SPIRIT IN THE ART OF CARLOS LUNA
I flew into Miami through a summer storm to spend some time with Carlos Luna. The billowing dark clouds, thunder, lightening, powerful winds, and heavy rains rocked the plane. After a bumpy landing, I met Carlos and said in reference to the weather that “Chango [the Thundergod] had come.” But he replied that instead it was Yemaya, Queen of the Sea and Celestial Waters. She had made her presence known with water to wash everything clean—a most auspicious sign. He told me that in the past many of his exhibition openings were rainy. He had worried that no one would come, but his godmother said “No, it is good—everything would be cleansed and the way opened for something new.” And she was right. Our friendship deepened from that moment on—I am American from Brooklyn, New York, and Carlos a Cuban nurtured by rural guajiro culture, and both of us touched and inspired by the wisdom, beliefs, and practices of Yoruba people in Africa and their descendants in Cuba known as Lucumi. These thoughts on Carlos Luna—his personality, life and work—have been shaped as much by our different perspectives as by those shared. We are both in-betweeners, living hyphenated lives simultaneously, enriched by the multiple cultural journeys we have taken.
Carlos Luna is a man in constant motion. He is alive with “performative power” or what Yorubas (and Cubans) call ache. He creates works that possess this vibrant spiritual energy. His idols reveal the kind of person he is: José Marti and Antonio Maceo Grajales, fighters for Cuban independence; Muhammad Ali; Martin Luther King; and Malcolm X—all fighters constantly battling against the odds, and all of them (except Marti), warriors of African descent. Perhaps this is one of the reasons he has been drawn to the world of Yoruba/Lucumi wisdom.
Carlos Luna is a perfectionist and generous of spirit, full of life and deeply playful, but a playfulness that can also be deadly serious. He is both sensitive and sensual, one who feels deeply and acts openly and honestly. He gives himself completely to his work, and his heart to those he loves. He has a lust for life that encompasses religion, politics, music, and sensuality, something that is embodied in his powerful imagery. He loves to talk about women, and many of his images play with the form and function of penis, vagina, breasts and balls—sexual, sensual matters. All of this playfulness reminds me of the essence of the Santeria orisha Eleggua—divine trickster, mediator, and messenger between humans, ancestors and gods, crossroads guardian who brings us down when we get too high, who plays with childlike humor about serious worldly and otherworldly matters. Eleggua is the principle of uncertainty, indeterminacy. Eleggua is the one “who throws a stone tomorrow, and kills a bird yesterday,” the “one who struggles to climb a blade of grass, but whose shadow darkens a mountain.” Eleggua is witness to human folly as well as human accomplishment. When he looks at us, as he so often does in Carlos’s work, we are reminded to think before acting, to contemplate the mysteries of this world and our lives.
Two broad themes run through the colorful images and rhythms of his work. The first is rural or campesino/guajiro culture, music, and history based on memories of his childhood in rural San Luis and Pinar del Río—land of Cuba’s finest tobacco plantations, farm life, and virgin mountain forests (el monte). This is where tobacco was king—the place of magical soil and fertile rains that grow the three essential leaves for making cigars—filler, binder, wrapper. This is the place where the magical synthesis of soil, temperature, climate, and family traditions of craftsmanship fused to create the unique Habano cigar. The myths, medicinal, and magical properties of tobacco and the culture that grew around them are a fusion of indigenous (Amerindian), African, and European traditions. These country traditions have shaped Carlos Luna in myriad ways.
Rural Cuba is also the source of the music that moves the heart, soul … and feet of Carlos. The source of Cuban Son is changui—the sound, the rhythm, the instruments that came from the mountainous Oriente province to Havana and the rest of Cuba with Cuban soldiers in early twentieth century. The sounds and rhythms, the music and dance of guajiro culture permeate the countryside. These are the rhythms that animate Carlos.
Music is central to his life and work. He is always playing music, mostly Cuban son but also a whole range of Cuban and contemporary global sounds that animate him and his painterly gestures. As he says “I dance every day”—and he dances well. One of his favorite musicians is Elio Revé and the rich and complex rhythms of changüí. He especially loves those critical moments in the music when the drums or clave do a cut, or break (picao or picarto). When this happens, he dips down, moves his hips and shakes his shoulders, and dances some more. Those same kinds of picao can be seen in the rich complexity of his compositions filled with starts and stops, twists and turns. He is continually searching for the groove, that place where expansive, seamless ideas can flow to express his feelings and emotions with the images that populate his painted world. When he is in flow, he is entranced—color, line, form, texture come together and explode on the surface. There is music—lyrics, rhythm, pace, flow, beat, tempo, volume, and timbre or color tone. His imagery dances, as does he. To extend this impression, he has been inspired by Syrian/Mesopotamian “multiple-exposure” figures to suggest motion—he highlights movement to express his passion for life as a dance. Those multiple-exposure figures also trace and make visible the flow of time and history.
