critical texts


Flora Fong: from Camagüey to Canton. From the Da and the Mu to the royal palm tree
Teresa Toranzo Castillo
Flora Fong: from Camagüey to Canton. From the Da and the Mu to the royal palm tree
Flora Fong is one of the emblematic painters of current Cuban visual arts. Her work has been valued since the early seventies by devoted scholars, art critics, writers and essayists such as Adelaida de Juan, Graciela Pogolotti, Miguel Barnet, Jorge de la Fuente, Alejandro Alonso, Martha Rojas, Manuel López Oliva and Toni Piñera, just to mention the most representative. As has often been said, this artist belongs to the generation of the seventies, also known as the “Generation of True Hope”, which meant making art in accordance with the revolutionary influx of the moment. Some members of this group were Pedro Pablo Oliva, Nelson Domínguez, Roberto Fabelo, Zaida del Río, Ernesto García Peña and others that live abroad as Tomás Sánchez. The Cuban landscape, particularly the cities of Camagüey and Havana, her Chinese ancestry on her father’s side and her physical and emotional environment, have perhaps been the main founts of her plastic production. In the 70’s, “despite being a recent graduate, Flora had already gone through several stages of her pictorial expression. Fundamentally, she had experimented with the tools of the surrealistic language, that of her painting, which has been dubbed naïve, and, above that, of a certain expressionism " From the thematic point of view, the 70’s is an experimental stage regarding the human figure, where, in general, prevails the plastic evocation of country legends which, more than anything reach her from oral sources from her natal Camagüey. Inspiration with the subject of women prevail, showing women in the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, as well as the spouses’ relationship in El árbol (The Tree), Los recolectores (The Reapers), and La boda (The Wedding) (permanent expo of MNBA). An especially tender and inspiring subject for Flora during the seventh decade of the 20th Century were girls and boys, when she placed on canvas and cardboard her experiences as the mother of Liang and Li, who are now excellent young painters in Cuban visual arts. Those were the times when her daily life could not be ignored in her painting, for, as this artist has often told me, in the small house were she then lived, her children’s cradles would alternately be in her bedroom or her small studio. She would divide herself between the care of her children, the housework and the daily emergencies Cubans face. (...) Descanso Bajo el Melón (A Rest Under the Watermelon), painted when she resumed her work after her maternity leave, makes one assume that by nineteen seventy-three her preference for the subject of peasants and farm work had been decided. This topic had been scarcely explored by Cuban art after the seventies, but fortunately it was revisited and given a new meaning by Flora’s peculiar style. (...) already by the seventies, Flora is very careful in the use of colors in her work: according to the idea she wishes to convey, she uses on her surfaces all shades, gradated by values that give it a pure hue, being the general atmosphere of the picture the guiding principle. She does not limit herself to a single format, for she knows how to go from the smallest to the largest, according to the idea she wishes to convey. During these years she begins experimenting with non conventional materials such as wood, although she uses canvas and cardboard at the same time, such is the case of La Guardia, (Guard Duty) (mixed/cardboard. 70x50 cm, 1973), which, just like Raúl Martínez’s works, bears witness to the saga of the Cuban Revolution. Rummaging in the memory of Flora’s Paintings and Drawings in Galería Habana in 1985, which became a sort of anthological study of two years’ work (1983-1985), one verifies Alejandro Alonso’s opinion when he pointed out that: "According to a well meditated process..., she achieves a selective language, she achieves a language with which she explores the past and the present, things that are at arms’ reach along with others that have been filtered by memory” and he continues saying that "... she delves into the fashion of neo-expressionism and bad painting, but she is not one of those who easily drops a style to adopt another unthinkingly". After her exploration of the human figure, an element which Flora Fong’s work somehow defended in the seventies, during the following decade her preference for the almost obsessive repetition of landscapes prevailed. In these she uses a group of symbols to represent Cuba, such as the royal palm tree, sunflowers, and other less frequent subjects such as the yam of happiness, her gardens and the electric cables of a grid. She also begins to take storms as a subject for her paintings. Wind begins a big thematic line: the natural phenomena, hardly ever presented in a peaceful manner, bringing out her heritage, and one can see the first elements of Chinese painting, about which all of those who have assessed Flora’s artistic production have written so much. In El Papalote (The Kite), having as a background the Cuban royal palm tree, which is the true protagonist of the picture in the center of a big windstorm taking place in a Cuban hamlet, she brings together a group of elements that move thanks to the stroke of a precise black line, as would have done a Chinese artist interested in minding the slightest detail of the composition. Since the eighties and including what is on the easel in Flora’s studio right now, she is able to depict a whole “outcome” about the landscape and its storms... Perhaps Huracán (Hurricane) (oil/wood, 160x 160 cm, 1979), designed in a sort of rhombus, was the true beginning of the landscape line, and, as everyone knows, this landscape is no other than