Cuban visit changes artist’s soul, work

The Miami Herald

January 13, 2001

By Fabiola Santiago

Xavier Cortada’s first sojourn to Cuba took all of eight hours — from the airport in Havana to the Plaza de la Revolución to hear Pope John Paul II celebrate Mass, and back to the airport.

But the experience changed the Miami artist’s views on Cuba, his identity, and even had an impact on his art.

“What the Pope did was give me an invitation to rediscover my Catholicism and my island,” says Cortada, 36. “[His message] was `You have a place here, you belong here.’ ”

Inspired by the pontiff’s 1998 visit and his own spiritual transformation, Cortada is staging a solo show of paintings and conceptual art pieces that commemorate John Paul II’s historic presence on the island. The exhibit, No Tengan Miedo (Have No Fear), titled after the Pope’s famous words to the Cuban people, opened Friday and runs through Jan. 27 at the Latin American Art Museum in Little Havana.

In hues of celestial blue, Cortada’s paintings portray the hope and confusion of Cubans gathered in La Plaza before the clashing images of Che Guevara and Jesus Christ.

“One of the most visually impacting images was of a light blue bed sheet that said `Viva Cristo Rey (Long Live Christ the King),’ which I knew was what prisoners screamed before being executed in the early days of the Revolution,” Cortada said. “It was flowing in front of Che Guevara, the great executioner.”

His own experience trying to take Communion compelled him to create the painting Communion in the Plaza.

“In Cuba, you need un papelito, a piece of paper, for everything,” Cortada says. “I didn’t have the piece of paper required to take Communion, and the state security people wouldn’t let me get through to where nuns and priests were giving Communion. Something I take for granted was an ordeal in Cuba. That gave me the strength to continue exploring what it means to be Cuban.”

The son of exiles who fled in 1962, Cortada was born in Albany, N.Y., but grew up in Little Havana with a grandmother who spent long hours telling him stories about the family’s life in the fishing village of Nuevitas, Camagüey. She and the boy drew sketches of the family’s grand house, the farm, their salt-making plant.

An altar boy at Gesu Catholic Church, Cortada watched the Rev. Agustín Román, now auxiliary bishop, “collecting pennies” from exiles to build the shrine to Our Lady of Charity, Cuba’s patron saint. He contemplated in awe as artist Teok Carrasco painted the stunning mural at La Ermita that chronicles Cuba’s history and Catholic faith.

Then, as an adolescent, Cortada discovered the American rock concert scene, became “assimilated” and experienced “a great disconnect” with his culture and faith. He stopped going to church and writing to relatives in Cuba.

He was amid “an awakening,” a return to his cultural roots, when Pope John Paul announced his visit to Cuba.

“For me, there has always been a connection between Cuba and Catholicism,” Cortada says.

Last year, he returned to Cuba for an 11-day trip “that rocked my world.” The most powerful experience was not the visit to the family house, but to a packed church in Nuevitas.

Back in Miami, the pope’s famous words firmly planted in his heart, Cortada decided to take a risk with his art. Like the island’s Cubans, who struggle to to make ends meet by being resourceful, the artist set out to create art “without paint and paint brushes.”

The result: A series of 20 conceptual art pieces that are “almost a homage” to the Cuban people.

“I went through my house, garage, shed, through Key Biscayne’s littered beaches . . . picking up every scrap I could find to capture the essence of Cuba and the Pope’s impact on the island,” Cortada says.

In a piece titled Faith Fuse Box, the message is: “The only way to get any energy in Cuba is to plug in to faith.” Another called Victor features rat traps molded in the form of a wooden cross.

“The great tragedy of the Pope’s visit to Cuba was the fear that he was going to clean up Fidel Castro’s image,” Cortada says. “But the victor was the Pope because that Nuevitas church was packed to the gills.”