A second influence in his life and work is the African presence in Cuba revealed in Lucumi images, ideas, and philosophy. In a sense, rural Cuban/guajiro culture and Lucumi thought come together because of el monte—the rural forests, source of spiritual powers unseen but felt. El monte is the source of healing, empowering herbal medicines of the gods. These mountainous forests also sheltered and sustained the spirit of revolutionaries: the cimarrones or maroons—those with the determination to escape and resist enslavement and carve out lives of independence based on African wisdom—and the Cuban Independistas/Mambistas who followed them, Marti and Maceo. Carlos too is a fighter for independence—personal independence and the freedom to express his deepest aspirations and highest ideals.
El monte is at the heart of all Afro-Cuban religions, as in Lucumi faith with its deified ancestors (orichas) who are at one with natural forces: a river goddess like Ochun, a tree like Iroko, iron like Ogun, storms like those of the Thundergod Chango, the winds, rains, and hurricanes of Oya, and the ocean waters of Yemaya. Their omnipresence in Cuba, an island surrounded by the same seas that separate yet also connect Africa to Cuba, infuses much of the history and culture and art of Cuba. El monte is a powerful, dangerous, but enriching place—a secret place known only by those who enter and spend time and energy, seeking knowledge with wisdom to gain insight and understanding. Carlos has taken that spiritual journey.
To witness Carlos working is to see a multi-sensorial performance. Music is a constant, much of it Cuban guajiro sounds—the rhythms of rural Cuba and the memories of his childhood. But he savors plenty of other music as well. And this not just for listening, but for moving—activating his body-mind. His mind dances every minute. He has an enormous store of Cuban music from the past and present that inspires his dancing life and art … its rhythms enter his body and emerge in the fluid strokes of his brushes that are gripped in his mouth until the moment of attack on the surface of his works. As he listens and dances, he also surfs the internet and social media on his phone, constantly seeking the humor and pathos, the craziness of life happening around him. Carlos works at playing and painting, constantly listening to music and searching the web for strange, inane, silly offerings. He gets a kick out of the playful stupidity of people who share their quirks online. Social media has become his window to this crazy world outside, as he creates his own worlds, stories, and characters inside his studio.
He builds for the distant future with works that will endure, creating strong, rigid wooden frames that are covered in plywood and then a layer of special paper. He begins by sketching on the prepared surface and then building it up with paint, sometimes with stencils, some freehand, filling in areas with color, re-working other parts with shapes and lines. He moves to the music, stops to view something on his cellphone and then returns to his work renewed … always moving, continually drinking herbal tea.
His expansive energy forces him to often go beyond the frame of his paintings. He creates elaborate painted or sculpted designs & frames on the walls that hold his work. They are like visible sonic vibrations of the movements and flows within the works that escape to flow across the walls. He explains that he always felt attracted to wallpaper decoration, a memory from his family home in Cuba, and to domestic painted frescos on the walls of houses from the Spanish colonial period in the Americas, as well as the ancient murals of Pompeii.
In his words and his actions Carlos demonstrates that he strives to be true to himself, and thus true to his destiny and to those around him. He knows that what he needs to remember and live by are the attributes of focus, patience, endurance, truthfulness to self and others, and hard, challenging, highest quality work.
Carlos makes visible the invisible, conveying messages and lessons from his past to offer to the present and future. He knows that the past is prologue: that excavating the past and reflecting on it are essential to finding one’s way in the present and future. As the Asante of West Africa say with their sankofa image of a bird looking backward, “looking back to the past, to find the way forward,” or as the Yoruba words of wisdom remind us, “A river that forgets its source, dries up.” His work is not on the surface, it is filled with subtle messages embedded. One must know the issues to decode. Often these messages are hidden in plain sight, lessons to be learned through reflection.