the Cuban one. Flora knows how to take certain things that surround us in our daily lives and turn them into a work of art: Extasis de una Colada Criolla (Ecstasy of a Cuban Drink of Coffee) (o/c, 200x150cm, 1980) is one of the first attempts to represent the coffee strainer, that very same one still used by many Cuban farmers in the morning to “strain a little coffee”. Aside from speculations of whether the incorporation of this subject presupposes that it is a debt the artist had with Acosta León, the truth is that it is not hard to recognize Flora’s authorship of these pieces that have been privileged by the acceptance they have had within and without Cuba. They made an impact in Portugal, the United States, China and Japan. In an interview televised in Japan, Flora explained the conceptual values of her pictures about “coffee straining”, which are a great acknowledgement to our Cuban lady. One of the latest versions, Colada cotidiana, (Daily Straining) was auctioned by Chistries in 2003 for a value between 10,000-15,000 USD. Undoubtedly, toward the end of the 80’s, Flora gradually introduced subjects that were consolidated in the 90’s: (...)the treatment given to fishes; a subject that has currently become one of Flora’s most serious study, where she combines the fluttering of our blue sea with the calmness conveyed by the fish. Could such a mixture come out of an exclusively tropical temperament or only from a hybrid and a talent such as Flora’s?. Of course, also in Redes al Mar (Nets to the Sea) Flora announced her commitment or her interest to pay the “polemic” debt of Cuban visual arts with the sea. As she herself has said, painting the sea is a job of special pleasure for her. When she begins a painting with that subject, she cannot tear herself away from it until it is finished. And it is also very exhausting for her, as she, just like the paint she uses, becomes part of the movement of the work. Her will to experiment is also present in the eighties. She moves toward other techniques. She made two silk screen printing for the Fondo Cubano de Bienes Culturales (Cuban Cultural Assets Fund), making good use of the reproduction possibilities provided by that medium; she made pottery decorations and textile designs with prints for Telarte, etc. But the most radical change in Flora’s painting takes place as of 1987, when the elements of “Cubanhood” are masterfully combined with her Chinese heritage, the latter now supported by her living experience. The artist had already studied some Chinese writing when she made her first trip to her father’s homeland in 1987. She had the exceptional opportunity to meet her relatives. Participating in a cultural exchange program between the Unión de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba (National Writers and Artists Association of Cuba) and the Federation of Artistic and Literary Circles of the People’s Republic of China, in the company of actress Susana Pérez, the artist was able to fulfil the dream of visiting the house where her father was born in Canton. After becoming acquainted with the natural environment where her father lived, she memorized and synthesized every detail, to incorporate it to her painting not from the viewpoint of her studies in Cuba but from her own life experience. The artist also visited museums, galleries, art schools and the Museum of Chinese Calligraphy. There she stopped to study, to behold the essence of chinese art and writing. She spent hours in front of those paintings and those strokes, she meditated and understood her father, who, like herself, was trapped for hours in silence, in meditation. But her mind is like a whirlpool of ideas. For her, time is a challenge that prevents her from putting on canvas all that comes to her head. Then, on returning to her homeland, her hands produced La Puerta de Beijing (The Gate to Beijing), where she summarized her experience in China. She put so much love into that work that it is one of her favorites and part of her personal collection. She was not dazzled by China. It was rather the confirmation of all that she had expected during her life. It determined a fundamental change in her work, where the Chinese ideograms, which had already begun to be incorporated into her painting one way or another, definitively define her poetics to date. In the nineties, the artist proves her artistic maturity. She unceasingly produces, expressing without words the situation of one who has found what she was looking for: The synthesis of Chinese traditional painting with the enhancement of our “Cubanhood” to the fullest. The banana trees of her yard, her neighbor’s chicken coop, the sunflowers, the tropical fruits put on canvas in the most impressive way; the tobacco leaves re-created once and again, where texture governs, is a whole variety of subjects and form that today legitimizes her work, where the mu, the da, the kou, are now part of Flora’s nature. Even though these are the three most frequently used Chinese characters in Flora’s paintings, whose meanings are linked to trees, greatness and mouth or horse, the author of this note is indebted to make a deeper comparative analysis of the use of Chinese ideograms in Flora Fong’s work. This would be very worthwhile. She finishes the nineties with exhibits in different galleries and museums of Latin America, Europe and Asia. She exhibits successfully in Japan and again in China in 1997. One of the exhibition halls of the Forbidden City of Beijing feels honoured to present her works. The official and art Chinese media, and the press in general, considered Flora’s return to her second homeland as a great event. Art critics assume the undoubtable Chinese presence in all her production. The Chinese, lovers of visual arts, whose respect for painting and true artists is traditional dating from imperial times, who