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A necessary parenthesis for Beatriz Sala Santacana

  • By: Julienne López Hernández
  • ceramic, publications, reviews

Beatriz Sala Santacana (Havana, 1975) is a young self-taught Cuban ceramist who started her artistic career in 2004 after earning her law degree from the University of Havana. Her first steps in the world of ceramics were driven by the attraction she always felt for art 

Contemporary Cuban Ceramics

Self-Learning vs. Professionalism?

Beatriz Sala Santacana (Havana, 1975) is a young self-taught Cuban ceramist who started her artistic career in 2004 after earning her law degree from the University of Havana. Her first steps in the world of ceramics were driven by the attraction she always felt for art, even before deciding to study law. The truth is that her inclination for art was never well defined until 2004. Prior to that year, she had a penchant for acting and even entertained the idea of enrolling in the Higher Institute of the Arts, although her real desire was to study Art History. In spite of this, she graduated from law school, although little did she know that she would soon deposit all of her quests, certainties and skills into another noble, rewarding and challenging profession.

Her first encounter with ceramics was spontaneous and even casual, and took place at the home of a friend whowas working with clay. This was the first time she came in touch with the material, and consequently to that primal form of creation. From then on, and even during her law studies, she began to model figures, starting with reproductions of Mexican crafts, and in general of the pre-Hispanic world depicted in books. Her naive and basically reproductive approach progressively matured. Although the imagery of Mexican culture marked her beginnings as a ceramist (although she has never really parted from it completely) her awareness as an artist did not come until later.

After obtaining her Law degree and having exercised the profession for a while, given the straitjacket imposed by the law and the opening provided by artistic creativity, she finally gave in making way for the artist who undertook the challenge of making ceramics, not as a hobby, but as a new profession in which she could do what she wanted most: to create.

Her introduction to ceramics is also closely related to one of the greatest ceramists of our country: José Fuster. This experienced artist in the world of ceramics was a solid foundationfor Santacana’s takeoff. She knew of the existence of the artist’s workshop in the town of Jaimanitas, and driven by the eagerness to learn and create, Santacana began frequenting Fuster’s workshop. It was from this first interaction that she started showing greater interest in the matter.

Her first solo show[1] was certainly a decisive starting point for the fledging self-taught artist, who for the first time was being inserted in the circuit of Havana galleries through an exhibition characterized by the naivety of her first steps in art. The exhibition was brimming with multicolored figures of highly plural aesthetics, in which, without any kind of dichotomy, an iconography that had its precedent in Mexican pre-Columbian sculptures[2]coexisted with ideas and concepts closer to all things Cuban. That aesthetic, which was nowhere conservative and could even border on kitsch, eliminated boundaries and encouraged a dialogue among typical Cuban popular characters—like Tomasa, the Afro-Cuban black nanny, or Emiliana, created by singer-songwriter Carlos Puebla—alongside a visuality focusing on Mexico’s pre-Columbian past.

Beyond Santacana’s fervent passion for Mexican imagery, she has always felt the need to be anchored to all things Cuban, which is also the universal. This exhibition allowed the artist to move freely between cultures, always delving into the roots of each, and with a visible aesthetic debt to Sosabravo, especially in her particular way of geometrically fragmenting the figures in apparent disorder, in which this fragmentation becomes even more remarkable by the contrast of colors. Thus, the conflicts of Latin American artists—viewed either from the theoretical assumptions of hybridity or from privileged iconographic motifs—began to emerge in her work.

This exhibition, which would later travel to the cities of Matanzas, Varadero and Holguín, was very well received both by the public and critics. Considering the difficulties involved in the art scene, especially if the artist in question is a ceramist, a woman and self-taught to boot, pulling off her first exhibition was a great challenge for Santacana. She was forced to face, in this 21st century, prejudices that denounced the latent difficulty in assimilating ceramics as a manifestation of the visual arts, as an expression of art and not as a craft. This trite controversy, which still persists somewhat in the Cuban art circuit, was accentuated in this case by another very sensitive subject: that of artistic training versus self-learning.