Many of his recurring images reference the countryside, the rural life of Cuba and Cubans. One is the “typical” campesino image—a man with a hat and mustache riding on a horse, sometimes smoking a cigar. But probably his most repeated image is the rooster. The cockerel is an iconic symbol for Cuba and its rural or guajiro culture. But for Carlos it is one particular type of rooster that has special meaning and significance—the kikiriki—the onomatopoeic name for the crowing of a small but brave, feisty fighter, an aggressive, proud, cocky cockerel. Kikiriki is the alter-ego, the avatar of the diminutive, yet spirited Carlos himself who goes about with courage and bravado, taking on persons and issues bigger or stronger than him.
The rooster has become a symbol of Cuba and Cubans’ personality and reputation. But for Carlos, it has a significance that goes back to his childhood and days as an art student. When Carlos was seventeen and an art student in Havana he met Mariano Rodríguez (1912–1990), the famous Cuban painter who first used the rooster icon. They had an argument about politics and he wanted to fight Carlos, acting like an “old rooster” in the presence of the young kikiriki. Carlos has been fighting ever since. The rooster means many things to the nation and to Carlos. What this says about him as person and a spirit is that he is a fighter, no matter the odds. That is evident from the idols he tries to emulate—Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, José Marti, and Antonio Maceo Grajales[AE1] . Marti was a “word warrior,” the poet and architect of a vision of Cuban independence and democracy. Yet in his final battle with the Spanish—in which he perished—Marti rode a white horse and wore a black uniform as if to say, “I am here, I am a true warrior.” When we talked about Muhammad Ali, Carlos spoke most about the fabled “Rumble in the Jungle”—Ali’s winning fight against title-holder George Foreman in Kinshasa (former Zaire), when soul luminaries James Brown, B.B. King, and the “Queen of Salsa” Celia Cruz performed. Ali had declared before the fight, “I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see.” Carlos seems to have taken these poetic and prophetic words to heart, for he does the same thing in his powerful paintings. His works can have incredibly stinging messages yet, like beautiful “butterflies” they float before our eyes and in our minds. We must dig deep to find the lessons hidden in plain sight. Muhammad Ali and Carlos are both strong and beautiful—they conquer with the power of beauty.
Carlos is both an image-smith and a word-smith, a story-teller and visual poet who loves to play with words to evoke responses in his audiences. He connects with his publics with both words and images. Some of this must have come from the many stories he heard growing up in Pinar del Río. Another source may be the rich oral traditions of Lucumi faith and Ifa divination. Still others are snippets of conversations heard in passing, every day.
Take for example his work entitled Empingated (Freaking Awesome!). The title is Carlos’s humorous take on his hearing a Cuban-American turn the Cuban slang exclamation—pinga/pingao!—into an action verb empingated. Pinga/pingao! refers to a penis/cock and also FUCK! Fuckin’ Awesome! Something that is indescribably delicious, or distasteful, or ugly. Whether to fuck or be fucked! So the work is an homage to life’s struggles and triumphs. The world is populated with all manners of dangers and opportunities represented by warrior symbols (triple arrows/bow of Osossi, the knives and scissors of Ogun cutting/piercing pingas, Masonic secrets and symbols of eyes in pyramids, square and calipers, and floating eyes everywhere, etc.), lust and love in female figures turned into gaping, devouring jaws. Yet the spiritual path to survival, the way to success and self-realization hovers above in the wisdom and guidance of Ifa. Multi-sensorial multiplicity populates the entire space to give us a sense of all we must confront in this brief life before departure.
Another is the title and theme of the work called Blackbite, a play on the Cuban colloquial expression, una mordida negra, literally “a black bite” which means “to wrong or betray someone,” what in English would be expressed as an act of “backbiting.” Playing with language and attitude, he touches on a deeply engrained Cuban color consciousness—discrimination based on skin color, a persistent racism evident today in the negrita mammy statues sold in the Havana airport store. Here the script is written from behind, from the back. Black monsters with gleaming white teeth surround the guajiro on horseback, ready to devour him on every side. Carlos plays with words, images, ideas and concepts, “turning things on their head” to make us re-think, re-flect, re-vise, re-nounce, re-act, and re-live—as we are meant to do throughout our lives of constant choice and decision.
Some of that word play is directed to political matters, specifically the unfulfilled promise of the Cuban revolution. While Carlos may have admired some of its ideals, he became disillusioned and strongly opposed the regime’s suppression of personal freedom. For Carlos, Fidel stole those freedoms. His painting entitled Robo-lucion plays on the verb robar “to steal.” Instead of revolution, it was a theft of freedom of choice. Carlos was very much opposed to a government that determined what a person could do or say or paint. Death and destruction fill this dark work. Balls and penises (cojones and pingas) become bones—issues of life and death.
