Las Materias Cubanas: José Manuel Fors between botany, literature and art

Waking up to the news of Fidel Castro’s death means that the promised post on Petra Cortright’s Hell_Tree will have to wait until tomorrow. Today I want to write about some other news from Cuba. Late last month it was announced that the most prestigious honour in Cuban art – the National Art Award (El Premio Nacional de las Artes Plásticas) – was awarded to José Manuel Fors (b. 1956, La Habana). A major figure in the so-called New Cuban Art movement of the later 1970s and 1980s, Fors has spent his life reworking a family archive of photographs and natural materials into unique objects and installations.

I met Fors on a visit to Cuba in December 2014 and spent a week with him the following summer during the 12th Bienal de La Habana, assisting him with and documenting the installation of his new work in La Cabaña (the space devoted to Cuban artists at the Bienal). The work was called El peso leve de todo lo creado (‘The light weight of all creation’) and comprised papers, photographs and objects from his home-archive, compacted into three large cubes. The title was taken from the Cuban poet Eliseo Diego’s poem Noviembre – Fors often uses quotations from literature as titles for his artworks. (These images show Fors making the work, the finished work and Holland Cotter visiting it at the opening).

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While there is much I can say about Fors’ work and my experience visiting La Habana during the Bienal, here I just want to record a connection that I made at that time during my visit between his work and antiquity.

During the Bienal was the first time since I was a teenager that I kept a diary. As the exhibition was called ‘Between the Idea of the Experience’, I called the notebook ‘The Idea of the Experience’ and used it as a scrapbook and record of my time exploring La Habana. In one entry I write as follows:

Wednesday May 20th

A day by myself in Habana vieja…Will give the Pompeii book (Santoro) [see this older post here for more info on this book] to the people at Vitrina de Valonia [a comic book archive and Belgian cultural center where I had visited in December]. In showing the book to Fors, & telling him the story of Frank & Clemente, I remembered that the story of Vesuvius was vital to our own project – the two Plinys – the scientist & the ‘artist’.

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What I am referring to here is how when I discovered how Fors reused his grandfather’s photographs and engaged with his work as a scientist (he was a botanist who brought modern forestry to Cuba) in his artistic work, he reminded me of the relationship between Pliny the Elder, who wrote the mammoth Natural History, and his letter-writing nephew Pliny the Younger. The latter writing letters about his uncle’s scientific researches as a form of negotiating his own literary ambitions, specifically in the two letters to the historian Tacitus during the fateful destruction of Vesuvius (6. 16 and 6. 20). Marking the difference between the scientist and the writer in reacting to the explosive natural phenomenon of the eruption, Pliny notes:

My uncle’s scholarly acumen saw at once that it was important enough for a closer inspection, and he ordered a boat to be made ready, telling me I could come with him if I wished.  I replied that I preferred to go on with my studies, and as it happened he had himself given me some writing to do.

Pliny then ends this first letter (6. 16) by making a potential distinction between his own notes on the event and the work of the historian he is writing to:

It is for you to select what best suits your purpose, for there is a great difference between a letter to a friend and history written for all to read.

Of course, in spite of his (faux?) modesty, Pliny’s letters were also written for posterity and it is here that the dynamic between his protagonist, the uncle as scientist, and his own role as author and literary artist is made clear. It was this dynamic that I saw too in Fors’ modesty in describing his artistic work in relation to that of his scientist grandfather. This is especially pertinent given the pivotal role of Cuban literature to Fors’ works that reuse his grandfather’s photographic archive and his own artistic investigations into Cuban natural history.

I’d like to think more about the ancient genres of the (personal) letter & the (scholarly) encyclopedia, both within and beyond the family and creative relationship between Pliny the Younger and Pliny the Elder. In one letter (3.5), Pliny the Younger gives a friend a tour through his (deceased) uncle’s library and an account of his scholarly work. At one point Pliny writes: “It amuses me then when I hear myself called a studious man, who in comparison with him am the merest idler”, which reminded me of something Fors said in an interview: “My great grandfather was a famous doctor, my grandfather a famous botanist – my father, my uncles are all very studious…I’m the only black sheep that studied art.”

Fors’ work shows that his art both continues and breaks with his studious family members, but his award of the Premio Nacional de las Artes Plásticas for 2016 definitely shows that he’s no black sheep. Felicidades Fors!

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