (and the common smiles of the tourists who populate them) with layers of visual blankets, he makes them more familiar and more mysterious at the same time.

“Our vision of people abroad was filtered through so many channels – the media, the state, all of these surrealistic images,” Enriquez said. “This is how it felt.”

His work has changed since coming to Oakland. Living in a different country with different “codes,” as he says, has inspired new ways of reflection.

Sometimes his reflections are humorous. Along with Cuban artist Nicolae Valera – “We work as a collective called the Red Brigade” – Enriquez has been doing fast, ephemeral pieces all around the Bay Area. One of the projects involved installing a full-size urinal at many places during one day. “One day we were in San Francisco and, well, we noticed that there wasn’t anywhere to pee,” Enriquez said. “The place told us what to do.” Photographs of the project show that they had a lot of fun, propping up the urinal in locations that vary from streets to barbed-wire fences.

But mostly, his reflections have been more serious – as befits a person in his unusual situation. “I was totally lost in some way when I came here,” Enriquez said. “I found myself looking to the sky for guidance, to the constellations. And of course that’s what the first human beings did. They looked to the sky for wisdom. It’s a stage in our minds as much as an actual place.”

His new series of paintings shows the constellations against a purple sky, using spikes to pick out the different figures.

When it comes to comparing his two countries of residence, Enriquez is wisely diplomatic. “Cuba has to change, and it is changing,” he said. “But those changes should come from the people who live there, not from the outside. Because there are things from the revolution that are good – the access to health care, free education. And we have a lot of smart people in Cuba who will help the country change. The U.S. is a great country, but it needs some change, too. The health care situation here … ” He started to chuckle when he noticed that I was nodding vigorously.

I asked him what he liked about Oakland, and whether it reminded him of his hometown. “Oh, Oakland – it’s a great little town,” he said. “People here are warmer and more communicative than they are in San Francisco. Coming from Havana, I found that very comforting.” He was also excited to discover the thriving expatriate Caribbean community in the Bay Area – he’s been doing events with CubaCaribe, the diasporic arts organization that runs classes and camps and sponsors the CubaCaribe Festival of Dance and Music in the spring.

But he didn’t have any hesitation about going back, and his reasoning has nothing to do with politics. “My work is not political, but it’s social. And I feel like it has a role for a society in transformation. It’s a difficult role to play in Cuba. I have to acknowledge that many things are difficult there. But I love it as my country. You should come and make your own conclusions.”

I asked Enriquez whether that was a serious invitation to visit. We laughed and decided to start at a bar in Oakland.

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