Artist Enrique Martinez Celaya to premiere film about his return to Cuba in Aspen
IF YOU GO …
What: ‘Nieve en el Portal’ film screening
Where: Baldwin Gallery
When: Tuesday, July 9, 6 p.m.
How much: Free
More info: baldwingallery.com
Enrique Martinez Celaya hadn’t been back to Cuba since his boyhood, 47 years ago, when his family fled to Spain. So when the Los Angeles-based artist returned to his birthplace for the first time in April, it felt like he’d reached a mythic land.
“This place may as well have been Olympus or something — some place you hear about, but never see,” he said this week in Aspen, a few hours after arriving for a summer teaching session at Anderson Ranch Arts Center.
For his week in Cuba a film crew accompanied Celaya, who will premiere the documentary film “Nieve en el Portal,” about the experience, on Tuesday at the Baldwin Gallery in Aspen. Martinez Celaya, 55, has been showing his work at the Baldwin since the 1990s and has been spending time in Aspen and at Anderson Ranch regularly since then. His experiences at the Ranch inspired his 2015 book “On Art and Mindfulness: Notes from Anderson Ranch.”
His family had opposed Castro’s revolution in Cuba, their home and possessions taken by the government when they left in the early 1970s. The artist returned to participate in the 13th Havana Biennial, installing a monumental sculpture of a sleigh — 8 feet tall and 16 feet long — on the Malecón in Havana, in a plaza facing the sea.
He said he hasn’t digested the experience enough yet to make artwork from it, but the documentary is a beginning.
“It’s the kind of experience that, as you’re living it, you realize it will take you years to process it,” he said.
In the week he was there, he installed the sculpture and was received by the art world in the familiar rituals of openings and parties that are part and parcel of being a globally acclaimed artist. But he also made a pilgrimage to the small town of his boyhood and the site of his grandparents’ home — since destroyed by a hurricane.
The beaches of his childhood, which have served as inspiration for many of the beach scenes and seascapes in his paintings over the decades, were remarkably familiar.
“Swimming in that water again was indescribable,” he said. “When I jumped in, I was amazed at how much was familiar to me.”
His sculpture, “El trineo,” or “The Sleigh,” is constructed of junky metal and wood wedges, inspired by the patchwork on busted cars and tumbledown architecture that defines the aesthetic of the island nation, and the idea of Cuba he’d constructed in his imagination since leaving. He painted it gold.
The sleigh concept came from a childhood memory, Martinez Celaya recalled, of when he was 3 or 4 and he received a small sleigh for Three Kings Day, which follows soon after Christmas and is celebrated with gifts in Cuba. It had been the coveted toy in the limited selection of the Communist country’s holiday shopping offerings.
“My parents spent a week in line, trading positions at night and all this stuff, just to get me this sleigh,” he said. “To me it may as well have been the greatest thing ever.”
A tumultuous period for the family followed, as the sleigh sat on the porch.
“This coincided with the beginning of the conversation in my family to leave for Spain and to ask the government for permission to go,” he said. “The sleigh became witness to this. And in Cuba, we don’t have snow, we don’t even really know what a sleigh is for, so it represented all that unknown, that other world, that we didn’t understand.”
He doesn’t have family living in Cuba today. And Martinez Celaya was surprised at his reception from Cubans as a native son.
“I didn’t know how Cubans think of my work, but I realized there are people there that think of me as a Cuban,” he said. “That was touching. And the emotional response I had to that surprised me.”
In the months leading up to the trip, Martinez Celaya was engrossed in making his sleigh and hadn’t thought deeply about how returning to Cuban soil might feel.
“I still felt like I was just going to do an art exhibition,” he said, “not that I was going back to a place I hadn’t been in 47 years. But two weeks beforehand it really hit me what I was doing and what it would mean.”
He’d been invited back previously to do art shows, he recalled, but nothing had ever felt right. A curator for the biennale had come to Martinez Celaya’s shows in Stockholm and in New York in recent years, inviting him to take part and eventually offering a solo spot on the Malecón, which inspired him.
“What I realized immediately is that it had to be something related to my experience, my family’s experience and the role of memory and reconstruction in Cuba,” he said.
“El trineo” is coming back to the U.S. as well, and Martinez Celaya plans to include it in a solo exhibition next year at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, where he hopes to make a show imagining works of art in his boyhood home.
The day after Martinez Celaya’s return, President Donald Trump announced new restrictions on American travel to Cuba as tensions between the U.S. and Cuba rise again. No U.S.-based artist can make art about Cuba without political implications, but Martinez Celaya returned to the U.S. not thinking about geopolitics but about the squalid conditions he saw some Cubans living in today, while the monied class lives a life comparable to the upper crust of Aspen.
“I came back with a tremendous sense of guilt,” he said. “It has been almost two months I’ve been back and I have trouble with some of the more lavish parts of my life. … When somebody gives you easy answers about Cuba, you know they haven’t thought about it deeply enough yet. There are no easy answers. But there is a humanitarian crisis there.”
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The literary nonprofit Aspen Words is restarting its writers-in-residence program that had been on pause during the pandemic. Residents include “Call Me By Your Name” author André Aciman. Public events begin June 15.