On a recent trip to Cuba I discovered this artist, one of the country’s finest, at the Museo Nacional Bellas Artes in Havana where his triptych of huge ceramic teacups greets the visitor and four of his original oil paintings hang. Upon discovering the ceramics I was immediately smitten, and then upon entering the second floor gallery I discovered the paintings, which were the best in the whole museum. The imagination and style expressed in ¡Y qué mala Magdalena…! (who resembled a psychotic Alice in Wonderland) and Saturno enseñando a pasear a sus hijos were unmatched by anything I had seen thus far — and I have seen a lot — and there is a certain paradox in the childlike joy of his work and its hints at a darker message.
Oliva was a celebrated artist in Cuba, and even served in the government as a delegate in the regional assembly of the western province of Pinar del Rio where he was born and lived. I say “was” because last year, when Oliva published on the Internet criticism of the harassment of dissidents and suggested Cuba would be better served by a multi-party system, he was expelled from the assembly and accused of counterrevolutionary behavior. The government withdrew financial support of his community workshop in Pinar del Rio, forcing him to close it.
While walking through the museo I overheard a tour leader commenting on an artist whose works could not be exhibited back in the 1960s when the images were first created because they were critical of the revolution; now, she claimed, these same works hang in the national museum as a symbol of how far Cuba has come in allowing disparate voices to be heard. I was immediately skeptical, and on my journey through Cuba sought out other artists to confirm or deny this claim. What they all told me was that, yes, you can be critical but only if carefully so, and you can’t make a career of it or you’ll find yourself in trouble. And then I heard about Oliva’s difficulties, which spells it out clearer than anything else.
Oliva’s works have been exhibited and sold internationally, and the originals are way beyond my budget, so I was thrilled when I stumbled upon limited edition serigraphs at the Nelson gallery in Havana (across from the church in the Plaza San Fransisco de Asis, on Calle los Oficios). I bought the only large one they had (see image above) as well as three smaller prints for gifts.
Oliva now has a studio in Havana, though it was closed for renovations so I was sadly unable to view other works or to meet the artist. If you have a chance to visit Havana, his studio is just steps away from the Plaza de Armas, in a building that houses several artist studios, at Numero 6 Calle los Oficios (the street runs between Plaza San Francisco and Plaza de Armas). You can also visit his website at www.pedropablooliva.com.