Published  13/03/2023

Juan Francisco Elso: Por América

Juan Francisco Elso: Por América

A survey of the Cuban artist is not easy to assemble, especially in the US, but this exhibition presents most of his mature oeuvre with newly discovered drawings and sculptures. Works by other artists from across the Americas complete this riveting show

Juan Francisco Elso with his artwork Caballo contra colibrí (Horse Against Hummingbird), c1987-88. Fondo Magali Lara / Elso Padilla, Centro de Documentación Arkheia MUAC (UNAM-DiGAV). Photo: Cristina Lobeira.

El Museo del Barrio, New York
27 October 2022 – 26 March 2023


Once upon time, an Inca legend tells, there was a contest between the condor and the hummingbird to see who would be king. The condor boasted that it could fly to the edge of the sky. The hummingbird countered that it could easily reach the centre of heaven. On the day of the race, the hummingbird was nowhere to be seen. The condor flew to the edge of the sky. When it arrived, the hummingbird emerged from underneath the condor’s feathers, and swiftly flew onwards to the centre of heaven, where it met Wiraqocha, the God of the Andes.

All over the Americas, from the tribes of southern Alaska to the Cherokee, Hopi, Mohave and Taíno to the tribes at the tip of South America in the Tierra del Fuego, home of the firecrown hummingbird, indigenous people have celebrated their magical feathered friend (or foe) with its pointy beak and vibrating wings in legends, mythologies and rituals.

The powerful Aztec sun and war god is depicted as a hummingbird or as a mighty warrior wearing a helmet of hummingbird feathers. His name, Huitzilopochtli, translates as “hummingbird of the south”. The Aztecs believed hummingbirds were the reincarnation of fallen warriors. When a warrior was killed in battle, he would return to Earth as a hummingbird.

To make his sculpture, Horse Against Hummingbird (1988), the Cuban artist Juan Francisco Elso (1956-88) used wood, paper, twigs, jute, wax, volcanic sand, earth and iron. The paper cutouts on the horse’s wooden coat resembles maps, the one on the barrel probably being Europe with its Italian boot sticking out. The hummingbird, this sacred creature in indigenous cultures, confronts the horse, a symbol of European warfare – a potent image. Though the horse is much larger, Elso manifests the bird’s power by accentuating the beak.

Juan Francisco Elso. Caballo contra colibri (Horse Against Hummingbird), 1988 (detail). Wood, paper, twigs, jute, wax, volcanic sand, earth, and iron. Collection of El Museo del Barrio, New York. Gift of Berezdivin Collection, San Juan Puerto Rico, 2021. Photo: Marie Pohl

It is no surprise the little rascal was granted so many mighty attributes. The hummingbird has the fastest wing beat of any bird and, for its size, the biggest brain and the largest heart. It is the only bird that can fly backwards and, despite being so small, is among the most aggressive in defending its territory.

When the white men came to conquer, they rode on horses. Elso gave his horse gentle eyes. He attached two of its hooves to a beam on wheels, and fastened the elongated reins to a collar, indicating that someone else is controlling this horse. The hummingbird’s beak meets (or stabs?) the horse right at that collar at the neck.

“He shows you how deeply the indigenous and European cultures are connected – in a violent way, too. His work explores slave trade and indigenous genocide. But it also suggests how the Americas created an identity from these different traditions,” explains tour guide and artist Julia Justo.

This is the third time I have come to see the show. The third time I felt I needed to revisit a piece and ended up discovering something new about another work as well. This morning I realised I wanted to look again at a sculpture that Elso called The Traveller (1986). When I got to the museum, an elderly couple and a guide, the Argentinian Justo, were walking through the exhibition. They invited me to join them.

Juan Francisco Elso. El Viajero (The Traveller), 1986. Carved wood, branches, ashes, and wax. Courtesy of Colección y Archivo de Fundación Televisa (Collection and Archive of Fundación Televisa).

“There is an unfinished look to this work,” says Justo. “It addresses the fundamental concept Elso explores in most of his art: the idea that the Americas are also an unfinished project.”

The elderly lady whispers to me that she likes Justo’s style. Before the tour started, she told the couple to take a few minutes alone with the artworks. “Normally, they grab you, pin you to a painting, start talking your head off, and you never get a chance to really take anything in.”

This liberating spirit echoes throughout the exhibition. Across from Horse Against Hummingbird is an interactive installation by the Puerto Rican artist Karlo Andrei Ibarra.

