Harry Seymour (AnOther) interviews Cuban artist Yoan Capote about his artistic origins and trajectory. [Also see previous post on Capote’s his ongoing exhibition in Italy, “Omitted Subjects”: Yoan Capote’s “Sujeto omitido”.] Here are excerpts:
Yoan Capote, whose exhibition Omitted Subject is open now in Italy, speaks to Harry Seymour about his unique journey as an artist in his home country of Cuba and beyond.
Cuban artist Yoan Capote (b. 1977) has represented his country at the Venice Biennale, won a UNESCO prize and received a fellowship grant from the Guggenheim Foundation – all for his political paintings and sculptures that bend fishhooks, spell out words in sign language and grate cast-gold teeth between concrete blocks, among others.
At the opening of his first solo show in Italy, Omitted Subject, in the hilltop town of San Gimignano in Tuscany, Italy, at Galleria Continua, we sit down with Capote to hear about his journey from a rural farm in Communist Cuba to becoming an international success, along with the struggles that artists in his home country can face.
Harry Seymour: What was your journey to becoming an artist, and what does the infrastructure look like in Cuba for young artists?
Yoan Capote: It has changed a lot, but back then the government implemented a lot of support for culture. When I was around ten, I started taking art classes in school. These programmes were supported by Russia and China, the Socialist places. We received a lot of political teaching. A strong approach came from the Russian professors, but it was good for discipline. The plan however wasn’t for us to become international artists. It was to finish school, return to the countryside and spread culture. When I finished school, however, the Russians began leaving, and the educational system was collapsing.
HS: When was this?
YC: Around 1991. Then I was selected to study at the National School of Art in Havana. Each year the government would select ten or 15 students from across all provinces.
HS: Was there a test?
YC: Yes. My friends would be playing soccer or with girlfriends, but my father would warn me if I did that, I would have his destiny, growing rice. It’s hot, hard, muddy work. He explained that he knew nothing about art, but that he hoped it meant I didn’t have to do that. So I would draw in the bathroom every night until 3am, then wake up for school at 8am.
HS: It paid off?
YC: Yes, I arrived in Havana, but the government didn’t have any money to maintain the free art school and the director told all the students that it was going to be tough and there wasn’t enough food – but those who wanted to stay would be given the freedom to make it work. [. . .]
HS: What happened after art school?
YC: My work was chosen for the Havana Biennale, where it was awarded a prize by UNESCO. In 2000, I realised that I didn’t want to stay in Cuba and be a professor, so started to apply for fellowships. [. . .]
[Above: Photo by Ela Bialkowska, OKNO Studio. Yoan Capote, “Isla (víspera),” 2019. Courtesy: the artist and GALLERIA CONTINUA, San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins / Habana.]