His work has been shown in Madrid, Milan, Brussels, Paris, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, New York, Miami, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Toronto and a lot of other places, but José Manuel Fors typically finds everything he needs to make his art right here not just in Havana, his native city, but within the walls of his own home.
Fors lives on a quiet residential street in Casino Deportivo, the Havana neighborhood named for a pre-Revolution social club that was known for admitting members refused by the more upscale clubs. "I've been living for a long time in this house," Fors says. "Before that I lived in a similar house in the same neighborhood. This is one of the quietist places in all of Havana. You hear a tremendous silence. Not much traffic, not many conversations. Silence is very important to me. I almost always listen to music but then I turn it off when I start working."
Fors is usually called a photographer but that description can be misleading. He uses photography as a support medium the way a painter or a sculptor uses a first coat of gesso as a basic step before the act of creation can begin. And sometimes Fors doesn't use photography at all. On a wall opposite his kitchen is a circular artwork - almost a sculpture - consisting of hundreds of small, everyday household objects (forks, machine parts, scissor blades, buttons, a hairbrush handle...). "The image becomes an archaeological site," he explains. "The image gains value in relation to the function all these objects once had."
Fors was born in Havana in 1956 and studied painting and museography at the San Alejandro Art Academy. "In the end I didn't paint much," he recalls. "I had been an abstract painter. I never really mastered drawing. My work seemed to become richer when I used other materials, or if I worked in three dimensions. My father had a darkroom in our home, as a hobby. He was an agronomist but he liked photography. My family has always liked photography especially my father's father and I think I tried it because I had all that around me. In those days [in Cuba in the early 1980s] photography wasn't considered to be art. Sometimes people told me I should paint because painting was what sells, but I couldn't do anything it. Photography was something I could do."
On a table in his living room is a stack of art books. Among them is a catalogue from Shifting Tides: Cuban Photography after the Revolution, the seminal 2001 exhibition that brought Fors to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
At the back of his house is a small, traditional darkroom enlarger, photo paper, rinsing trays. Work tables are strewn with various kinds of printed scraps being assembled into various kinds of collages. "I don't have the same approach as a photographer," Fors points out somewhat unnecessarily. "I don't care much about the right exposure, the right focal length. I'm not a reporter."
He rarely leaves the house with a camera and he doesn't travel with one. He compares his working methods to a painter's. "A painter is isolated in his studio and creates everything that comes into his head." What comes into Fors' head is "a kind of family memory," he says. "I started out by appropriating my family photos." The occasion for this was a 1982 exhibition dedicated to exploring the links between art and science, at Cuba's National Museum of Fine Arts, where Fors was a museographer for 10 years. "I took an image of my grandfather's face and I used at lot of his documents." His grandfather, Alberto José Fors, was the man who brought modern forestry to Cuba. "Eventually I used my whole family."
How does he explain his move from managing a museum to producing art that would be housed there? "I got tired," he says, "tired of the working hours, of the salary, of everything. So I said, fine, I have to do my own work, to take a risk, and it paid off. I managed to become an artist and to live from it. There are ups and downs, but I don't have to go to work, I work right here, in my home."
While he was still in school he got interested in Spanish painters Antoni Tàpies and Manolo Millares. Then he started liking the grab-bag approach of Arte Povera one person's art is another person's trash, often literally. Occasionally he goes out to scrounge for specific materials. Once, for a work he was making while he was in Paris, he had looked everywhere for a piece of dirty rope but was unable to find one. He wound up dirtying some clean rope. "That's where Havana is really different," he says. "There's no problem finding dirty rope in Havana."