Born in Santiago de Cuba in 1950, 66-year-old sculptor Alberto Lescay graduated from Cuba’s renowned Escuela Nacional de Arte (now known as the Instituto Superior de Arte) in Havana. As part of the first generation of Cuban artists to grow into adulthood after the 1959 Revolution, Lescay’s career has, in many ways, mirrored the successes and struggles of Cuba’s creative community. A leader of the team that created the iconic monument of Cuban independence hero Antonio Maceo Grajales (the so-called ‘Bronze Titan’) that dominates Santiago’s Plaza de la Revolución, Lescay famously declined the prize money for winning that project. Instead he asked then-Cuban leader Fidel Castro to help him found an arts foundation in his native city. That led to the creation of the Caguayo Fundación para las Artes Monumentales y Aplicadas, a non-governmental, non-profit cultural institution consisting of both an exhibition space in Santiago (the Galería René Valdés Cedeño) and a workshop dedicated to creating large sculptural projects. During a recent visit to Santiago de Cuba, Cuba Trade talked with Lescay about his life, his work, and the rewards and challenges of being a working artist in Cuba.
CT: Can you explain a little about your work here?
AL: I was nine years old when the Revolution occurred. When I opened my eyes to think and to know that I was a human being, a new life had begun in Cuba. And one of the new things that happened to me was that I knew that I had an aptitude for the arts. I was able to enter a professional art school for thirteen years and I discovered the art world…[And] I never left, because I realized that it was a paradise, with all its intricacies. That’s where I can feel, studying painting and sculpting.
CT: Was this in Havana or in Santiago de Cuba?
AL: I graduated from the art academy here in Santiago, and then I worked a few months before I went on to graduate from the Escuela Nacional de Arte in Havana. I was then selected to go to study in the Soviet Union and spent six years in the Academy of Leningrad [present-day St. Petersburg].
CT: When exactly?
AL: From 1973 to 1979, and upon my return, I decided to live in Santiago. The most important project for me in that era, in 1982, was the competition for the Antonio Maceo monument. [Note: Maceo was born in Santiago and was killed near Havana in 1896 during Cuba’s War of Independence from Spain.] We built an interdisciplinary team from sectors of engineering, architecture, and design and we won the contest. We had the honor and the right to conduct that work for over 9 years… It was a very complicated work, very large in theory, almost unrealizable. But Antonio Maceo was the Bronze Titan and he had to be cast in bronze.
CT: And how did the project unfold?
AL: The first thing I did was to investigate the history of the attempts to make a Maceo monument, and it was very interesting. [They started] practically as soon as he died, since he was killed in the war… It was a debt, really, that Santiago de Cuba had with Maceo. And that debt was resolved by Fidel and Raúl [Castro] on the occasion of the Fourth Communist Party Congress in Santiago. I remember explaining to Fidel that by holding the Congress here it was a pretext for Santiago to have some of the things it lacked as a city: A theater, an airport with the possibility of receiving international flights, and a hotel—a three-star hotel—that Santiago did not have. And it lacked a great monument to Antonio Maceo, made by a Cuban.
CT: And how about the sculpture institute?
AL: When I came up with the idea of creating an institution to develop the applied arts, the monumental arts, with the resources that remained from the experience (of creating the monument), I wrote a letter (to Fidel Castro) saying that I wanted to develop this foundation. And he approved it. The commitment was that I was going to contribute knowledge and provide solutions to the country, and I was not going to ask for anything material…This institution is celebrating its 20th anniversary, and the workshop itself, where the work is done, is almost thirty years old and is working as a unique, professional foundry in Cuba. We do work not only for Cuba, but for other countries as well. Even in the United States our works are there.
CT: Is it possible to talk a little about changes with Cuban artists now that we have this opening between the U.S. and Cuba?
AL: The situation is the same… The professional artists in Cuba often live and paint with the materials we bring back when we travel, and that comes with all the inconvenience that you know: The weight, the payment, everything. The drawbacks in this regard are very large. There is a Cuban entity that is an importer [of these materials] and can do it, but imagine, they are materials brought from China, and from other places, not with efficiency or the proper quality. Lack of materials is a problem, really.
CT: What do you think the future is for artists here in Cuba?
AL: I believe that the artist, wherever he is, has to do his work. What is needed here are the materials. From the point of view of the conditions, of the environment, of the spiritual environment—which is the motivation and fundamental thing one must have as an artist—here [in Cuba] is the best place to be. Though there are sometimes hardships, I have never accepted the idea of not working one day because I do not have the right color of paint, or because I do not have a specific material. I have always said to my son “never justify the idea of not working for lack of material,” because we are surrounded by materials. I think, in sum, that it has been more positive than negative. Because the creativity one sees in Cuban art is rare. It has been very varied and very inventive, producing many different results.