Saul Taylor / March 28, 2019
Born in Las Tunas in southeast Cuba to a maths teacher mother and economist father, López-Nieves studied visual arts from the age of 13. At 16 he enrolled in the Academy of Arts in Camagüey before graduating in 1990 when he moved to the Higher Institute of Arts (ISA) in Havana. After 12 years of studying he went from theory to practice and is now one of Cuba’s most celebrated contemporary artists.
What is it like being an artist in Cuba?
At first everything was simple and fun, but all things in art become complex as they develop. Once you leave art college the real process of refinement and liberation begins, involving critical analysis and constant work in the studio where all the ideas materialize.
The most complex part is the transition from theory to real visual art — to physically make metaphors that carry the desired message, to do and say as much as possible. But the secret is to be able to do it in a manufactured way. In other words, the more metaphorical and simple the image, the more we communicate with it.
Before arriving at these conclusions there are many professional frustrations and a lack of supplies and materials affects the production. If the materials do not exist to make it possible we can produce what we imagine. Oil, acrylic, fabric, steel, wood therefore become something valuable and often unattainable. The interesting thing is that this lack of resources makes you focus and gives you solutions you never thought of. It makes us focus on diverse, non-conventional materials and new ways of expressing the desired result. That’s how all kinds of experimentation appeared on different surfaces, with all kinds of artefacts, pigments and objects. There was also limited access to the art market in a country that has created more artists than the art institutions were able to promote. All of that made me focus on expanding my career to art centres all over the world. This, in turn, caused the ideas and themes in my work to cease being local and regional and to become more universal.
How would you describe your approach to art?
I am restless and precocious, always learning from the masters and the great geniuses and taking that as a challenge. I would say that I have tried to refine techniques to find my own way. I have a huge appetite for the unknown and have tried to do everything that I think is necessary for the improvement of technique. In that way I have found many different ways of expressing my ideas, from classical oil painting and its layers and glazes to backdrops for ballet and theatre. Be it in marble, steel, resin or plastic, each material imposes a language and challenges us to understand and express ourselves through it.
I am drawn towards any project that involves a challenge and makes me evolve as an artist and at the same time provokes the possibility of impacting the lives of others. It is important to escape from ourselves whenever we believe that we are successful or that we are doing well in our career. That moment of satisfaction is a signal that boredom, routine and repetition have begun to control the work. We should never abandon rebelliousness, curiosity and the appetite that once made us grow. We must escape from the comfort zone otherwise we would become a contemplative and non-dynamic artist, repeating what others want us to do and not what our infinite
What is your process when you start a new artwork?
Today, I incorporate conventional techniques such as applying pigment on a surface and combine them with various materials such as metal, porcelain, neon lights, photographic sublimation. The first thing I do is study the subject and the concept that might influence the work, whether historical, contemplative, repressive, mind control, persuasion, tenderness or any other theme that has accompanied man throughout existence. Then I make sketches and drawings to guide what kind of image will help me communicate better. Based on this, I decide in what material these ideas would be best expressed. If it should be two dimensional such as a painting or graphite on paper, or might work better in three dimensions. And if so, what would be the right material? Bronze, steel, wood? Or would it be better to express it in a performance, or something more sensory.
How did you get involved with the SAG Awards?
One of the ways of expanding my work has been via the friends and collectors from around the world who have acquired my works. Many of the people who collect my work live in California and some are from the film and entertainment industry — producers, directors and some Hollywood actors — somehow the images of my works have begun to circulate among them and that’s how Tony Schubert from Event Eleven discovered some of the images he wanted to incorporate into one of his productions. Tony contacted a couple of his friends, Shelle and Klaus Moeller, who had recent art projects in Havana and I was a guest at their home. After a couple of meetings, a few emails, some texts and a bit of research, we agreed that the best way to express Tony’s ideas for a tropical environment for the event was to recreate a Havana square.
What was the brief for the project?
Tony’s idea was to transmit a tropical environment and in some way more alive than it could be a recreation of design for show and the great challenge was to do it in a short time and work it from different countries at the same time taking into account many demands and approvals.
The intention was to recreate the stage of a night in a Havana square in an interactive and authentic way tfor the afterparty at the Shrine Theater in Los Angeles California. The proposal was accepted by SAGAFTRA who showed great professionalism and supported everything, allowing each detail to be executed perfectly with a great team effort.
After deciding on the theme of the project, we agreed to incorporate 12 of my 3m x 3m works and a large 30m x 6m mural that showed the mix of cultures in the capital that was also visited by many movie stars and celebrates its 500th anniversary this year.
The 13 works created for this event were combined with lampposts, sidewalks, water fountains and other architectural elements to create a stage where everyone was part of the show. While this happened in the centre of the square, I did a live painting in front of an easel — an oil on canvas with the feeling of the night — that made the actors and actresses a live part of the show.
What is next for Kadir López-Nieves?
I am presenting numerous works in the Havana Art Biennial for a public art project that will be exhibited in two of the busiest commercial streets of the city. Around 30 large-scale works will be placed in Calle Galeano and on Boulevard de San Rafael where we will also open the REX cultural centre to the public that will show many light artworks and projects of preservation and restoration, most of them reusing the old neon commercial sign lights of the city. We have the intention of converting these streets in two large galleries of light works made possible by Habanalight and FCBC.