Juan Antonio Picasso: Cuban artist with famous ancestor keeps a low profile


Julie Schwietert Collazo (The Guardian) writes that accomplished Cuban painter Juan Antonio Picasso remains relatively unknown in the international community in spite of his famous last name, but that he prefers it that way. Read excerpts here and the full article in the link below:

[. . .] American Friends of the Ludwig Foundation of Cuba, which describes itself as the “leading organization in the US fostering cultural exchange between American and Cuban artists and art professionals”, was one of the first licensed non-profits to announce a trip to Havana. The guided trip, which costs between $3,750 and $6,300 (depending on length of stay), is timed with the Havana Biennial, which opens in late May. Hosted by the organization’s president, Carole Rosenberg, the trip promises to introduce travelers to “major and emerging artists”, not only at the art fair, but also in their studios. It’s not the organization’s first trip, but given the rapid changes that have already been made to travel regulations, it is likely to be a full one.

[. . .] One artist who tourists probably won’t visit, however, is one who could stand to gain a lot from the historic policy change. His name is Juan Antonio Picasso. Yes, Picasso. And yes, he’s related to that Picasso.

The painter, who lives in Havana, has remained largely unknown to international art circles, despite gallerists, curators, and collectors scouring the island, hungry to “discover” Cuban artists. Picasso’s relative obscurity is all the more surprising given that his story, and that of his family, was made public in a 1999 documentary, “Los Picassos Negros” (“The Black Picassos”). That story began with Pablo Picasso’s maternal grandfather, Francisco Picasso Guardeño, leaving Spain in the late 1800s to pursue business opportunities in Cuba. He died on the island in 1888, but not before falling in love and having four children with an Afro-Cuban woman, Cristina Serra. Juan Antonio is one of more than 40 living descendants of that union, the Cuban branch of the Picasso family, and he is the only one who is known to make his living as an artist. The Cuban Picassos, he told me, have not developed relationships with their European cousins, despite the fact that his own father went to Spain in 2000 for the premiere of the documentary and the European branch of the family, which has its own contentious ties, was present.

untitledIn many ways, Picasso prefers the lack of attention. Quiet and reserved, he spends most of his time painting in the studio he’s set up in one of the bedrooms of his Havana apartment. His last name is part blessing, part burden; reporters who have shown up to interview him over the years have inevitably wanted to force comparisons between the two artists. He is sensitive – and often skeptical – about visitors’ motives: are they interested in him and his work, or are they only interested in his name and the novelty of a black Picasso? When I first reached out to him in 2005, he responded politely but cautiously to my interview request, writing: “I await the opportunity for you to know my work in person and to undertake new projects, always respecting my style, themes, and the media with which I have identified.”

2005 was the same year he had his first solo exhibit in Havana. Ecos Pueriles (Childish Echoes) was shown at Havana’s Yoruba Cultural Center Gallery, and even garnered a write-up in Granma, Cuba’s state newspaper. For a self-taught artist who was just 30 at the time, the show was a success, and it motivated him to refine and expand his skills and techniques through several formal apprenticeships with contemporary Cuban master painters and sculptors.

Over the years, his work – which often explores and embodies themes of Afro-Cuban history and culture – has matured, but his approach to self-promotion and branding has remained fairly static. He shows his work only in solo exhibits, not group shows, and unlike other artists and creatives around his age, Picasso hasn’t scrambled to use the internet as a lifeline to the rest of the world, despite the fact that he enjoyed consistent access to it during a year-long visit to Germany in 2014. He does not have a website, though some of his work is sold through an online gallery. He has a Facebook account, but it’s not for business purposes. He remains a somewhat difficult interviewee; his answers about his work are sometimes abrupt and frustratingly vague. This is not his intention, he says, but it instead reflects his desire to spend more time painting than talking, especially if that talk is about the other Picasso. Like many artists, he admires his famous ancestor’s work and feels inspired by it. But for Juan Antonio, it is only his art, he says, that speaks for him.

“The name of Picasso is extremely charged,” he told me during one of our meetings in Havana. “It carries a big responsibility, especially because the public is curious and it demands a lot: what does this ‘new’ Picasso have to offer?”

The answer, he says, has nothing in common with his artistic ancestor apart from their shared name. “My work is inspired by our tropical reality,” he explained, pointing to recurring images such as palm trees, “and by our [Afro-Cuban] ancestors. It’s work that has a fairly critical element.”

For full article, see http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/apr/25/juan-antonio-picasso-cuba-artist

[Photo above: Juan Antonio Picasso; photo below: Picasso’s “Se Van Los Seres” photographed by Julie Schwietert Collazo.]

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