“A Worthless, Everyday Object is an Accomplice to Express Myself”

“I was interested in art since I was young, inspired by a super picturesque character who lived in my neighborhood, on the exact same block as me,” confessed Nelson Jalil. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana,22 November 2020 — Nelson Jalil was born in Camagüey in 1984 and graduated from the Higher Institute of Art (ISA) in Havana, where he now has his studio in Nuevo Vedado neighborhood which he shared with his fellow countryman Lester Álvarez initially, who later went to live in Madrid. Now he has more space but he misses his friend.

His pieces are woven from their title to their form, they are of such beauty that it makes you want to take them home and hang them on a wall. In the midst of canvases with broken pencils, burned books, a bonfire, a spiral staircase and a tremendous downpour in the background, 14ymedio spoke with Nelson Jalil this week.

Question: Looking at a group of pieces, I realized that your work and the creative process that leads to it have a lot of play, is that right?

Answer: This approach is quite exact. It is one of the ways in which I come close to the creative process in a general sense. I see it closely associated with the idea of leisure and, by extension, the idea of play. I told a friend some time ago that when I had a problem, I would close the studio and would solve it. When I recover that mental space that allows me to focus on the process that is creation, I would return. In the end, taking into account the way in which I operate with these objects that are small and the way in which they are assembled while I observe and deal with them, is very similar to the way in which a child interacts with a toy.

There is an initial idea that is very generally related to the interest I have in exploring the ability that these everyday, ordinary objects have to embody or express certain situations, spaces, or even human relationships

Q: What comes first, the object or the idea?

A: There is an initial idea that is very generally related to the interest I have in exploring the ability that these everyday, ordinary objects have to embody or express certain situations, spaces, or even human relationships. I gradually land that general idea, and from the way in which the objects are shaped when they begin to go in different directions, then more specific ideas arise and I can talk about a specific experience. This way, I go from a general interest and then I start to manipulate objects, to observe them and to interact with them, as if the same object were expressing that other concrete idea to me.

Q: Is this something that comes from when you were a kid?

No, I was not interested in working with objects until just a few years ago. I did a bit of everything, especially in one’s period of studies, when one experiments almost with all bases, with all media. Periodically, one becomes obsessed with a medium and another and already then when that interest arises, it becomes a discovery. From that point, I became more and more absorbed in the use of objects, until today.

Q: What was your first approach to art and the idea of being an artist?

A: My interest in art started when I was young, influenced by a super picturesque character who lived in my neighborhood, exactly on the same block as me. He was your typical character, half alcoholic, an ex-boxer who lived in very precarious conditions. They called him El Croqueta, he picked up pieces of dolls or Indian heads from a neighborhood handicraft workshop, soaked them and sat with some chopsticks pretending to be molding, thus in a very artistic pose. I would stop on my way to school and I would always sit with him and we would talk, to me. He was a great sculptor, to me, he was Rodin.

“After leaving school, I spent two years working intensively on a series of drawings, which was like the journey of that highly narrative photographic work I had done at ISA,” said Jalil. (14ymedio)

That was my first contact, from there I started to mold a little with clay, to draw. Then I got to know the very good art collection in the Camagüey museum, where my mother worked for a while, and visited the collection frequently. That was the moment when I started to draw formally, with the intention of entering art school.

Q: How do you remember those years at the Camagüey art school?

A: When I studied there it was not called as it is today, Vicentina de la Torre Academy of Art. We studied in what we call the old school, the process of change was quite sad.  Previously, it was a spectacular space, a colonial house that shared the building that was the old cavalry barracks of the Spanish Army with the provincial museum. It had very nice wooden stairs, there was a lot of freedom, there were few students. Then came this madness of the renovated art schools and they had put everyone in uniform, they locked all the doors, the students had practically no access to the workshops, it changed a lot.

Q: And then the Higher Institute of Art arrived … what did that change mean?

A: The ISA was a discovery for me, it was not the best moment of the school by far, the whole crisis that the class programs had suffered when nobody wanted to teach had started, but it was a multicultural space. Training in the provinces, in the case of Camagüey, was much more technical and there were also several teachers who were concerned about the creative training part but it was still an even more limited vision, in the sense that we only had a couple of references.

On arrival at ISA, that spectrum opens up, starting with students from all over, with greater or lesser cultural background and different types of information, and I began to discover that what I thought was art was nothing more than a very specific way of understanding art, and teachers thought more or less the same way. Suddenly you learned that so-and-so had used a poem as the text of the discussion of his graduation thesis or that Whatshisface had written a diary… that began to dismantle a series of concepts for me stiffer than one brings from the province.

When you arrive at ISA, that spectrum opens up, starting with students who came from all over with greater or lesser cultural backgrounds and different types of information

Q: You belong to a generation of many artists who have opted for more conceptual art or installation rather than painting. Do you see any specific reason for this? How was it in your case?

A: This is cyclical, as always happens, people get bored. There are different periods, and the teachers are also influential. I remember anecdotes from moments when ISA students who wanted to paint had to practically hide because others made fun of them, I think It was in the 90’s. There have also been periods when they have solidly painted.

I painted very little at the ISA, I especially drew and, for two or three years, was absorbed with photography but lost my interest later on, to such an extent that even I was amazed. It was as if that language was completely exhausted for me and suddenly not had nothing to say about the subject. If at that moment in my life someone had told me that I was going to end up involved in installation projects like the ones I have done or the ones I have in mind, I would not have believed it. The conditions of the ISA were a bit rough for me, so I worked more with projects that I could take with me, more mental processes, those requiring less space.

