When I first met Cuban painter Yorjander Capetillo Hernández at Solitude, I joked: »Yoginder, Maninder, Harjinder – Your name sounds like a name from my part of the world.« A few weeks later, Yorjander texted me saying I was right. Even a bus driver had thought he was Indian. Hernández is Cuban. Cuba is big in India. The bus driver’s comment made him think about the sensibility that socialist Cuba evokes for many decades, and even now, in a world capitulating to oligarchic capitalism. How Che Guevara’s face and Fidel Castro’s persona have inspired so many Left movements around the world. The Bay of Pigs Invasion is a story which has gone into the realm of folk myth. One knows for half a century Cuba has been a bastion of resistance. I was curious of what Cuba is like from the inside. I wanted Hernández to tell me more through his works and a conversation…
We had fixed the meeting for 18.00 hours but I reached a bit late. I apologised and Hernández said, »Time is nothing in Cuba. You never know how long something would take, what will happen next. A bus or a train can be late, not arrive. No one asks any questions. The state gives no answers. We do not fix a time for a meeting. We have no schedules. It is impossible to calibrate time in a communist regime.«
To break the ice I ask Hernández how he applied to Akademie Schloss Solitude. He tells me how in Cuba the people have to wait up to four hours to surf the Internet for one hour. Havana, where he now lives, is a city with a population of two million, spread over 725 square kilometres, but has exactly six Internet centres. The travel on bus from home to the centre takes more than an hour. The wait in the queue is more than two hours. Finally, the Internet connection is high speed. Cubans have no WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and any of those applications on their mobile phones.
Hernández is presenting to me a Cuba that I did not expect. Its idea is so fantastic, its reality so grim. I ask how others, his buyers, his viewers look at his paintings. »In Cuba, I remain more a friend than a painter. A person with shared heritage. I do not get real feedback. In the West, people expect me to paint Cuba per the stereotype they have: cigars, rum, beautiful women. I don’t do that. I don’t even smoke, drink, or do the salsa. That is not my reality. Or maybe it is, but I do not take part in it like a regular Cuban. That is why I do not paint Cuba specific themes. Don’t look at my works to find Cuba. Look at my works to see how I depict human situations. How political experiences shape human situations. Look to see what Cuba evokes in my heart. There is a hole in my heart. I paint to fill that hole.«
He shows me the picture of a friend and tells me she had had an accident which damaged her face. The friend’s mother was a doctor but had no hope. A plastic surgeon announced that he could fix the face. He fixed it. »In the world outside Cuba, doctors charge money for every stitch, every procedure. They have knowledge which they sell part by part. In Cuba, the doctor worked for free. The whole procedure, over months, was free. Yet, with every stitch the doctor made, he would have wondered what he would feed his children that night. Over the months he worked, he would have worried how his family will be without food.«
Hernández earns his living through teaching. He gets paid the equivalent of $30 per month. »It is enough for 30 beers,« he says sarcastically. »Existing is easy, living is very hard. In Cuba everyone has to do something on the side to live. Communism breeds illegal activities.« This conflict between the way a political regime operates and its pros and cons informs every single painting of Hernández. »I do not know if Communism is good or not, but I know that my friends smile a bit too much, talk a bit too much. They never ask questions: Why, what, when? I paint to pierce this bubble of conformity.«
Hernández was ten years old when he saw a sculptor working in his native town, San Cristóbal. He came home and drew an oil. »Everyone told me: you are intelligent, become an engineer or a nurse or doctor. My mother did not say that, she encouraged me, and I continued to paint.« As he grew up, he discovered the Russian masters Ilya Repin and Valentin Serov. Yet, European greats – Rembrandt’s portraits, Francisco Goya’s darkness, and Van Gogh’s Impressionism – stayed in his mind. »Their universe sucked me in. Their fear. I try to draw that fear.«
»You know the hand is a beast,« says Hernández. »As a painter, it is my job to make my hand my slave. When I start I have about 70 percent of an idea. I approach the canvas with doubt. All my paintings are my doubts, right from conception to execution, to the final stage. I paint in doubt. Painting is like climbing a ladder. Every rung is a space for doubt. I keep going, through my doubt, to reach the end of the painting. I have to prove the idea I have, the painting has to work for me. There is Usain Bolt, the fastest sprinter in the world, but my favourite is Haile Gebrselassie. Painting is like running middle or long distance, it needs stamina. People sometimes say this or that about my work, but I know how much I still need to do, how I could not really achieve what I wanted to show. I know the idea I had when I started the painting. No one else knows it. I just go from post to post, from painting to painting. That is the only thing that keeps me going.«
In his studio with eight windows, a three side view of the Schloss, I ask him where his paintings come from. Does he feel inspired by the visuals he encounters in daily life? Does he feel inspired by nature or events? He says he has to show me his works. We walk among them. They are big canvases. They hardly leave any room to walk freely. He tells me his small home in Havana is crowded ten times over. The paintings are in different stages, some complete, some drying, coat after coat, up to 25 coats. »I paint from my head. My mind is a theatre. Everything in my paintings happens in my head – in the theatre in my mind. I studied painting and then I studied stage design. When you go to see theatre, there is a text, but your visual experience is so much more. I believe it is not text but the visual which should be the beginning of a theatre experience.« We see a one minute video clip in which one can see blinding light. The high wattage lamp pulls out from the mirror and we realise what we were seeing was the mirror reflecting the light. The lamp turns slowly to face us. The video ends. »That is my statement of my art,« he says matter of fact.
Maybe it is how he shows the power equation between the man and the woman on stage; or the row of bare women and men standing under a banner: »In this country it is treason to not remember;« or the woman with a bloodied frock next to a enlarged shadow of a small church-like structure with the words: »This fool smiles despite the blood. It is the heritage of these (land) people;« or just how his staged paintings look. I mention Romanian-French playwright Eugene Ionesco, and Hernández latches onto the name. »Why did you ask me about him?« I am uncertain, but something about Hernández’s work tells me he must familiarise himself with the inventor of French Avant-garde theatre – Absurd Drama. »Ionesco is everything to me. Oh my, I learnt so much from him! How did you guess?«
I ask him about his bringing back text into his painting, and he picks up a pencil and puts a dot in the middle of the page. He draws lines from it, in all directions. »For me, this dot is time. I am the centre of time. Ideas, things, go away, come back. I cannot answer how I grew in linear time.« One of his paintings is of a boxing ring with a sort of divine figure in the skies, and I ask him about religion. Does it influence his work? »Religion was allowed in Cuba only in 1995. I feel I exist not in one religion but in the in-between space between Christianity, the Afro-Cuban religion, and Spiritism. I like the Orichas. They are not saints, they are not perfect, but they are seers, they can tell the future. Among them I like Orula, who can tell you about sons. But Orula himself does not have sons. He is truth and truth cannot have sons. That is what I feel about my work. I paint what I see and what I feel. I want to touch human consciousness. Beyond that, I do not know. Yes, the paintings will remain political but it is the politics in a particular instant of time, in a particular setting. We see these patterns repeated in all societies in the world.«
It has been a long meeting, I am winding up, and Hernández says, »I want to add something … « I nod. »You asked me earlier about Cuba, about home. I don’t feel at home anywhere. Yet for the last two years, I feel immensely happy. Maybe because I feel I am on the right path with my work. I am free to paint.«