- OPIUM: Exhibition of Cuban artist José Toirac
ORGANIZED BY THE CUBA STUDIES PROGRAM AND THE ARTS@DRCLAS PROGRAM AT THE DAVID ROCKEFELLER CENTER FOR LATIN AMERICAN STUDIES, HARVARD UNIVERSITY.
Since the early 1990s, José Toirac has been a well-known artist in Cuba, even if his unassuming and reserved personality did not propel him to instant fame and the recognition that granted to other artists of his generation. Despite the obvious political irony of his paintings and drawings, or perhaps because of it, José Toirac was awarded last year’s National Prize of Fine Arts in Cuba while we were preparing his presentation at DRCLAS, a much-deserved acknowledgment of his independent career that is finally catching up with what we understand as his “political poiesis.” He brings that irony mainly through juxtaposing and combining political and advertisement iconographies, but he is never explicit in his intentions, and his work is always full of nuance and successful pairings and encounters.
The exhibition is part of the DRCLAS Cuban Studies Program’s activities related to the sixtieth anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. The exhibition presents ten drawings reproduced in this issue of Cuban Studies. They anticipate his rather successful and recognized series of paintings Tiempos nuevos (New times, 1996). Like his more famous and acclaimed paintings, these drawings bring the iconographic public figure of Fidel Castro together with well-known and globalized ads from famous brands, such as Opium perfume by Yves Saint Laurent, Marlboro, and Benetton. Perhaps Toirac is hinting at the commercial component of politics; perhaps he is equating commercial brands with the charismatic sales potential of celebrities such as Castro.
The exhibition also introduces a collection of new works—originally published in the book Parables (2017) along with religious poems by Robert Gluck—to highlight, once again, the juxtaposition of religion and politics, theocracy and cult of personality, through known public images of the late Cuban leader. All together, these represent the beginning of an overdue introduction of Toirac’s work at Harvard. [End Page 371]
Octavio Zaya is an art critic and curator, born in Las Palmas (Canary Islands). He has been director of Atlántica, curator at large and adviser of MUSAC, the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León, and a member of the Advisory Board of Performa  (New York). He was also a curator of the first and second Johannesburg Biennials (1995 Johannesburg Biennials (1997). The large list of exhibitions he has curated include In/Sight, African Photographers 1940 to the Present (Guggenheim Museum, 1997), and Versiones del Sur: Latinoamérica at Centro de Arte Reina Sofia (2000). He was one of the curators of Fresh Cream (Phaidon Press, 2000), has authored more than a dozen books on artists, and has contributed to numerous other books and catalogs.