While it is true that the distinction between art and craft is key to grasp the essence of what is artistic, this distinction should not be conceived in terms of opposition or exclusion, since it is really nothing more than a differentiation within a polar relationship. This assertion implies integrating crafts into art and art into crafts. Thus, when Santacana’s unconscious becomes an original source of inspiration, and the spontaneity and autonomy of her genius acquire total primacy in the field of art, relegating to a second place the importance and significance of technical aspects—although the expressions of creative talent require and demand the technical channels of materialization—her work is representative of the most genuine Cuban contemporary art.

All this is clearlyrevealed by the fact that her pieces do not have that utilitarian and serial nature that necessarily characterize crafts. Rather, they stand out for the artist’s singular way of creating. The truth is that the artistic shape of her pieces is a shape without use and is not subject to any constraints of a utilitarian nature, nor does it respond to an immediate human need. Her mature attitude towards art distances her from the anachronistic romanticists who grant them nothing more than decorative functions or for contemplation.

Regarding the complexity of Santacana’s work, we could point out her use of multiple supports (sculptural, mural, tiles, vessels, dishes, environmental works, installations), which make her a credible, postmodern dynamic creator with regard to the supports and techniques she works with. It is precisely here where one of the merits ??of Beatriz’s work lies: its plurality, her need for constant experimentation in different formats and supports, which keeps her active and linked to ceramics at all times. A tour of her work describes her as a tireless creator who in her artistic career of barely nine years has created, even simultaneously, vessels, plates, sculptural ceramics and more recently, murals.[3]

In this way, she formally enriches her production, which is exposed to being pierced by a piece of metal or a piece of rope. Because Beatriz goes for the synthesis between clay and metal, which is so enriching for ceramics as it brings great expressiveness to it. Her most recent pieces are a collage in which glass, metal, rope and other reclaimed materials coexist in harmony, thus defining a postmodern spirit in Santacana’s work. The artist unconsciously borrows from Arte Povera the recycling and reclaiming of natural materials to turn them into art,inserting this especially in her sculptures and murals, integrating, to a great extent, inorganic forms in auspicious contrast. In her sculptures and murals, she incorporates materials and elements that imbue them with thought-provoking codes and meanings, and due to this summation, her murals acquire high reliefs that offer texture and with it a three-dimensional visuality.

When she started making murals, she began only with the abstract painting of tiles, but soon the murals became more complex byincluding elements that gave them volume. Her murals became richer visually when she started inserting objects between the glazing and the painting, and working with shapes in line with the message, achieving the absolute formal mastery and power of synthesis, which are indispensable attributes of great art. Thus, the beings that populate her murals acquire life, her fish gain independence in the swaying sea, while owls, birds and other representatives of the animal kingdom vie for a visuality that dallies with what is real and what is imaginary. She even departs from the traditional way of making murals and sets herself the challenge of making them with figures that hang from the wall and not with tiles attached to it.

More recently, the artist has focused on creating murals, which has enabled her to expand her work to places different from the more formal art circuit, locating them in tourist sites like the Breezes Jibacoa Hotel and in the town of Jaimanitas, specifically at the Celia Sánchez Maternity Home. Thus, her work expands not only in form but in geographical location as well,[4] which in turn fosters an increased consumption,the connection of art to life, a notion that was so much acclaimed by the first postmodernists who took their works out of galleries and into the streets. Clearly, creating murals gives Santacana the possibility of not only disseminating her artistic production, but also of contributing to the quality of urban aesthetics. Because her murals have the capacity to alter daily life, to detonate ideas and pleasurable contemplations, they are not mere additions to public spaces, they are aesthetic proposals that are so necessarily useful for any society that hopes to reach a high level of cultural development.

This type of work made under commission meant a challenge for the artist. Although at certain moments she had creative freedom, sometimes, like most commissioned works, she was subject to demands that forced her to work with new techniques. And more than a straitjacket, this meant a challenge for Santacana, one that helped nurture her training as a ceramist.

At this point it would be useful to highlight Santacana’s intention to represent a world removed from reality. Although with referents that allow them to anchor to reality, her most recent pieces are characterized by an express rupture with mimesis and 19th-century realism. Hence, she says that she feels more comfortable with abstraction, which allows her to recreate her dream world more freely. Then, it is by no means gratuitous that she has a connection to the aesthetics of Joan Miró as a ceramist, to the fervent surrealist, lover of abstract forms, of primary colors, of large formats and of marked yearning for work that draws on the subconscious and childlike qualities.

