Pinar del Río is a city without movie theaters, an urban place where cars barely pass and at night the streets are dark and empty. However, some personal projects shine in the midst of such paralysis. One of these is Pedro Pablo Oliva’s workshop, with its room halfway between a family home and an art gallery. There they invite you in, give you coffee, show you the canvas hung on the wall or the sculpture tucked into a corner, without asking who you are, where you came from. The first time I visited, Oliva was adding brushstrokes to a Fidel Castro in oils, seen through an X-ray machine. He was floating with his scraggly beard and between his hands in held a nearly asphyxiated maiden, who resembled — irrefutably — Cuba. At the bottom of the painting, tiny people with empty eye sockets watched the force with which the Maximum Leader strangled the country.
I went home treasuring the affection the painter, his wife Yamilia, and his daughters, one with the beautiful name “Azul,” had all shared with me. I felt that with people like that it was possible to embrace, the understanding, the debate; it was even possible to revitalize, to rejuvenate, the streets of Pinar del Río. A few months later I learned that repudiation meetings had also marked this place, when Yamilia began to stage a series of public performances under the title, “Without Permission.” She chose December 10, Human Rights Day, a day when the demons of intolerance on this Island, run riot. The result, a mob of people screaming in front of her door, blocking her from taking her easels outside so that passersby could fill them with color in the plazas and parks. A year later, also on Human Rights Day, the scene was repeated, this time with the threat of sticks and stones forcing her to stay inside.
From her mobile, Yamilia sent her message asking for help, and I remember uploading to Twitter that S.O.S. coming from the west. At one point I even recommended publicly that Pedro Pablo Oliva, an emblematic figure in our culture, express himself about what was happening so close to him. A few days ago I received his response, along with his permission to make it public. His words are so free and filled with reconciliation that I think it’s worthwhile to share them with you. When I read them, I knew that the movie theater in Pinar del Río would reopen some day, and that this urban and civic immobility would give way to a more lively, less sectarian city. The great blackout that he painted in the most difficult years of the Special Period, has given rise to a candle here… a firefly there.
Video of works by Yamilia Pérez
Letter from Pedro Pablo Oliva:
First I want to say hello and ask after your and your husband’s health, the last time we met was in Obispo Street as a result of the meeting you requested with the official who abducted you (to put it in a poetic way) in those ugly and awkward days. He taught me the marks of violence.
I will get to the point so as not to run on and on.
I imagine you are aware of the declaration that the Home-Workshop (a project I’ve had for 10 years) issued relating to the art performance of Yamilia Pérez Estrella, at that time my wife, in the province of Pinar del Río, it’s still on the Internet.
In some of the paragraphs of that declaration I expressed my position, but if you like I can state other things much more clearly.
I am, I was and I will be against the use of violence, manipulated or not, to silence any thought or idea, it is truly shameful to use aggression to impose a way of thinking or to try to use it to intimidate. Every act of this kind generates rejection and repulsion and is no help at all in the so necessary unifying of this country marked by political and family conflicts.
On the other hand, I have always thought and believed that the artist needs more open spaces for communication, and fights for this.
My generation, on the other hand, believed in the social function of art, and I, at least, assumed it proudly, hence my desire for a work that tried to reflect its context and that brought a critical analysis of society. For this I’ve been censored more than once.
Yamilia joins me in the desire to change the world, to try to make it better, always from different positions, she from direct confrontation as Tania Bruguera did, or does, I from the place where social projects are born, questioning or not, criticizing or not. Something that we totally agree on is: this is not a perfect society, nor are others I’ve experienced.
I dream of a different society, Utopia is that man I am and have lived year after year, successes and failures, but I do not stop fighting for that dream.
I am, Yoani, one of those who believe that opposites need to express themselves like day and night, wet and dry, I think fearlessly of the need for more than one party because people have the right to group together based on affinity of thought and philosophy and the precious agreement of dreams.
If you were to ask me one day (which I doubt) what party I would like to belong to I would answer one that does not imprison its children for thinking differently, one that permits the flow of ideas like a river that runs between two shores, one where I know its children are where they receive the sweet embrace of the motherland, where they respect that a woman can love another woman and a man another man. One that grows, step by step in the enchanted spell of love. Where the horizon is seen not as an end but as a beginning, the party that does not say, “this is,” but that opens like the wings of a butterfly, where children are protected from the hateful ghost of hunger and the terrible scourge of dogmas. A party that understands that the new generations need to lead the country and express themselves as the wind and the rain express themselves, and much more, Yoani, that would take forever to name and that form a part of the dream that this man aspires to.
If I have learned in all these years that one person can’t remain for so much time leading a country, I can understand the presence of a party of 20 or 30 years, even 50; but not always led by the same image, the faces, the manner and the way of thinking; changes are needed every so often, each man may have a different method.
Forgive my disintegration and incoherence. You know that Yamilia has a work that is too short, but it has spirit and guts to overcome any obstacle in the process of creation.
This is my position, there is no other, I am sorry to see so much official apparatus circling around a thin girl to stop her from an artistic act one day someone wrongly determined was dissent, if ten Yamilias arose I imagine they would deploy a whole army.
I assure you, Yoani, that this man lives without fear.
My love to you,
Pedro Pablo Oliva
Translator’s note: Alumbrón is a “made up” Cuban word which comes from “alumbrar” or illuminate. Rather than note when the lights go off, and call it a “black-out”, no electricity is assumed to be the normal state and electricity the exception, so when the lights come on the illumination, or alumbrón becomes the exceptional event that is named and remarked on.