14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 11 October 2017 — When he was a boy all he needed was a scalpel to shape a piece of wood and he gladly exchanged the tracks of athleticism for art. Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara dreamed of “being famous, having money and improving the world,” but ended up denouncing, through his aesthetic actions, racism, political polarization and injustices.
Born in the Havana municipality of Cerro, the controversial artist was the eldest of four brothers in a family with a welder father and a carpenter uncle. “None of my relatives was interested in culture, but ever since I was little I had a facility for manual work,” he recalls now, while talking to 14ymedio in the middle of the night.
Nothing indicated that Otero Alcántara would end up doing provocative performances, loaded with questions about the Cuban reality. However, while sport forged his resistance, he felt that he needed to incorporate “thought and the philosophy” to change his surroundings. He needed to get into politics.
“At home they called me ‘the priest’ because I spoke alone and told the stories in my head,” he recalls with a mischievous smile on his face. All this was channeled upon entering the art world in a self-taught way, as his attempts to study in the San Alejandro academy were met with the closing the course to workers.
Later he joined the Cuban Association of Artisan Artists and received a card that “gives a lot of privileges and supposedly supports you when you are traveling or exhibiting.” The young man tried use that document to join the institutional artistic circuit but with little success.
“I realized that the common way was barred for me. In Cuba the institutions have a lot of prejudice, if you do not come from the academy you are discriminated against, so I left that road,” he recalls. Choosing this path has allowed him to explore more controversial and less complacent topics.
“I started to go out with my sculptures. That took a political character because in this country going out on the street has that connotation, not because I had a political speech or was an activist,” clarifies Otero Alcántara as if he wants to make it clear that he is not the partisan opposition.
This year, while he wielded an enormous sledgehammer a few inches from the window of an exclusive store, he felt that he was able to condense many of his dissatisfactions at that moment. “I am more interested in inserting myself in the real fabric than in a cold gallery for someone to buy one of my pieces.”
Another way to denounce the abyss that separates the majority of Cubans from the bubbles of glamor that have been created on the island was to launch an alternative lottery where the jackpot was a night in a room of the luxurious Manzana Kempinski hotel. Fortune benefited a young man who a few days later entered compulsory military service.
“I do what I do because if I didn’t I would explode and my art saves me from sitting at home depressed.” Right now Donald Trump “practically closed the United States Embassy, the wireless connection in the streets is bad, there is no democracy and even my son is afraid,” he deplores.
Otero Alcántara also complains about the serious economic problems facing many Cubans every day. “There is no way to buy a pair of shoes, there is no food, and the only way I can fight against that depression is art.” In Cuba, there is “a lot of fear and that is one of the most effective tools of this system.”
The performance with which he denounced the removal of the bust of communist leader Julio Antonio Mella from the Manzana de Gomez mall – filled with luxury stores never before seen in Cuba – generated an intense controversy that led him to prove once again that “art does work and has a lot of force. Because of this the dictators censor it and sometimes even kill the artists.”
He acknowledges, however, that among intellectuals and artists there is “a lot of opportunism, because there are some who disengage from the people and receive a lot of the perks the state grants, which has seduced many artists with money, house, position or being able to leave and enter the country.”
Following the announcement of the postponement of the Havana Biennial, scheduled initially for next year, Otero Alcántara has promoted an event planned for the days between May 5-15, 2018 and with a low budget. The project is supported by alternative spaces and sees in that enthusiasm a sign that it is “breaking the fear.”
Recently the artist published a provocative video with a supposed presidential campaign of independent candidates ranging from a mix of journalists, artists and bloggers to opponents associated with political movements although he, personally, clarifies he is not interested in a position of such responsibility.
“I like getting up late, I’m irresponsible, vague, in art I found my world, my metaphor and it’s something very personal,” he says to clear any doubts about his expectations for the future.
Otero Alcántara wants to make clear that dissidence, a concept that he frequently addresses in his work, is a person who dissents from the common doctrine, although on the island “the word brings with it terms like gusano (worm)” so you have to work to reframe its meaning. “The problem is not that the government calls you a dissident, but that it represses you for existing, for being in opposition,” he says. “With freedom everything is resolved, freedom of expression is vital.”