Every year, thousands of artists from around the world travel to Miami’s Art Basel and Art Week to display their work at the event’s main facilities or at satellite galleries around the city. For artists like Jose Emilio Fuentes Fonseca, known in his native Cuba as JEFF, it’s one of the best opportunities to get international recognition.
His 15 small sculptures and lithographs had a sort of guest appearance alongside a larger exhibit by Florida photographer Bridges Aderhold at the “My Shining Moment” pop up gallery in Miami’s Wynwood Arts District.
JEFF’s pieces included two stainless steel hearts with faucets molded into them, a metaphor for pouring one’s heart out.
“If you leave [the faucet] open, everything pours out and then you don’t know what to do,” explained the artist to Cuba Trade.
His small exhibit is a sharp contrast to his much larger artistic presence in Cuba, where he gained recognition for an installation of almost life-size metal elephants that he would move around the city by night.
“For me, the success behind contemporary art is in the staging,” said JEFF, who began his pachyderm project in 2009 with his sponsoring gallery La Casona. The exhibit was a prime example of how putting your art out there at just the right time can yield big results. The installation was set up during the 10th Havana Biennial. Even though the Biennial committee rejected his project, the Ministry of Culture allowed him to install it in the Plaza Vieja, Old Havana’s historic city center.
La Manada or The Herd, as the exhibit was known, “ended up being one of the works the press covered most,” JEFF said. “No one, not even I, knew the magnitude of what was going to happen.”
He chose the elephants because they are the largest terrestrial animals on the planet, and they are herbivores. He was drawn to their peaceful, emotional demeanor, including the way they mourn and remember their kin. He also noted that many people see them as good luck symbols. “All kinds of people were able to connect with the piece,” he says.
Over the course of a week he moved the installation every night. After the Plaza Vieja, the elephants moved to the Capitol Building, the University of Havana, and the Plaza de la Revolución. Shortly thereafter, the Miramar Trade Center agreed to buy it as a permanent exhibit for their courtyard. The facility is in the municipality of Playa, one of the most modern parts of Havana’s metropolitan area. The installation’s transition from Havana’s colonial heart to a higher-tech business hub represents hope for Cuba’s progress, JEFF explains. The elephants are “drinking from the future,” he said.
JEFF was born in the eastern Cuban province of Granma and moved to Havana as a young boy. At 13, someone noticed the paintings he was making on cardboard at a children’s outdoor art workshop and encouraged him to take art classes. In 2003, he graduated from Cuba’s prestigious Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA), and he went on to work with galleries across Cuba and Europe, including Madrid’s Ángel Romero Gallery, around the corner from the Museo del Prado.
Throughout his career, JEFF’s art has largely focused on the feelings and experiences of childhood, and how those translate into adult circumstances. “It’s a language we all understand, because we were all kids once,” he said.
JEFF returned to Cuba after the show to begin work on two installations, this time for his hometown Bayamó. Cuba’s national electric company is sponsoring him to build two giant light posts in the shape of sunflowers at the entrance of the utility worker’s school. “Life blooms when there’s electricity,” he explained.
He has also been scavenging through garbage and debris for materials he plans to use in an exhibit of wooden and stainless steel soldiers. “The soldiers are like the people, the masses,” he said, recycling and reinventing themselves to survive.