Sow/Sew the Land:

Phenomenological Embodiment and Craft Labor in Roger Toledo’s Soy Cuba/ I Am Cuba Landscapes

Tamir William (doctoral student, History of Art)


The aim...is to change “landscape” from a noun to a verb. It asks that we think of landscape, not as an object to be seen or a text to be read, but as a process by which social and subjective identities are formed.
— W.J.T. Mitchell, Landscape and Power (2002)

Under the sun’s dwindling light, the approaching tide and cloudy horizon transform into warm, murky hues of ultramarine, purple, chartreuse yellow, and saffron. The overlaid repetitive, textured pattern gives this nautical painting the appearance of a tapestry, wherein these poignant colors purport to have been laboriously woven together.

In Al Anochecer/ At Dusk (2018-19) (Fig. 1.1), one of the five landscapes paintings that comprises his Soy Cuba series, contemporary Cuban artist Roger Toledo presents viewers with an outward view of the sea from the shorelines of Boca de Camarioca, a small fishing town in the province of Matanzas. Situated near Varadero—Cuba’s closest geographical point to Key West, Florida—this coastal village (Camarioca) became one of the popular northern departure locations for many Cubans who sought and currently seek to leave the island. [1] Through this north-facing orientation of the viewer, Toledo recalls and, in a sense, memorializes the experiences of these balseros who wait(ed) anxiously at this location—and at other similar points along the northern shoreline—until nightfall to attempt under the cover of darkness their clandestine journeys to the States by makeshift rafts. [2]

Fig 1.1  Roger Toledo Bueno,  Al Anochecer  ( At Dusk ), 2018, acrylic on canvas, 78 3/4 x 118 inches (200 x 300 cm)

Fig 1.1 Roger Toledo Bueno, Al Anochecer (At Dusk), 2018, acrylic on canvas, 78 3/4 x 118 inches (200 x 300 cm)

 

Seen & Felt: Phenomenological Embodiment in Landscape Engagement and Art-Making

With his Soy Cuba/ I Am Cuba series, Toledo does not seek to solely focus on the visualization of these historic landscapes as informed by rules of linear perspective; rather, he is more interested in effectively conveying his phenomenologically embodied experiences of these places—that is the sensory knowledge of his ‘lived body’ within these five geographical sites. [3] Thus, Toledo’s painting practice, as archaeologist Christopher Tilley aptly describes in The Materiality of Stone, “is not just an act of pure vision…[it] is a bodily process” that is grounded in an embodied perspective. [4] Toledo works to engender, in a multi-sensorial fashion, the affective and physical reciprocity between his body and these five landscapes. [5] In this way, Al Anochecer departs from traditional disembodied or ocularcentric representations of landscapes. [6] Alternately, it moves towards, as scholar W.J.T. Mitchell proposes in his work Landscape and Power, an understanding of ‘landscape as a verb’—“landscape...[as] bodily experienced” and its representations as bodily produced. [7]

This phenomenologically embodied approach that Toledo adopts for his experience at the shores of Boca de Camarioca is also exercised within his creation of Al Anochecer: he, as art historian Joyce Brodsky posits, brings his whole body into the construction process. [8] Such bodily presence is reflected in the low-relief, textured pattern that overlays the five paintings in the series. Thus, the texture in Al Anochecer acts as material evidence of Toledo’s corporeal activity or, more so, of this notion that his entire body was involved in the making of the piece. This emphasis placed on the visibility of his body, coupled with the nontraditional additive method that he employs to achieve the texture (i.e. elliptical, perforated metal sheets), works to situate his artistic process for the Soy Cuba series within the realm of craft labor. By “craft labor,” I mean to refer to any form of making that privileges the indexability of the body through the resultant creations. Essentially, the phenomenological embodiment within Toledo’s artistic process for Al Anochecer, as seen through the production of the textured pattern, can be interpreted as craft labor.

