A report by Kyle Petersen for the Free-Times.
To best understand the work of Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, you really should take a stroll through the Callejón de Hamel.
The funky, colorful alleyway in Havana owes much of its distinctive culture to the array of murals and scrappy sculptures that Escalona has been installing since the early 1990s. A proudly self-taught artist, Escalona forged a distinctive Afro-Cuban style that repurposed elements of Cubism, surrealism, and abstract art while delving deeply into creative expressions of Yoruba religious imagery.
Escalona began this work in an era when both public art and spiritual, non-Marxist-materialist approaches were still banned in Cuba.
“I was bringing in new, more sensual, feeling-dominated pieces that spoke to the religions of African origin that the people were still practicing, but wasn’t being expressed or captured in that narrow Marxist view,” says Escalona, with assistance from translator Deborah Billings, a public health professor at the University of South Carolina who was instrumental in bringing the painter to Columbia.
Escalona will be giving a lecture at Tapp’s Art Center on Thursday alongside some of his paintings and a new mural, and will also be visiting Hand Middle School, Allen University and USC later this month.
“It was really eye-opening and different,” the artist continues. “It’s really presenting a reality of the Cuban people that goes back to the 17th century up to today, based in religious practices. No system can destroy that cultural identity, because it’s something that’s infused in our social life.”
For Escalona, who in addition to his ongoing work on the vibrant, rumba-filled Callejón de Hamel has installed murals throughout the United States and around the world, it’s of vital importance to reach for the true roots and origins of his culture. The son of a Catalonian father and Congolese mother, he sees the African and Native American roots of so much Caribbean and American culture that often get marginalized.
“In academia and art schools, the focus is on that Western image, classic Roman figures and such. If we’ve got such a strong cultural identity and history, do we need to turn to other examples in our art? Why that path?” he asks rhetorically.
Much of what he speaks about these days, as he will at numerous stops throughout the Midlands, is the outsized influence of African art and the importance of representing cultural identities in art.
“Cubism, surrealism, abstract, baroque art — that all already existed in African art,” he points out. “If you take one of Picasso’s most famous paintings, it’s really nothing more than African masks.”
Escalona is coming to Columbia, though, in part because of other, more nefarious cultural pressures here in the United States. His work visa expires at the end of January, and the Trump administration has taken a more adversarial stance towards Cuba and renewed restrictions on business and travel between the two countries. A chance conversation between Billings and Escalona in October during a CLASCO seminar about a cancelled Chicago show led to an all-hands-on-deck effort to bring him to Columbia. Billings reached out to the Hispanic/Latino culture-promoting Columbia group Palmetto Luna to help make the visit happen along with a host of other organizations
Despite the dark tenor behind the urgency of his trip, Escalona takes the long view with his attitude toward the United States, refusing to conflate the country with its current leader.
He still wears a pin that has the American flag and Cuban flag linked together, a memento from Obama’s People to People program to encourage educational exchange activities, a sign of his steely commitment to spreading his message and the power of Afro-Cuban art.
“I’ve traveled all over the country and, in those travels, I’ve always experienced people who are very humble, very generous, very curious. It doesn’t matter what their social status is, it’s what in their hearts,” he says. “America is [also] the country of Lincoln, Washington, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X. Their influence has been so powerful in this country that’s part of who the country is. It’s bigger [than Trump].”
What:Through the Eyes of Salvador: Afro-Cuban Public Art
Where:Tapp’s Arts Center, 1644 Main St.
When:Thursday, Jan. 4, 6-10 p.m.
Exhibition continues through Jan. 26.