Collective Memory II (2017-present) comprises three globes with chalkboard paint surfaces. A small plastic container, mounted on the wall next to them, offers visitors chalk and erasers. Everyone is invited to “draw their own cartographic imaginings on the chalkboard surfaces of the globes”, the instruction reads. 

“It’s another way to explore this idea that the Americas are still a work in progress,” says Justo. “So, you can add your own stories here.”

Karlo Andrei Ibarra. Memoria Collectiva II (Collective Memory II), 2017 (detail). Present Globes, chalkboard paint, chalk. Courtesy of the artist

The exhibition, which features nearly all Elso’s artworks, also presents 45 pieces by more than 30 other artists from across the Americas, the Caribbean and the US in a space that is divided into five galleries. Creating a dialogue with other artists was important to the guest curator, Olga Viso. It illuminates “these larger themes that are present in Elso’s work that are still relevant today,” she said in a talk at the Brooklyn Rail, “expressed in multiple generations of artists in different ways, some who knew Elso, some who didn’t”.

Viso’s collaborator, Museo del Barrio’s curator Susanna V Temkin, who also took part in the Brooklyn Rail conversation, spoke about Horse Against Hummingbird having entered the museum’s permanent collection: “His focus on indigenous histories, a very expansive approach to the Americas, and certainly his own interest and practice of Afro-diasporic-spiritualities via his own practice with Santería, all of this speaks to the ethos of our museum and our original founding community of Puerto Rican artists, who are also looking at these aspects of their own cultural identity.”

Elso died at 32 from leukaemia. The Traveller, the eerie piece I had come back to see, addresses his illness. A snake is sidewinding on a bed of light-grey volcanic ash. Its undulating body, six assembled pieces of darkened tree bark, give the impression that the snake is moving. Elso must have chosen birch bark, or if not some smaller type of tree to mirror the size of an anaconda or python. The snake feels real. A wooden male figure travels along this bark-body, as if he is on a slide, head first, feet last. The work represents a person who is dying, probably Elso himself, since he knew his cancer was terminal. At the end of the journey, at the end of the snake’s tail, Elso placed a wooden heart.

Juan Francisco Elso. El Viajero (The Traveller), 1986 (detail). Courtesy of Colección y Archivo de Fundación Televisa (Collection and Archive of Fundación Televisa).

“He is playing with magical realism here, which is so important in Latin American art and literature,” says Justo. Some aspects of this work are real, because we recognise the objects, the snake, the man, but the situation is impossible. A snake eats a man, who travels through the snake’s body and becomes a heart. Elso is exploring the idea of an afterlife. The dying person doesn’t disappear, doesn’t turn to ashes, he turns into a symbol of life and love.”

Juan Francisco Elso. El Viajero (The Traveller), 1986 (detail). Courtesy of Colección y Archivo de Fundación Televisa (Collection and Archive of Fundación Televisa). Photo: Marie Pohl

Since his death, Elso’s oeuvre and archival records have remained spread across Mexico, Cuba and the US. Some pieces are in institutions, others in personal collections, many were gifted to family members, friends or colleagues during and after Elso’s lifetime. Putting together a survey of his works was a challenging undertaking, which Viso has described as a “forensic reconstruction”.

Juan Francisco Elso. La ceiba and La palma (The Kapok and The Palm) 1983. Mixed media installation (screenprint mounted on cardboard and wood). Courtesy of Fondo Magali Lara, Centro De Documentación Arkheia, MUAC.

Equipped with an Andy Warhol curatorial research fellowship, Viso went on a treasure hunt and found The Kapok and the Palm (both 1983). The screen print work was believed to be lost. People knew about it, a small slide depicted the image, there were notes mentioning it, but the actual sculpture was missing.

In Arkheia, an archive at the University Museum of Contemporary Art in Mexico City, Viso discovered several envelopes, each containing carefully dismembered segments, like puzzle pieces. The artist had submitted the sculpture to an exhibition in Havana dedicated to experimental printmaking in 1983. When he moved to Mexico three years later, he cut the work into pieces and stored it in envelopes so as to be able to transport it. The sculpture is being shown, here at El Museo del Barrio, for the first time in almost 40 years.

The Kapok, 1983 (detail). Photo: Marie Pohl.

“To the left we see a ceiba [kapok] tree, sacred to African and Afro-Caribbean religious practices, and, to the right, the royal palm tree, an iconic symbol of Cuba,” says Justo, and she draws our attention to the cardboard base of each tree, where Elso laid out offerings, such as coral, coconut, bananas, coins, a chicken and other objects, all made of paper.