Drawing upon the homophonic relationship between “sow” and “sew,” this essay will consider how the construction of texture in Al Anochecer can be read as metaphorical practices of two particular types of craft labor: embroidery, and transplantation/ seeding. Interpreting the texture in Al Anochecer as a byproduct of both figurative agrarian practices and embroidery emphasizes the handmade quality of the piece, which, in turn, leads us to the closely-related secondary concerns of the essay: How is this craft or handmade orientation in Toledo’s construction process for Al Anochecer indicative of the influence of Cuba’s “Período especial” (or “Special Period in Time of Peace,” as labeled by Fidel Castro following the collapse of the USSR and Soviet trade at the onset of the 1990s) on his artistic practice? [9] How is his repurposing of these perforated metal sheets to create the illusion of embroidery in Al Anochecer—and the series as a whole—reflective of a collectively shared phenomenological knowledge among Cubans of what it meant and means to live in “Special Period” and, arguably, post-“Special Period” Cuba? Finally, in what ways does his access to these punctured metal sheets (American-made consumer goods that he obtained on his travels to the States during an artist residency) act as a commentary on his special embodied experience in the country as an artist due to the economic value placed on art production during the years “Special Period”? [10] Al Anochecer’s peculiar texture offers an illuminating point of entry into these questions, as well as into this larger issue of a phenomenologically embodied framework within Toledo’s work.

Fig 1.2  Perforated metal sheets used to produce the low-relief, elliptical patterns in the paintings. Photo by Tamir Williams

Fig 1.2 Perforated metal sheets used to produce the low-relief, elliptical patterns in the paintings. Photo by Tamir Williams

 

Makeshift Embroidery: A Shared Phenomenologically Embodied Knowledge of Resolviendo in Al Anochecer

Before engaging in a reading of the texture in Al Anochecer through a lens of fibrous craft labor (i.e. embroidery) and collective phenomenologically embodied knowledge, it is necessary to first examine the technical parallels that can be drawn between Toledo’s use of the punctured metal sheets, his past craft experience in embossing leather belts in his adolescence during the “Special Period,” and traditional thread-based embroidery. This will work to establish the low-relief texture in Soy Cuba as, in one sense, a type of makeshift embroidery, and in turn initiate an exploration into the ways in which his art-making is marked by the severe resource scarcity that plagued the island during the “Special Period.” To better illustrate this claim, Toledo’s Soy Cuba series is situated in relation to other artists of this epoch whose work demonstrate a similar level of “technological disobedience.” [12] Returning to the balseros and their embodied experiences which are evoked in the painting, this subsection concludes with a meditation on Toledo’s makeshift embroidery as expressive of a shared phenomenologically embodied experience of Cuba as a landscape of resolviendo. [13]

Fig 1.3  Close-up shot of the low-relief, elliptical patterns on  Al Anochecer  ( At Dusk ). Photo by Tamir Williams

Fig 1.3 Close-up shot of the low-relief, elliptical patterns on Al Anochecer (At Dusk). Photo by Tamir Williams

The additive process by which Toledo achieves the elliptical, low-relief texture employed in Al Anochecer simultaneously mimics the methodology used to hand embroider cloth and to hand emboss leather. First, the pre-conjoined six canvases that comprised these massive paintings are secured inside of a frame demarcated by painter’s tape (just as one would tightly secure cloth inside of an embroidery hoop or square frame to ensure that the cloth remains taut as one sews into the fabric; moreover, the nebulously painted sections that remain outside of the taped area come to resemble fraying edges of a cloth). Next, the elliptical perforated metal sheets (Fig 1.2) (which act as the additive thread for embroidery or the stamp for embossing) are placed over the canvases. Modeling paste pigmented with acrylic paint is then meticulously embedded into the punctured areas in several layers. The subsequently raised texture produced from the grid-patterned sheets is carefully sanded as to achieve a uniform finish (Fig. 1.3). This textured three-dimensionality of the piece becomes reminiscent of the surface elevations we see in embroidery and embossing.