The artist does not hesitate to show her mastery of traditional forms and materials in the conventional way, something that today is very little exploited due to the increasing penetration of new technologies in the world of art, which have come to supplant that aura immanent to the condition of the artistic craft. Thus, her aesthetic discourse ranges from a clear figuration, which can be decoded by most viewers given its high level of iconicity and which is translated especially in sculptural modulations capable of forming a tense and reflective atmosphere within the exhibition space, to abstract proposals that allow her to recreate the imaginary world more freely.

Both in her vessels, her plates and mini-murals, one can see a Santacana who,drawing on the innate pastiche or intertextuality in Caribbean artists, makes use of different pictorial registers to create her own. Very much attached one way or another to surrealism in its genesis, whether it was Frida Kahlo’s or Miró’s, Beatriz is committed to putting that aesthetic in accord with her own imaginary, which stems firstly from the reality that surrounds her. Thus, she insists on the intertextual value of her work from the appropriation of everything that she considers valid as an artistic motif, visual resource or conceptual assumption.

The force of everyday reality is an incontrovertible fact in Santacana’s work, in which a graphic universe based on contradictions and experiences interweaves its own imaginary universe. This artist from Cuba, and even beyond, from the entire Caribbean, rebels against coined stereotypes and captivates us, bringing into play her origins, her memories, her love of life, her family, her personal tastes, her struggles. Her thematic universe revolves around issues of everyday life: emotions, drama, love, the motherland, all of this with the inevitable imprint of our origins. Because Beatriz takes hold of everyday life while drawing out, from the frontiers of her memory, reminiscences of the artistic expressions of a culture that seduced her from the beginning of her artistic career: the culture of Mexico. Along this path, her work points to the universal; from her everyday experience, she delves into aspects and issues that concern all human beings in the universe. Consequently, she moves away from the hackneyed identifying cliché of all things Cuban and inserts herself into a more universal language.

Her universe of concerns surpasses the individual to reach high social and cultural quotas while maintaining the formal coherence of her different formats and supports, because a common thread unites them, interweaves them conceptually and aesthetically. As a result, Beatriz Santacana’s artistic trajectory points at a tight balance between ideological purposes and aesthetic results, between concept and matter, between content and form.

This has determined the fact that her artistic career is very prolific, because outside of all typecasting, she ventures into dissimilar subjects. Her way of taking up artistic creation is not through series, as we are accustomed to seeing in other artists; her concerns or philosophy of life is manifested randomly. While in certain stages of her career she has felt more attracted to Mexican culture, especially to Frida Kahlo, or to pre-Columbian imagery, or to the representation of two figures at the time of maternity[5], the truth is that it is nourished essentially from everyday events, whether they are represented through figuration, or from the strong emotions that take her to abstraction.

She creates pieces for all audiences, ranging from the ones showing a powerful forcefulness in which reflection is inevitable, to the more abstract ones more fitting for contemplation. In this ceramist there is a pendular position that allows her to explore different, yet complementary, routes, and therefore bequeath a visual testimony of the contrasts that form the backdrop of her time and reality.

In addition to the above, and given the importance she had for Santacana in a moment of her artistic life, it is worth making a parenthesis to delve into her fervor for the emblematic figure of Frida Kahlo. Beatriz Sala Santacana has revisited this personage in the history of universal art more than once, and rather than paying tribute to her, she strikes a dialogue with Frida, she approaches her from her own intimacy, from someone who is captivated by and feels indebted to her work. In the words of the artist, she shares with the Mexican surrealist many aspects, from being self-taught to a somewhat aggressive way of looking at life, a constant fighting spirit, of so openly giving her all in the act of artistic creation. Frida, therefore, becomes a recurring symbol within her sculptural ceramics, a constant and effective icon within her artistic postulations, in which a dialogue between space and structure, scale and material, perpetuates Frida, while the representation changes the pulse of her artistic career.

A student of the life and work of the mythical Mexican artist, Beatriz proposes a fruitful dialogue, free of prejudices and clichés through the pieces referring to the painter. In the works in which she alludes to Frida, we do not identify her for her unibrow or her perennial suffering; the artist prefers to sculpt the aspects that she shares with Frida, especially her joy of living despite her grief and pain, and the optimistic aura, like a protecting shield in the face of the adversities of life.

