Interview by Virginia Alberdi – Havana, December 2016
ONAY ROSQUET – SELF PORTRAIT
Young people have an outstanding position in contemporary Cuban art; they are the vanguard in the different ways of expressing art and tend to participate in all sorts of trends. Onay Rosquet’s work – which initially focused on characters and later on objects carefully reproduced in his drawings and paintings – attracts attention in an extraordinary way. In his first series on objects they appeared lonely, abandoned, but loaded with nostalgia that revealed much about them. At present, the young painter, by portraying accumulations of objects, constructs stories by arranging the objects into a new context. These collections are not coincidental; they are the result of a sensual and intellectual selection process of his affective memory.
The artist neither follows groups or trends, nor does he conform to preconceived guidelines or obeys art market decrees and he does not comply with the preferences of sectors that set the course of the artistic activity. Onay does not produce, he creates, and the results of these creations distinguish him from his peers. He goes as far as to articulate a fable, transmit a state of mind, evoke a moment, while obliquely referring to social tensions and events. A laudable merit of his is to glance at a world of elements that speaks by itself from its silent presence. All accomplished by careful implementation because he spares no rigor when reproducing that world which he transfers to the canvas and transforms it into refined art.
How did he bring about such proposition? How did he gradually find a voice of his own that allows him to communicate what he wanted? This recent interview offers some valuable clarifications.
How did your vocation for drawing and painting emerge?
As a child I liked to draw; I tried to copy objects and persons, things that surrounded me. I also liked it when others drew, particularly when they did it to amuse me. I was definitely attracted to drawing more than other children. In my case, with the passing of time, it ceased to be a hobby and turned into a need. I felt so compelled to drawing and painting that it became part of my personal identity. Then, little by little, with the work and other elements that influenced my education, it gradually became a profession. I do have artistic references in the family, but not in the context with visual arts. My family did not engage in the world of painting, and, as I mentioned before, I chose drawing and painting because it thrilled me. Of course, my family always supported me and approved my decisions; that is very important in the life of an artist, particularly at the outset, when in most cases almost everything is very difficult.
What were your first professional experiences in art?
I started by painting portraits, influenced by the 17th century Dutch school. Rembrandt was the artist that most attracted my attention, his palette was very gray and dark, my knowledge of the history of art was very incomplete at the time. My life received a turn when I started working in the Taller de Gráfica Contemporánea (Studio of Contemporary Graphics), since I was a self-taught artist. There I had – for the first time – the possibility to learn the different engraving techniques such as serigraphy, lithography, collagraphy, and calcography. It was also my first opportunity to become acquainted with people who shared my interests. I made very good friends; all the time we discussed how to achieve a colour shade or about taking part in group exhibitions. We often debated on the contemporary art events and I felt that I belonged in a place like that. As a result of it I gradually became interested in the work of several already established Cuban artists who are still active, like Roberto Fabelo because of his exceptional drawing and Tomás Sánchez, particularly in his series Basureros (Rubbish Dumps); the latter was to have a particular influence in my work. From then on I began to organize myself and work in series, as a discipline. In that period I made my first exhibition, entitled Casting, and a second one, Oros viejos (Old Golds), without interrupting my activities during the day at the studio. In the evenings I painted at home and was not tired or overwhelmed because I liked what I was doing.
What themes have interested you in art? In your case, could we speak of an evolution since your first exhibition?
Casting was a portrait gallery; in it I recreated figures from the media, musicians, TV presenters, people that the public could identify. My idea was to present them in oil paintings like characters from another century, using clothes from that period and, of course, the atmosphere of paintings from previous centuries. Seen altogether, the work seemed to be a sequence from a play, and I truly liked the result. Then, at one point, the portrait no longer fulfilled my expectations I had in painting, so I decided to explore the theme of objects. This idea gave birth to Oros viejos (Old Golds), an exhibition in which I portrayed large-sized objects deteriorated by time, rusty and ill-treated but worthy, with the purpose of recalling their earlier usefulness. One of the pieces, Llaves sobre el lienzo (Keys on the Canvas), was out of place there, but it led me to another theme: The accumulation of objects. I spent a long time, almost two years, painting and organizing my ideas, before I embarked on another project. Como el que no quiere las cosas (Feigning Indifference) emerged in 2016, a showcase in which I acknowledged my artistic vocation and in which I presented the accumulations of objects in a more concrete and at the same time more extensive and detailed manner. In this exhibition – in addition to oil paintings – I also ventured into the world of installations for the first time, something that would have been impossible ten years earlier because of the way I thought at the time.
