Visual arts

José Fuster Painter - Sculptor

We are now leaving Havana and entering Fusterlandia, the studio, residence and wild kingdom of José Rodriguez Fuster. Geographically we are in Jaimanitas, at the northwestern edge of the Cuban capital, but Jaimanitas has changed a lot since Fuster (as everyone here calls him) got to town 30 years ago and set about remaking the neighbourhood in his own image.

"When I got here my house was in wood, small," Fuster recalls. "So I decided to do something about it. I started building my dream." He had visited Europe and had came back to Cuba with plenty of inspiration. He had seen Gaudi in Barcelona and Brancusi in Romania. "It seemed impossible to me to do anything like that in Cuba. But all dreams get realised over time."

While Fuster's art can't really be described as groundbreaking (his visual language owes a heavy debt to Picasso and Jean Dubuffet), he has certainly covered a lot of ground with it. Roofs, walls, doorways and benches, stretching for blocks around the epicentre of his studio enclave, are adorned with his brightly coloured sculptures and mosaics : mermaids, fish, palm trees,roosters and Santería saints; quotations from Alejo Carpentier, Onelio Jorge Cardoso, and Ernest Hemingway. More than 80 neighbours have allowed Fuster to use their homes as his canvas.

Fuster was born in 1946 in Caibarién, on Cuba's north coast, a village of people who fish and live off the sea. "I'm a man of the sea," Fuster explains. "I come from a very ordinary family. My people were simple, making their living from little fishing boats or working in cooperative fisheries." At 14 he worked as a literacy volunteer in the Sierra Maestra mountains, then wound up in Havana studying art. He has been working as a professional artist since 1966. Today Fuster estimates his personal exhibitions at more than 100, and his group shows at more than 500 around the world. His son, Alex, is a doctor and also manages Fuster's business.

Fusterlandia, the artist says, was a natural outcropping of Fuster's artistic development, nothing more, nothing less. "I kept working every day to do something more and more spectacular," he says. "'I wanted my studio to be a place where I could live with art. That was always my illusion, my idea. And I think, little by little, it became a reality."

He says he puts his own money — money he makes from selling his paintings and sculptures — back into the community, redecorating his neighbour's houses, incorporating them into Fusterlandia. "This project is not only about my house. It's about my neighbour's houses. My neighbours are great people." What about charges of self-glorification? "People have criticised me, saying that all this is an ode to myself. But I can't do anything about that. That's life."

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