The solo show Alas para Volar[Wings to Fly][6] meant for Santacana a remarkable turnaround in her work, especially in terms of technique, the large dimensions of the pieces involving complex assemblies, and glazing, consistent withthe content of the work. The visual impact of the sculptures was due to the liberation of the artistic medium that gives license and validity for experimenting with new expressive resources. Scale was one of them, which is used by Santacana not out of sheer aesthetic necessity, but as substantial content of the pieces themselves.

For the artist, this exhibition would be the ideal space to give lessons in plastic efficiency, visual impact and technical mastery. Beyond her ventures working with clay and other materials such as iron, steel, wood, rope and paper, the exhibition stands out because it is a point of maturity in Beatriz’s work, denoted by the plurality of supports she works with[7] and technical experimentation, as well as by her keen interest in detaching herself from mere reproduction and going for the conceptualization of her work. Here, Santacana’s work is notable for the sustained stylistic strength in the execution of her pieces of colossal dimensions and for a strong dramatic character when representing, from their essences, the figures of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.

This exhibition gave her the wings that she needed to take off definitively, because from then on, she was much more favorably received. With the nine large-scale pieces that made up the show, she inserted herself fully in Cuban artistic ceramics. She was no longer the naïve creator who faithfully reproduced figures from Mexican imagery as a test or experimentation. We now had before us a stable Santacana, capable of surpassing the reproductive stage that is a characteristic of the self-initiated in the world of art, and of entering in her own imaginary, devoted to creating and not reproducing, in which she definitively makes artistic craftwork.

Conceptually, in the Wings to Fly exhibition she established her own symbols with a very convincing solidity. She appropriated elements from Mexican religious thought connected to death, such as ex-voto paintings and altarpieces, and gave them new meanings through texts of a markedly ludic nature. The small figures in the form of ex-votos in Wings to Fly are a grand sculptural ex-voto dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, while she modeled the sculptural group Sueño Dominical[Sunday Dreaming] to describe the intense and always controversial relationship between Frida and Diego.Hence, the works in this exhibition, constructed with a language that is both profane and sacred, establish Beatriz in sculptural ceramics, where she displays her technical mastery in glazing and the complex large assemblies, which later would result in her keenness for large-scale murals.

From a physical point of view, ceramics presents significant challenges for Santacana as a woman: working with large formats means carrying large weights, and glazing involves working with aggressive products. In addition, both of these aspects influence her feminine image as she necessarily needs to wear working clothes, her apron always spattered with clay, and her hands unmanicured. These challenges however do not diminish her creative appetite, rather, being already adjusted to that environment, she enjoys the trade fully. It is appropriate then to recognize her effort, especially considering today’s material conditions, which are known to be difficult especially for a field like ceramics.

[1]Puntos de Vista. Juan Marinello Art Gallery, Havana, 2004.

[2] Gods and totems paradoxically accompanied by Cuban attributes, such as a cup of coffee, a rooster or a pineapple.

[3] Since then, she has participated in every Ceramics Biennial, winning the First Work Prize at the 8th Amelia Peláez Ceramics Biennial in 2006.

[4]Her murals grace the walls of the National Museum of Cuban Contemporary Ceramics, the Miramar Business Center, the Breezes Jibacoa Hotel, and the Celia Sánchez Maternity Home in Jaimanitas.

[5] The self-referential perspective becomes a significant coordinate in this period of her work given that, from the unique and vital experience of motherhood, she expresses her artist/mother duality through works in which two figures that are related to each other appear ichnographically as a constant feature. This shows how family ties are expressed as an anthropophagic attitude. Her world does not revolve around the work; it is represented in it.

[6]Alas para volar, Casa del Benemérito de las Américas Benito Juárez, Havana, 2007.

[7]Especially in sculpture, taking clay as a basis, plus the inclusion of other compositional elements that enrich her work and make her a creator who is inserted in postmodern dynamics.

Published in Artecubano Magazine No. 2, 2018. Pgs. 90 to 93.

About the author: Julienne holds a bachelor’s degree in Art History from the University of Havana. She has worked as a professor with the Department of Theoretical and Social Studies on Culture, of the Faculty of Arts and Letters of the University of Havana. She is an art critic for several Cuban and international publications.

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