When I look back at the roads I have followed to achieve what I am doing today I do not regret anything. On the contrary, I feel that I always did what I should and could. I see in myself an evolution that in no way has been imposed by the fashionable trends that come and go, nor by the temptations of the market. I think it has thus happened partially because of the way I am and my constant search of stimulus for my creation. Unfortunately I did not have a mentor to follow who could have guided me to starting points. I often found my teachers and influences in books or museums, and upon those I gradually built my own identity.
To what extent is your obsession with objects a nostalgic evocation? How do you assume the passing of time as a subject for paintings?
Feeling nostalgic in the face of each one of the objects I paint is inevitable, they act as models and help me greatly to compose and represent what I want. One can say they contain a great deal of expression in themselves. If these coffee machines, old hangers, washers and fans could speak, we would spend a long time listening to them. The nostalgic and evocative atmosphere that surrounds such objects makes people standing still before them, identify themselves with them and start a kind of dialogue with their memory, reconstructing their own stories that are not necessarily the ones I have tried to show. This is something very positive for me.
What audience do you identify with? Do you take the viewer into consideration when you paint?
I think the art form in my work is accessible to very diverse audiences, Cubans and non-Cubans, men and women, adults and young persons. I did not invent the accumulation of objects; many Cuban artists I admire at some point or in some of their works handled the theme; for instance Pedro Pablo Oliva, Nelson Domínguez and Tomás Sánchez. In other words, the theme is not far from my roots. But one thing is to be influenced and another to be a copyist. I think I have succeeded in delimiting those spaces. Without feeling tied to a story I have been working to create my own seal as an artist. There is an additional source of inspiration to be taken into consideration. As the 21st century advances, consumerism has become stronger, so has the loss of memory. To paint objects that were useful to us is a form of reclaiming the awareness of the passing of time, of knowing what we were in order to know what we are. It is a theme that transcends the visual arts.
Tell me about the inner aspects of the creative process. Where does drawing stand in your work?
Drawing has always been the foundation of painting. I begin a new painting by visualising a new idea – the composition and objects I’ll be using – in my head, in the next step I draw. This process cannot be rushed, it takes the time it needs. Any mistake in this first phase will be difficult to hide, that is why I dedicate much attention to it. After completing the drawing on canvas, I know what the work will look like in its real size and I can sleep peacefully.
The next step is painting. The oil technique is the one I have always worked with and with which I feel most comfortable. I think the magic and warmth of oil remains unachievable by any other technique; whereas – as always – one has to use good materials and know how to use them. I paint almost every day, from morning until late afternoon, sometimes until night, but after two or more hours of painting I like to walk away and look at the painting from a distance, I take my time to observe and think. On occasions I stop painting and forget about the piece, and at night, when I see it, I notice things I hadn’t seen before and fix them because the colours are still fresh on the palette; that is only possible with oil painting. I think my love affair with oil cannot be broken.
How do you resemble or differ from the artists of your generation?
Young art has characterized itself for wanting to be avant-garde, an art in full effervescence. It is almost always the young people like us who want to make the most exhibitions to show what we are capable of saying or doing. We have hot blood. Of course, that is my personal viewpoint and does not contradict the precepts I have followed. I am devoted to good performances, to the aesthetically impeccable, to precious detail. I don’t know if that perception sets me apart from my contemporaries or if I just think differently with regard to the paintings I make. Perhaps some of them think that my work is more conservative because of the value I grant to the drawing and painting craft. That is how I am, and I enjoy it very much. One should do what one wants and feels; for example, right now I could make an abstract or conceptual work and I would surely feel a void, as if I were fooling myself. Perhaps in five or ten years that might change. No one remains static. So I don’t have to worry as long as I do what I like. If people identify themselves with my work and recognize it, it’s okay with me.
How do you see your future work? Anything you can anticipate?
Regarding my future creations, I know there will be many roads still to follow, and I will stick to my principles. Each piece – which has always been the case – will have to speak for itself. Thematically there is no exhaustion in painting objects so far, but I imagine that it will not remain like that. I cannot picture myself repeating my work. The way in which an artist works or creates depends to a great extent on his character and the atmosphere in which he develops. New motifs will come, turns will be noticeable, but the essence does not have to change. I have always intended to make my work collectable, distinctive, that people who hang one of my paintings on their wall do not do it just to fill an empty space, that they see the artist’s work reflected in it, that they feel that I dedicated great effort to it before signing it, that they find the human part in it. I have always wished that my work is acknowledged in my country – what gift could be better than that? – but this can only be achieved with hard work, so I do not stop. At an international level, it is the dream of every artist that his work goes around the world and obtains good reviews. But there is no point in dreaming all the time, either. One should set one foot in the clouds and the other on the ground, but as long as one works and remains motivated, creating and doing what one likes to do, nothing is impossible.