- Obbatalá in the SnowA recasting of Afro-Cuban archetypes
In 1996 Leandro Soto, one of the most notable Cuban artists of our fin de siècle, met a family of recent exiles, a middle-aged couple—an initiated priest and priestess of two very different Afro-Cuban traditions—and their children. The family had relocated to Buffalo, New York. The encounter proved a decisive emotional experience. For Soto, it was extremely important to observe how their practices and beliefs had been challenged and transformed by their new environment. It was a mirror in which he saw himself reflected.
So Soto decided to create a series of syncretic installations, a handful of which are showcased in the following pages. His oeuvre is nurtured by a serendipitous quest: he has exhibited in Canada, Poland, Peru, Jamaica, Yugoslavia, Argentina, Russia, Iran, Japan, and other places. But it was his membership in the generación de los 80 that offered the best entrée to the inner exploration on which he was about to embark. This generation marked a new beginning in Cuban art, and Soto was the first artist in it to work with the Afro-Cuban tradition, mixing pictorial, sculptural, and theatrical elements. His first piece to use such a juxtaposition of traditions and media was “Ancestors,” a ritual installation to a sacred ceiba tree. The installation was built in 1979 in Cienfuegos, where Soto was born in 1956. Many similar installations followed, drawing considerable national attention. Then, in 1988, Soto traveled to Mexico, where he founded the Art School for Maya-Indigenous People in Tabasco.
To the two traditions, Afro-Cuban and indigenous Mexican, Soto added a third, infused by American pop culture, when he moved to Buffalo, and this crossroads is beautifully displayed in the series that came to be known as A Glance over the Garden, which has been exhibited in many places in the United States. The main motifs in it are the orishas. These Afro-Cuban images take the form of mandalas. Each has a preferred color, is made to represent an aspect of nature and of the human psyche, and usually appears side by side with an American icon, such as Mickey Mouse.
From Soto’s 1996 encounter in Buffalo has emerged una visión auténticamente criollista, a viewpoint possible only when the artist qua immigrant, alive at the dense crossroads of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, takes a leap of faith and imagines himself anew.
Leandro Soto, a Cuban painter and performer, is visiting artist at Mount Holyoke College.