Physical spaces were there, but it was when the restoration of the school was under way, and there was a certain chaos. This is not a justification, many people took up painting at that time, it was more of a personal process.

After leaving school, I spent two years working intensively on a series of drawings, which was like the transition of that highly narrative photographic work that I had done at ISA. Then I began to explore painting a little from these drawings, so that when I began to work with objects, both installation and assembled objects and painting, the two began to come out simultaneously, probably the result of the maturation of everything this previous search process that has been consolidating.

Q: It is also remarkable that there is a lot of influence of oriental culture in many artists of your generation, why do you think this is?

A: I think there are many things I do not want to question here, but in a general sense, for the younger generations the system that comes from this Judeo-Christian heritage has fallen into crisis for many and if the current access is added to it, we have to something that for other generations was much more unknown…

It is well known that if your curiosity or interest is of a spiritual nature, obviously there are useful tools that have been tested over the centuries. It is like having a box full of tools and you can try to connect with that specific area of knowledge you identify with more, and that does not necessarily have to be what you have received as a family inheritance.

“For me, the fact that the institution becomes a filter that determines who has a career and who doesn’t is fatal,” says Nelson Jal (14ymedio)

Several years ago, through friends who also come from the art world, I began to investigate these processes, where one almost always begins to do a little yoga and some meditation and I finally ended up being interested in a specific method that comes from of the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. It was quite close to me and I connected with that type of practice.

I see that some artists intermingle very well, but in my case, I do not practice a type of art that is traditionally understood the way it is done in these cultural contexts, quite remote for me. I understand it more as a method of self-recognition and search that eventually expresses itself subtly through some idea that I can outline in my work.

Many of the most interesting ideas that I have had have come to me as distractions, everything is intermingled in an intermediate zone, which has to do with the creative process, but you are not making art in the formal sense, a very oxygenating processes that helps to continually review many processes most people are not aware of, especially on an emotional and spiritual level. A super useful tool.

Q: What are the latest works you have done, and how do you present them?

A: These are two groups of works that I have been developing, I do not even collect them or present them as a series. They are two groups, in two different supports: in paint, oil on canvas and a series of installations, in many cases, objects assembled in small formats. I was mentioning that I have developed them simultaneously, at first it was a bit tentative, it was difficult for me to talk about it because I was imbued in the process of discovering the possibility that all these objects offered me. It was extremely inspiring, but at the same time there were some things that I was not very clear about but, as always happens, the same work process reveals information or a certain type of knowledge that emanates from the same creative exercise.

I have been investigating the possibilities that ordinary objects, seemingly of little value which I stumble upon, offer me, or those that convey situations or behaviors that are intrinsically human.

In some cases, the objects are quite anthropomorphic, and in others, they are the result of some human action or behavior in some way. Obviously, the object is a pretext or an accomplice to express all these kinds of relationships.

Q: Have you been able to obtain the necessary sustenance in Cuba to make a living from art?

A: In my case, I have had the opportunity to sell works periodically without being fully inserted, in the sense that I have worked with the odd gallery dealer or through a dealer who has been in contact with me, or someone who reaches out and contacts me directly, which is a very good possibility. It is super random, it is unpredictable. In my case, it has happened intermittently, few artists aren’t well established enough to foresee when and how a specific work will be managed, although there are artists in that situation, obviously

There are people who can suggest or put you in contact with someone and it has been a bit like that in my case. I am not moving from here, whoever wants to come and see me, let them come. My job is to produce the work, whoever wants to do something with it, will simply pick up a phone and call me, I don’t think it’s more complex than that, I don’t think it’s the artist’s job to go around trying to force himself into the most necessarily appropriate space.

Q: Do you think that the arrival of mobile data and the possibility of having the internet at hand can help with that?

A: A few years ago, most of the artists who lived in Cuba couldn’t even have a website. It was absolutely impossible to upload an image of their work to any space for someone who was not physically in the same site as you to see it. Having access to a platform that allows this is a great advantage. I think it is more at the promotional level. It has been very interesting for me because of the kind of people I have met, artists that I admire who have connected with me, people I never envisioned having contact with.

Q: What impact do you think Cuban art in these times have had in the new independent spaces that have emerged?

“I painted very little at the ISA, I especially drew and spent two or three years absorbed with photography, which later ended up disinteresting me in such a way that even I feel amazed,” Jalil said. (14ymedio)

A: That is good, of course. The fact that the institution becomes a filter that determines who has a career and who does not is fatal for me. If the institution does not feel like recognizing an artist, either because it considers that he or she has no talent or because he is a complicated artist with a type of rebellious discourse or for whatever reason, it is terrible that he does not find another opportunity. I think it’s fantastic that there are other ways, because this filter is very dense in institutional spaces.

Q: How did you experience the phenomenon that the arrival of Decree Law 349 generated in Cuban art?

A: The first thing I did was read the letter that a group of artists had written, it was handed to me by Lester Álvarez. It seemed to me the same as to the rest of the artists who signed it, that it was dangerous to formalize those levels of censorship. I was traveling at that time, and just when I returned, these meetings had already begun. I think everything that happened was terrific because it somehow stopped what could have taken place if this decree was implemented with all the force and impunity with which it was planned.

Translated by Norma Whiting


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