There is quietude in Elso’s work that envelops the viewer. One wants to sit by these trees and be still, listen to the sounds of the wind, and wait for the world to unfold. The beige colour of the trunks is soothing and friendly. And yet the offerings on the ground attest to the spiritual power these trees embody. 

Elso was initiated into the Afro-Cuban religion La Regla de Ochoa between 1983 and 1984. A picture of Graciela Iturbide, his Babalao, his spiritual priest, can be seen in a vitrine along with several of Elso’s personal ritual objects. Olga was fortunate to meet Iturbide. She also consulted with other Babalaos about showing these sacred artefacts in the exhibition. She told the Brooklyn Rail: “We had a lot of discussions about their inclusion and felt comfortable in the end that this was essential to give context to Elso’s work and the importance of his belief system into his practice.”

The artist and several of his colleagues, including José Bedia Valdés, whose work is also shown here, were among the first to cite Afro-Cuban iconographies in their work, opposing the strict academic painting styles taught at the art academies in Cuba at the time.

Elso was born in Havana in August 1956 during the insurgency years of the Cuban revolution, which would claim its victory in January 1959. His generation was the first to embark fully on the socialist education system dictated by Russia. The 1970s, when Elso studied at the academy, were among the most repressive years for art in Cuba.

In other parts of the world during the 70s, a wave of books were published on groundbreaking anthropological research. Elso got his hands on many of them. Viso, who had access to the artist’s library, described how well informed he was, “not just on Mesoamerican history and culture, or Afro-Cuban belief systems, but also Latin American thought and philosophy and literature”.

Elso’s notebooks “reveal transcriptions of the volumes and books that he was reading and studying, whether it was Paul Westheim or Miguel León-Portilla,” says Viso. In 1978, an exhibition from Mexico came to Havana. Elso “went almost weekly” to soak up the histories. He was especially fascinated by the Mayan cultures.

Two drawing series show scraggly scaffolds attempting to lift gigantic ears of corn up to heaven. Constantin Brâncuși’s Endless Column (1918) comes to mind and his reach for infinity. The wall text interprets these structures as “monuments to indigenous agricultural traditions lost in the face of modern industry”. But they remind me of the creation story from the Popol Vuh, a collection of myths of the Mayan K’iche’ people, who inhabited parts of Mexico and Central America.

There are various renditions of the creation story and the many trials it took to create the “perfect human”. The first people were made of wood. Then came the creatures made of clay, but it rained, and they softened. Next came the men made of meat. They couldn’t talk. Then came the monkeys. All these versions were imperfect because they couldn’t worship the gods. Finally, the gods created men of corn. They were perfect because they could worship. When a king died, he turned into the corn god. And when people ate corn, they symbolically ate the kings. (There are anthropologists who argue that the purpose of the Popol Vuh was to legitimise the power of the kings by linking them to the gods.)   

The Christian idea that man is driven out of paradise did not exist for the Maya. They had created the perfect man. They were happy with their world until the Spanish arrived. The Popol Vuh ends with the sentence: “This is the end of things in K’iche’.”

It seems to me as if Elso were trying to re-erect the worshipping of corn after centuries of neglect with improvised ladders that could tip over any minute. For these fragile but charged illustrations, he modified screen-printing techniques to create the basic images. Then he finessed each piece with paint, ink, pencil and gold leaf.

Elso was raised in a Roman Catholic home. He later turned to the religion African slaves brought to Cuba, while constantly nurturing his mind with studies on Mesoamerican cultures and histories. All these aspects influenced and enriched his art and culminated in the sculpture he presented at the 1986 Havana Biennial, his most iconic work: Por América.

Juan Francisco Elso. Por América (José Martí), 1986. Wood, plaster, earth, pigment, synthetic hair, and glass eyes. Courtesy of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, Joseph H. Hirshhorn Purchase Fund, 1998. Photo: Ron Amstutz.

The wounded man is an effigy of the Cuban poet, thinker and revolutionary leader José Martí, who died fighting the Spanish colonizers during Cuba’s war of independence in 1895. His body is carved from a single piece of wood like the figurine of a church saint. The wood is treated to make the skin seem aged, worn, strained from battle. His torso is covered in a coat of mud, as is the tradition in certain African ritual practices. Flower-shaped darts pierce his torso, legs, arms, shoulders, back and neck, and the ground at his feet. There is a cut in Martí’s skull from his forehead down to his cheekbone. But he doesn’t seem to be dying, or falling, or tumbling even. On the contrary, he is walking upright, wielding a machete, determined to carry his message of freedom through the centuries.