In tending to the texture in Al Anochecer as metaphorical fibrous craft labor or, simply, sewing—a faux embroidery—we begin to unearth the material evidence of this collective phenomenological knowledge of “Special Period” and post-”Special Period” Cuba: a do-it-yourself, repurposing, or resolviendo sensibility. [14] Fellow contemporary Cuban artist Ernesto Oroza has termed this resourceful sentiment found among many Cubans as “technological disobedience.” [15] It is a reactionary practice of craft labor in which Cubans “think beyond the normal capacities of an object, and try to surpass the limitations that it imposes on itself.” [16] It indexes many Cubans’ phenomenologically embodied experiences, specifically their felt experiences of being in a landscape where resources are not readily accessible. This was the reality during the “Special Period”; though not as severe, this scarcity remains on the island into the present-day.

By manipulating the intended function of the punctured metal sheets within his Soy Cuba series, Toledo draws upon a resolviendo sensibility: “making objects that meet other needs and desires.” [17] His work thus joins a generation of “Special Period” and post-“Special Period” artists, such as Los Carpinteros (The Carpenters), who work(ed) to transmit within their own artistic practices the collectively lived experiences of resource scarcity on the island. Los Carpinteros were a Havana-based artist collective that emerged in 1992 during the early years of the “Special Period.”[18] Their collectively authored work explored the potential for multiple alternative functionalities in a single everyday object. They placed great emphasis on a quotidian or handmade aesthetics, and on an improvisational approach to determining the use of things. This functional repurposing that Toledo achieves with the metal sheets can comparatively be seen in their sculptural piece Trash-shopping cart (2008) (Fig. 1.5) where a typical chrome-wire, supermarket shopping cart has been re-welded into the shape of a trash can.

Fig 1.4 Sample image of leather belts that Toledo embossed when assisting his parents with their clandestine leather belt business during the “Special Period.” Photo courtesy of artist.

Toledo’s resolviendo sensibility was first ignited in his youth when Cuba’s economic and trade crisis in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse caused many professions to be deemed economically futile. This became the reality for Toledo’s parents who both worked as art instructors at the country’s esteemed Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA) prior to the collapse. [19] Unable to sustain their family on salaries suddenly rendered insufficient when placed alongside the new prices for extremely limited resources, Toledo’s parents turned to craft labor where there were opportunities to secure supplemental and/or larger primary sources of income. Toledo remarks on his parent’s professional shift to leather belts making and embossing during the “Special period” (Fig. 1.4):

"I first started [to help with the] making [and embossing of] the belts probably when I was like ten years old…My parents were [obtaining the leather for the belts] illegally...from someone who worked at a factory. And they would leave us at home at like three o’clock in the morning [to travel to get the leather from] this factory. They told me and my sister, ‘We are doing this business now but you cannot tell anyone at school. And if someone sees your belts, just say that we got them in Havana. Don’t say that we are making them at home.’’' [20]

 
Fig 1.5 . Los Carpinteros,  Trash-shopping cart , 2008, chrome steel, plastic. Courtesy of artnet.

Fig 1.5. Los Carpinteros, Trash-shopping cart, 2008, chrome steel, plastic. Courtesy of artnet.

The factory worker’s diverted leather supply is reflective of a commonplace resolviendo practice among governmentally employed workers during this epoch. As photography professor Tony Mendoza explains in his photojournalistic travel book Cuba—Going Back, during the “Special Period” when someone was “offered a job…[they needed] to know the potential for _la búsqueda_at the job…[they hoped that] the job...[had] a product that...[got] distributed, and [that] some of that product [could] get diverted and distributed among the workers.” [21] These workers would then illegally sell these materials to people, like Toledo’s parent’s, who were also involved in la búsqueda(the search) to make ends meet. Thus, this resolviendo sensibility completely permeated and continues to permeate the landscape of Cuba. In engaging the landscape in a phenomenologically embodied manner, Toledo is acutely aware of the shared resolviendo sentiment and resolviendo activities that can be found in nearly all geographical areas of the island. He unearths this shared phenomenologically embodied knowledge of Cuba as a landscape of resolviendo in Al Anochecer through his fibrous craft labor. His makeshift method of embroidery honors the same improvisational craft labor or resolviendo sensibility that the balseros at Boca de Camarioca utilized when constructing their makeshift rafts for their journeys across the Florida Straits.

