Contemporary Cuban Ceramics: Beatriz Sala Santacana

  • September 26, 2017
  • By: artisticulturaltheory
  • art, ceramic, reviews, sculpture

Beatriz Sala Santacana (Havana, 1975) is a young self-taught Cuban ceramist who started her artistic career in 2004 after earning a law degree at 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 artistic inclination 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. She graduated from law school, however, although little did she realize that soon she would deposit all of her searches, certainties and skills into another noble and generous profession, full of satisfactions, as well as discontentment.

In this situation, her first encounter with ceramics was very spontaneous and even casual at a friend’s home. She saw him working with clay and for the first time she approached the material, and therefore to that primal form of creation. From that moment 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—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 some time, the straitjacket imposed by the law in view of the opening provided by artistic creation led her to give way to an artist who undertook the challenge of making ceramics, not as a hobby, but as a new profession where 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 base from which Santacana started out. She knew of the existence of the artist’s workshop in the town of Jaimanitas. Driven by 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.


First show

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 which she took her first steps with. It was an exhibition full of multicolored figures, of highly plural aesthetics, in which, without 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 had 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. Her work also shows an aesthetic debt to Sosabravo, especially in her particular way of geometrically fragmenting the figures in apparent disorder, where 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. However, as part of the difficulties involved in the art scene for artists and, especially, for the ceramist—a woman and self-taught to boot—it was a great challenge for Santacana to pull off her first exhibition. She faced, in the 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 vs. self-learning.


Arts and crafts

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 and relegate to a second level 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 clearly stated when we sustain that the pieces do not have that utilitarian and serial nature that necessarily characterizes crafts—they stand out for the artist’s particular 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 that 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 makes her a credible, postmodern dynamic creator with regard to the supports and techniques she works with. It is 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, specifically her murals acquire high reliefs that offer texture and with it three-dimensionality.



When she started making murals, she began only with the abstract painting of tiles, but soon the murals became more complex when she started including elements that gave them volume. Her murals became richer visually—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, both indispensable attributes of great art. As a result, the beings that populate her murals acquire life, her fish gain independence in the swaying water, 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 the Celia Sánchez Maternity Home in the town of Jaimanitas. Thus, her work expands not only in form but in geographical location as well [4], which in turn fosters an increased consumption, with art connecting 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 merely 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 references that allow us to anchor to it, her most recent pieces are characterized by an express rupture with mimesis, with a 19th-century realism. Hence, she says that she feels more comfortable with abstraction, through which she can 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 children’s art.

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, that can be decoded by most viewers, from 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 making use of the pastiche or innate intertextuality in Caribbean artists, makes use of different pictorial registers to form 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.


Santacana's Universe

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 creator from Cuba, and even beyond, from the entire Caribbean, rebels against coined stereotypes and captivates us, drawing on her origins, her memories, her love of life, her family, her personal tastes, her struggles. Her thematic universe revolves around issues of everyday life, and then we find emotions, drama, love, the motherland, all of this with the inevitable imprint of our origins. Because Beatriz takes hold of everyday life while at the same time she draws, 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. 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 fruitful, 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 then 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.


Frida Kahlo

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.


Wings to Fly

The solo show 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, which was determined by the 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 precisely would give her the wings that she needed to take off definitively, because from then on, she was much more favorably received. With the nine large-format 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. 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 the Mexican religious thought linked to death, such as ex-votos 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 Sunday Dreaming to describe the intense and always controversial relationship between Frida and Diego. Thus, 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.

Original source:

[1] Viewpoints. Juan Marinello Gallery, Havana, 2004.

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

[3] Since then, she has participated in every Ceramics Biennal. In 2006, she won the First Work Prize at the 8th Amelia Peláez Ceramics Biennial. National Museum of Cuban Contemporary Ceramics. Convent of San Francisco de Asís, Havana.

[4] Her murals grace the walls of several institutions: 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] Wings to Fly. Benito Juárez House, 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.