Juan Francisco Elso. Por América (José Martí), 1986 (detail). Wood, plaster, earth, pigment, synthetic hair, and glass eyes. Courtesy of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, Joseph H. Hirshhorn Purchase Fund, 1998. Photo: Marie Pohl.

It was Martí’s writing about the “unfinished” Americas, his vision for the transcultural, transhemispheric identity that so inspired Elso and laid the philosophical foundation for his art.

Elso drew parallels to the early martyr Saint Sebastian, who was persecuted by the Diocletian armies, tied to a tree, and shot with arrows, which did not kill him either. And to African nkisi power figures, whose torsos are often punctuated by small metal darts, and who can cure, protect and incriminate.

Despite these most dignified references, the Cuban government of 1986 considered Elso’s depiction of its national hero blasphemous and sacrilegious. When an international jury wanted to give Elso an award, they were not given permission to do so. The attention his sculpture received was so loud, however, that the Cuban government did agree to an honourable mention of the work.

In 1993, five years after Elso’s death, Por América was selected as one of the central pieces for a group exhibition of new Latin American art called Ante America, which travelled from Bogotá, Colombia to the Queens Museum in New York. In the wake of the Columbus Quincentenary the previous year, the show responded to the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition Latin American Artists of the Twentieth Century. Its intention was to emphasise new work engaging with the African and Indigenous heritage.

Tania Bruguera. El peso de la culpa (The Burden of Guilt), 1998/2008. Dye coupler print facemounted to acrylic. Collection of El Museo del Barrio, New York. Acquired through Proartista: Sustaining the Work of Living Contemporary Artists, a fund from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Trust, 2008. Photo: Marie Pohl.

Next to Por América is a photograph of a performance piece by the contemporary Cuban artist and political activist Tania Bruguera. For The Burden of Guilt (1998/2008) she ate Cuban soil mixed with salt water while wearing a lamb carcass hanging from her neck. The piece refers to a legend, states the wall text, “which tells of a group of indigenous Cubans who committed collective suicide by ingesting soil rather than be subjugated by the Spanish colonisers”.

Bruguera was a student of Elso’s, whom he taught for a short time.  Elso encouraged the younger generation to look for physical and emotional connections with the country and its past outside the studio. Bruguera been arrested numerous times, and is currently still fighting the Decree 349, a Cuban law prohibiting and criminalising art that has not been authorised by the government.

The lineage continues with another Cuban artist, Reynier Leyva Novo. For the installation In What Is, Is What Has Been (2021), Novo applied coats of gesso to a small José Martí bust in a “durational process that obscured the martyr’s face”, as the wall text explains. “The remains appear as a weighed-down, ghost-like visage in slumber.”

Reynier Leyva Novo. Lo que es, eslo que ha sido, 2021. Video installation and bust of José Marti after coats of gesso. Courtesy of Reynier Leyva Novo and El Apartamento Gallery, Havana. Photo: Marie Pohl.

The first time I had come to see the show, I asked one of the guards what his favourite piece was. He pointed me to Heart of America (1987-88), part of Elso’s final series, The Transparency of God (1987-88), which remains incomplete.

Juan Francisco Elso. Corazón de America (Heart of America), 1987-88. Twigs, wax, volcanic sand, iron and fabric. Courtesy of Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo, DiGAV-UNAM; La mano Creadora (The Hand of the Creator), 1988. Photographic reproduction of sculpture of amate paper, twigs, mirror, wax, volcanic sand, and fabric. Courtesy of Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Havana, Cuba.

The artist could only finish three large sculptures: Heart of America, The Face of God and The Hand of the Creator (1987-88). He intended to make three more: God’s Tools, God’s Blanket, and the Venezuelan liberator Simón Bolívar, wielding his sword like Martí wields his machete.

Visitors are invited to step into The Face of God, a giant mask dangling from the ceiling, and participate in the artist’s creation of the world. Through God’s eyes one can see The Hand of the Creator as it reaches out to ignite life in a Michelangelo-like gesture.

Juan Francisco Elso. El Rostro de Dios (The Face of God), 1987-88. Amate paper, branches, jute, volcanic sand, glass eyes, and iron. Courtesy of Charpenel Collection, Guadalajara, on deposit at the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo, UNAM, Mexico; Background: Corazón de América (Heart of America), 1986. Silkscreen on paper, with illustration board and four-color cloth strings. Courtesy of a Private Collection, Miami, Florida. Photo: Marie Pohl.