Obras Escogidas (Selected Works) (1994) (Fig 1.7.) by Kcho (b. 1970) offers a great comparison to Toledo’s resolviendo craft-oriented art-making process in Soy Cuba. Kcho creates a nearly life-sized, makeshift paddle boat by attaching used books, newspaper, and twine to the boat’s metal armature. Having experienced the resource scarcity of the “Special Period as a young adult, Kcho’s sculptural practice is marked by a labor of recycling and repurposing that defined the embodied reality for many Cuban, specifically the balseros, during this epoch (Fig 1.6 & 1.8). Toledo’s presents in Al Anochcer a similar representation of how this embodied experience of “Special Period” and post-“Special Period” Cuba has infused his art-making with a resolviendo sensibility and aesthetic.

 

Fig. 1.6 - 1.8 (left to right) Kcho, Ideas en conflicto (Idées en conflit), 2005, wooden oars and inner tube. Courtesy of artnet. | Kcho, Obras Escogidas (Selected Works), 1994, books, metal frame, wood table, newspaper, twine. Courtesy of Walker Art Center. | Kcho, Untitled, 1995, tin on steel structure, beer cans, tape recorder and tool. Courtesy of artnet.

 

Mobile Patterns: Seeding & Pattern Transplantation in Al Anochecer

The second craft labor metaphorically performed through this application of texture in Al Anochecer is sowing/ seeding, specifically the practice of transplantation. This comparison of the textural construction in the painting to agrarian practices is justified, firstly, by the fact that Toledo refers to the punctured oval shapes of the metal sheets as semillas (seeds). [23] In this sense, Toledo’s artistic process for sowing the textured low-relief that covers Al Anochecer can be viewed as mimetic to the practice of direct seeding/ sowing. The semillas (molding paste and acrylic paint mixture that fills the oval-shaped punctures) are neatly planted (embedded) in even rolls within each soil bed (each of the six canvases can represent a soil bed). These soil beds are strenuously loosened (e.g. raked or and forked) in preparation for sowing the semillas. The resultant three-dimensionality of the gridded semilla pattern creates the illusion that these faux seeds have sprouted.

To engage this interpretation of the elevated semillas in Al Anochecer as planted seedlings welcomes a consideration of the ways in which Toledo’s metaphoric agrarian labor more so represents the process of transplantation than seeding. Though both involve the work of planting, transplantation specifically calls for the uprooting and replanting of seedlings or fully developed plants in another location. As these perforated metal sheets are obtained during Toledo’s trips to the States for art-related business, it may be helpful to think through how the use of the patterned metal sheets mimics the labor of transplantation. Rather than plants, these Art Deco-influenced patterns are transplanted into grounds of the Soy Cuba landscapes.

More importantly, however, Toledo’s transplantation of this American made product into the ground of these paintings acts as an index of his status as an internationally engaged artist in Cuba. A large indicator of a Cuban’s professional status as an artist is their level of mobility. As a result of the Soviet collapse, the hierarchical structure that was originally employed to stratify Cubans into various socioeconomic categories on the basis of their profession was completely reconfigured. [24] The new socioeconomic hierarchy that arose as a consequence of the “Special Period” placed artists at the top of the social and earning pyramid. [25] This is largely due to Fidel Castro’s discussion to legitimize the U.S. currency in Cuba’s economy, which consequently broadened the type of activity and business Cuban artists could explore. Castro arguably understood the economic value that could potentially ensue from opening the country’s art production to the international market. [26]

This privileged status enjoyed by many artists in the country, particularly around access to international travel, largely remains in a post-”Special Period” Cuba. [27] In this way the north-facing orientation of Toledo’s body at the shores of Boca de Camarioca—a site where mobility or bodily transplantation is/ has been attempted by many Cubans for decades—coupled with the transplanted semilla low-relief texture, offers a compelling and phenomenologically honest representation of his special embodied experience in the country as an artist.


