Visual arts

Juan Roberto Diago Painter

It would be difficult to name a contemporary Cuban artist who has enjoyed more critical and commercial success than Juan Roberto Diago Durruthy. But to hear it from Diago (everyone calls him "Diago"), success has never been high on his list of priorities. "If people like what I'm doing, fine," he says. "If not, I just keep going on."

People have liked what he's doing at least since 1995, when Cuba's National Fine Arts Museum awarded him the Juan Francisco Elso Prize. Diago's work has been shown at the Venice Biennial and at the International Contemporary Art Fair (FIAC) in Paris, and his paintings have been eagerly snapped up by collectors around the world. Success has not been uncommon in Diago's family. His paternal grandmother's family name was Urfé, and more than a few Urfés have been pioneering Cuban musicians. His father's father was his namesake, the painter Roberto Diago. "He died very young, 35 years old, in Spain, but he had a profound impact on the visual arts," Diago explains. "He went into uncharted visual territory and left his mark. And in one way or another, that had an impact on me."

Diago, 37, has a preference for rough subject matter and raw materials. Slavery is a theme to which he comes back again and again. He makes paintings and conceptual installations with things he finds around his neighborhood – bits of wood, plastic bottles, rusty metal. Some theoreticians use the word "maroonage" to describe his work, drawing a parallel between Diago's acts of "cultural resistance" and the 18th- and 19th-century slave rebellions in the Americas. "I concern myself with universal subjects like slavery, but not in a cold, detached way," Diago explains. "I bring the subject from the past and put it out there for people today. Here in Cuba, you see a lot of big billboards advertising unity and solidarity for the common good. I think that's cool, and I told myself that I could also propagandize for things I feel. So I developed a kind of graffiti style, trying to be more and more succinct, writing things like 'love each other, kiss each other,' and recycling things I find in the street."

His riveting juxtapositions of text and image have drawn comparisons to American painters Jean-Michel Basquiat and Ed Ruscha, both of whom Diago cites as influences along with Cuban painters such as Antonio Gattorno and Wilfredo Lam. But even more influential, he says, was the economic hardship faced by artists and other Cubans in the early 1990s. In contrast to the Italian "Arte Povera" movement that had begun three decades earlier, Cuban artists in the 1990s were driven more by necessity than artistic preference. "We didn't have the materials you need to paint like we were taught in school," Diago recalls, "so we had to adapt our art to what we could find. Now I can afford to buy good paper and oil paints, but that no longer interests me. The symbolic weight of my materials has become a characteristic of my work. "There are recurring symbols in my work," Diago adds, "and in this way it's a bit like jazz. It's like walking slowly, step by step, through the bush."

The starting point for much of Diago's work is the upstairs library in his house. On a table surrounded by shelves of rare books is an assortment of 19th century slavery documents identity cards, population registries— that he's planning to use as material for an upcoming exhibition.

Downstairs, on both sides of the hallway that serves as the main entrance to his home, a "public" exhibition space serves to showcase a variety of Diago's art. An installation called "The Un-Sinking City" consists of little polystyrene houses floating in buckets full of water. Asked about his exploration of different media, Diago says, "I know there's contradiction in my work. I've been drawing since I was little, I love drawing, I draw every morning and I don't see why I should stop. But I also like to work with sound, to explore different uses of space. I don't care about whether I'm being modern or not. I can draw or paint a watercolor in a more classical style, or I can make an installation with my light-boxes or with empty plastic bottles – the most important thing for me is to get the work done."

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