have a broad museum culture, recognize themselves in her oleos. They cannot stop praising the artist who so wisely combines the royal palm and the ideograms. In the midst of that jubilation for the returning daughter, they were not content with offering her the best gallery, one which was once the exclusive realm of the Emperor or “God of Heavens”. They went further; as if she were a goddess taken from Buddhism or Confucianism, Mr. Meng Wei Zae, President of the Federation of Artistic and Literary Circles of China, a great personality in the intellectual and political life of the country, but above all, a great Chinese writer and artist, invited her to experiment in a joint project in the Tang Zhang porcelain factory. They made ceramics together. Flora fired her figures in Chinese kilns, with clay taken from her father’s soil... In the last few years, she has made tiles that are witness to this new interest that she is now engaged in. On May 20, 1997 a stamp was cancelled showing her work El Bosque (The Forest), giving expression to the ancient mark and Cuban character. As appears in the Cuban newspaper Granma, year 33, No. 75 of 15 April 1997, “... it will be the first issuance of a stamp by the Ministry of Communications, showing the work of a live painter” and it goes on to express Flora’s statement when she said that “...it seems that the inclusion of Chinese themes in Cuban art awakens a certain interest, quite a contrast, but they combine, because colors and brushstrokes can do anything”. In the year 2000, when some thought that Flora might go into a stage of stagnation or superficiality at a moment when she was at the peak of her career, when her participation in the art market went hand in hand with the assessment of her work in all art and culture institutions, Flora surprised us with new themes and formal experimenting. She continues to work on her Fish series, went back to Martí’s iconography. She wanted to present Fidel with one of her pictures for his 78th birthday. The idea of Ofrenda para el Apostol (Offering for the Apostle) was born, which would be the image of our Martí, inspired by many reasons: the attack against the Moncada army garrison, History will Absorb Me, Martí in Fidel and Fidel. But how to do this? It took a year for the idea to mature and a Martí was born that was later reproduced, at Abel Prieto’s request, to be the picture hung at all our art schools. Despite being involved in many projects in Cuba, in exhibits in American, European and Asian galleries, in 2004 Flora participates, along with other prestigious Cuban artists, in the painting of a mural for the opening of the University of Informatics Sciences. She made a monumental painting-sculpture there... a palm tree designed based on the Chinese character “tree-family”, where the black lines outlining the shapes are achieved using sheets of steel. Her hometown, Camagüey, invites her and in February of this year she participated with an exhibit in the festivities for the 490th anniversary of the founding of the village of Santa María del Puerto Príncipe.... With important works behind her, Flora cherishes the idea of making incursions into monumental sculpture, continuing to experiment in ceramics and continuing to paint, because she says that although she believes in, values and assumes elements of post modernist movements and the fashionable trends, there will always be paintings, there will always be people who feel the need to have a painting on the walls of their homes, and she will continue to paint them, without excluding, I repeat, contemporary elements in her art, because she is not one to stay still. Miguel Barnet, who has also studied Chinese culture, when summarizing his vision of Flora, wrote in Nube de Otoño (Autumn Cloud): “...The blood running in Flora`s veins marked her painting before she made her trip to the land of her grandparents, the Taoist China of the lotus root and imperial jade. As with Wifredo Lam, fine, confident strokes gave character to her work and placed her among the most noteworthy artists of her promotion from the beginning. Her style was based on a tradition, it did not emerge like a miracle or a divine finding. Her style lay in her roots and in the way that she, perhaps without trying too hard, macerated their juices. I have always linked her work with her, which is completely inevitable with such an authentic artist. However, I find a great contradiction in that comparison, which always perplexes me. Her tenderness, her sweet manners; contrast with the strong stroke of her brush which is like a flash. The canvas seems to be the only target in the world to receive her female violence, that transgresses prejudices and is acute as a shriek”. Next year Flora Fong will be 55 years old, proud to be one of the artists who has achieved, with the greatest soundness and coherence, the consolidation of a language where the wise combination of light, color and “Cubanhood” that defines her work predominates. According to what she herself told me last May 19, "some of the people who know me say that my work does not resemble me, because of its forcefulness, its perseverance, for the way it feels colors. It is the Caribbean surroundings, the possibility of seeing light in Cuba, which you don’t find in other parts of the world. It is a very national painting, because it has a prestige, a creative state that is noticeably mine, wherever it may be.” At a moment when some speak about a crisis or stagnation in Cuban visual arts, after the impact of the eighties, when many artists are searching for unfound roads, for their own language, Flora Fong, insists on her self-commitment of paying the debts of post-revolutionary Cuban art with the Cuban landscape, with the sea and with our “Cubanhood”. Lic. Teresa Toranzo Castillo
Curator of Asian Art, National Museum of Fine Arts