Arts can heal, says crusading Cuban

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The Star

October 14, 1994

By Christina Stucky
— Johannesburg, South Africa.

Convinced that art is the most powerful and most universal language of all, Cuban-American artist Xavier Cortada uses his paintings to speak to the world.  Most recently, he communicated with the people of Soweto.

Cortada is visiting Johannesburg and Pretoria after arriving from presentations of his work in Madrid and Portugal.  Next, he will travel to Mauritius and Sierra Leone.

1994 the star

“These 10 paintings are really 10 mirrors showing different aspects of the society we have created,” says the 30-year-old son of Cuban immigrants.

A lawyer and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Miami, Cortada is on a crusade against drug abuse among children.  Art is his weapon of choice in this battle.

As a group of street children gathered around him at Soweto’s Ipelegeng Centre, listening to Cortada’s explanation of each of his paintings this week, it was clear that his art bears a moral message.  Where his abstract paintings convey his messages indirectly, Cortada himself is less subtle.

For Cortada, “art is product and process” and “the process is more important than the product”.   The process, he explains, is speaking to these street children about his art.

The process, ideally, is getting substance-abusing children together to work on a mural, he explains.

By working together, the children learn leadership skills, they learn to delegate and to work as a team.  And, “the mural remains a conspicous reminder of the process in the community”, says Cortada, who learnt to paint at the age of seven from his uncle and his father, both professional artists in Miami.

Cortada chose to bring his art to South Africa and particularly Soweto for a number of reasons.

For one, he wanted the people of Soweto “to see art, to see other forms of expression”.  He also hopes outsiders will come to Soweto, perhaps for the first time, to see his work.

And finally, he wanted to come to “Mandela’s neighbourhood” to “bring closure to Miami’s rebuke of Mandela”.

About three years ago Nelson Mandela offended Cubans in Miami over his remakrs regarding his relations to Cuban president Fidel Castro.

Cortada says he deliberately brought two paintings depicting the suffering that Castro has inflicted on Cubans.

With his presence here and these two paintings, Cortada says he is telling Mandela: “I respect you but I disagree with your views.”

“The connection is that his people and my people suffer, but his people are now free.”

In 1994, Xavier Cortada was the first foreign artist to exhibit in Soweto after the end of apartheid in South Africa.