Another work—Mr. C. O. Jones—plays on the word cojones, literally “balls” and figuratively “courage, machismo.” Here Carlos is inspired by the classical myth of Perseus slaying Medusa, the snake-headed demon. Carlos the kikiriki be-heads Fidel. The eyes are those of Fidel’s homeland security forces, informers who exposed anyone who sought to undo the revolution. But they are also joined by the eyes of the orisha Eleggua, watching us. Are we co-con-spirit-ors? Allies or enemies? Eleggua witnesses and asks us to decide.
Dale, Dale Huye! (“Get out of here!”) 2005—evokes in a powerful way the escape from menaces on all sides. Three planes (colored blue like his human protagonists) fly above an islandscape. The weaponry of warriors and enemies (knives, arrows, horse shoes, devouring mouths), as well as occult Masonic symbols, express the dangers on all sides. Flying to escape is the only solution. Monster mouths are the mouths of detractors who try to destroy with lies and gossip. Eyes are everywhere—informers, spies, secret agents, security forces bent on absolute control—all of this danger and chaos witnessed by the eyes of Eleggua. All these weapons cut, pierce, and attack those organic shapes that form cock-and-balls, whether erect or inert—the very manhood of a man endangered.
El Gran Mambo is a monumental double-triptych—six panels bursting with complex images in which float multiple versions of a blue figure of a man tumbling through a jumble and jungle of forces, feelings, events, and actions. It is the spiral and swirl of Carlos’s dance of life, his gran mambo. Viewing from right to left (as in Ifa divination), we are taken on a journey with all the momentous decisions that affect one’s life. We see the guajiro horseman with hat, mustache, knife in hand, and spurs on his boots riding out of the countryside to Havana and then to the planes that flew him from Cuba to Mexico. We see the knives and eyes of enemies, and the faces of loved ones, the losses and the gains, the setbacks and triumphs. But this is not just a physical journey, it is deeply spiritual one as the artist reflects on all the temptations and challenges, while remaining true to himself. It is a reflection about the continual search for knowledge, wisdom and understanding in one’s life, checking to be sure one is following the right path shaped by divine as well as worldly forces. From Puebla-Mexico where he found his love and grew as an artist, the journey continued to Miami. Words from thoughts, songs, conversations, and encounters appear interspersed/scattered throughout the composition, raising questions, revealing emotions, bringing sounds to sights. At the very center is mirame siempre—“Look at Me Only.” We are asked to contemplate along with the artist, his mambo life to this point, and to wonder where life and art will take him next on this spiritual odyssey.
There is a wall filled with beautifully designed and glazed plates made by Carlos in Talavera Santa Catarina, Puebla-Mexico. It was in Mexico that he found love and the freedom to express the full range of his feelings and the full spectrum of memories of his family life in rural Cuba. So the recurring themes are kikiriki/rooster, horses, guajiro with hat and mustache on horseback, a woman and rooster (female/male relationships), tea and coffee pots evoking the morning rituals of sights, smells, and tastes prepared by his grandmother, and the eyes of Eleggua witnessing all.
And in the final space are a series of amazing jacquard tapestries. Always searching for a new challenge, Carlos worked with Magnolia Editions in Oakland, California, to create several stunning, large-scale tapestries. One of these is entitled Who eats Whom—a monumental work about the eternal struggle of worldly and otherworldy forces, and the questions of who are winners and who losers. Set in a jungle reminiscent of Wilfredo Lam (it’s a jungle out there!), the combatants in this epic are a lion (GRR!) and a horse: A lion may kill a horse, but when that lion dies, his remains fertilize the soil, that grows the grass, that a horse consumes. So who prevails? Battling in a cosmos and world of competing forces, the outcomes are never certain, always in flux. It is the struggle that counts.
The journey continues…
The cultural, historical and spiritual mix of Cuba, Mexico, and Miami have become part of his being and thinking and acting. He may not know it, but he epitomizes and embodies the Yoruba ideal of an artist as an itinerant person (are), forever on the move, at home nowhere, a stranger everywhere engaged in constant departures of creativity. Carlos Luna has been on the move—from Pinar del Río-Cuba to Havana, to Puebla-Mexico, to Miami-Florida, to ??—creating wherever he finds himself, dancing every day, loving every day, laughing every day, painting every day with images that move us to new insights. May his vision continue to provoke and delight—ACHE!