The curators were able to bring most of Elso’s works, with the exception of a few sculptures, such as The Hand of the Creator, which is part of the national collection of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana, and not allowed to travel.

“This is one of the main reasons why there hasn’t been a survey of Elso’s work, why it’s so hard to assemble,” said Viso. National Cuban works are not allowed to leave the island because of the fear that they will be seized in the United States. “An immunity of seizure, which could be granted from the State Department, has not been granted for a variety of reasons since the 1960s, and this makes cultural exchange very difficult.”

However, the Cuban museum gave permission to reproduce the work in a photograph.

The guard told me that he is from the Dominican Republic. “It’s funny,” he said, “when I was a child, I was taught in school that there are five continents. Here, they teach kids that there are seven.” He had learned that America is one continent, whereas in the US schoolchildren are taught that South America, North America and Antarctica are each separate continents. “It shows you how different countries describe the world differently,” he added.

Elso began working on this series in Mexico City, where he had moved in 1986 and married the painter Magali Lara (her works are also shown here). When his cancer worsened, he returned to Havana for intensive medical treatment, but died soon after his arrival.

There is a myth, Viso told the Brooklyn Rail, that when Elso died, the floral-shaped darts fell out of Jose Martí’s body.

The dialogue between Elso’s work and the other artists featured in the show could be a tour on its own. There is, of course, the Cuban-American performance artist, sculptor and painter Ana Mendieta, best known for her earth-body artwork, welcoming the visitor in the first gallery space, next to two sculptures by Melvin Edwards.

Both Mendieta and Edwards had flown to Cuba in 1981 to see the now legendary Volume I exhibition, curated and showing works by 11 graduates of the San Alejandro Academy and the Instituto Superior de Arte, among them Elso.

Eager to free themselves from the suffocating teachings, and striving for a new artistic identity and expression, Elso and other young artists had started organising underground art shows. Many were shut down. But Volume I exploded in Havana like “The Big Bang of Contemporary Cuban Art”, as the archival blog Cuban Art News put it, ending a “decade immersed in dogmatism”. More than 10,000 people visited Volume I in two weeks, including international guests.

Left: Juan Francisco Elso, El verbo, 1987.Wood, twigs, jute, and fabric. Courtesy of Mr. Reynold C. & Dr. Marlene L. Kerr, Miami; Right: Papo Colo, Artefacto para guardar secretos, 1977. Steel, brass, and aluminum. Courtesy of El Museo del Barrio, New York. Acquired with funds from El Museo Purchase Fund and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, 1993.

Another powerful work in the first gallery, Artefact for Keeping Secrets (1977), made by the Puerto Rican artist Papo Colo, compares to Elso’s The Verb (1987) like two musicians riffing off the same jazz tune.

Tiona Nekkia McClodden, who was commissioned by the museum for this exhibition, produced a stunning video installation in which she tells of her own initiation into the Afro-Cuban belief system La Regla Lucumi. Lorraine O’Grady’s photomontage The Fir-Palm (1991/2012) speaks to Elso’s The Kapok Tree and the Palm Tree. Whereas Silvia Gruner’s video Arena (1986) relates to Elso’s The Traveller.

Jimmie Durham. Untitled, 1989. Acrylic and ink on paper. Courtesy of kurimanzutto, Mexico City / New York. Photo: Marie Pohl.

In that same gallery, where the wooden man travels inside the snake, one can view an acrylic and ink drawing by the American sculptor Jimmie Durham. It makes a direct reference to Elso’s Horse Against Hummingbird. The two artists became friends in Mexico in the late 80s. Durham produced the drawing in the year following Elso’s death.

All the artists in this exhibition are inspired by each other or common themes and in a constant flow of communication like musicians improvising and reinterpreting familiar songs decade after decade, like the different indigenous tribes telling their own versions of stories about that fierce little hummingbird.

• Juan Francisco Elso: Por América will be at the Phoenix Art Museum from 6 May to 17 September 2023, and will later move to the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami. A new publication, Juan Francisco Elso: Essays on América, co-published by El Museo del Barrio, will offer the first comprehensive bilingual dedicated to the artist. A virtual book launch will take place via Zoom on 16 March 2023, 6-7.30pm EST. Click here to buy tickets.

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