Endnotes

[1] Roger Toledo, Interview with artist, Oct. 9, 2018. For some viewers, this painting may recall the three key moments of mass departures from revolutionary/ post-revolutionary Cuba (1960s, 1980s, & the “Special Period”). Toledo discusses these three key moments: “We’ve had like three different big moments of people leaving in the 60s...Varadero because that’s the closest point to Key West in Miami. So people in ‘61, ‘62 were just going there to this fishing town [Camarioca] and taking boats to go to the States. The other big issue was [the] Mariel [boatlift] […] And the other big moment when people were leaving Cuba was in the ‘90s during the “Special Period.” And they were leaving from like Old Havana and these other parts in the north shore. And there was illegal immigration to the States—[it was and] it’s [still] all happening in the north shore.”

[2] Roger Toledo, Interview with artist , Oct. 9, 2018.. Toledo remarks,“I just wanted to make it at night […] this piece was about….people leaving Cuba…waiting, you know, just until it was dark to get this raft, and, you know, go north, trying to reach Florida…I choose to make this the moment where they’re standing there waiting and it gets dark...I just wanted to place the viewer heading north.” When asked about the clandestine nature of these departures from northern locations such as Camarioca, Toledo replied, “I’m not sure if these guys—from Boca de Camarioca—had their permits or something […] at this time I don’t think we had coast guards patrolling around […] I think that there were legal and illegal [departures] when the ‘61 [Camarioca] boatlift happened.”
Balseros refers to Cubans who attempt(ed) to flee Cuba by makeshift rafts. For more information historical information on the Cuban Rafter phenomenon from roughly the 1980s onward, see The Cuban Rafter Phenomenon at http://balseros.miami.edu/.

[3] For more on phenomenology and phenomenological embodiment, please see Maurice Merleau Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (New York & London: Routledge: 2012)

[4] Christopher Tilley, The Materiality of Stone: Explorations in Landscape Phenomenology (New York: Berg, 2004), 18.

[5] Ibid., 18.

[6] Bren Carolyn Unwin, “Phenomenology and Landscape Practice: A Critical Appraise for Contemporary Art Practice (PhD diss., University of Hertfordshire, 2008), 123.

[7] W.J.T. Mitchell, Landscape and Power, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002), 1.; Christopher Tilley, The Materiality of Stone: Explorations in Landscape Phenomenology (New York: Berg, 2004).

[8] Joyce Brodsky, “How to ‘see’ with the whole body,” Visual Studies, 17, no. 2 (June 2004).

[9] Archibald R. M. Ritter, "SHIFTING REALITIES IN SPECIAL PERIOD CUBA." Latin American Research Review, Vol 45, no. 3 (2010): 229.

[10] “Of a Different Class: Artists in Cuba,” Sotheby’s Institute of Art, accessed Dec. 6 2018. https://www.sothebysinstitute.com/news-and-events/news/of-a-different-class-artists-in-cuba/; Roger Toledo, Interview with artist, Oct. 9, 2018

[11] Oxford Dictionaries, s.v. “sew,” accessed Nov. 28, 2018, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/sew

[12] Ernesto Oroza coined this phrase in his work RIKIMBILI. Une étude sur la désobéissance technologique et quelques formes de réinvention (2009)

[13] A resolviendo sensibility describes many Cubans’ creative repurposing of objects in response to a significant lack of resources on the island during the “Special Period in Time of Peace" ; Tony Mendoza, Cuba—Going Back, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997): 26-27.

[14] “RESOLVIENDO: Cuba's Creative Drive,” The Annenberg Space for Photography, accessed Dec. 6 2018. https://www.annenbergphotospace.org/exhibits/resolviendo/; Daniel Rivero, “'Technological Disobedience': How Cubans Manipulate Everyday Technologies For Survival,” WLRN, July 1, 2013, accessed Dec. 6, 2018. http://www.wlrn.org/post/technological-disobedience-how-cubans-manipulate-everyday-technologies-survival

[15] Rivero, “'Technological Disobedience’”

[16] Rivero, “'Technological Disobedience’”

[17] Sarah Hill, “Recycling History and the Never-Ending Life of Cuban Thing,” Anthropology Now, Vol. 3, No. 1 (April 2011): 3.

[18] Gudrun Ankele & Daniela Zyman, ed., Los Carpinteros: Handwork—Constructing the World, (Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, Köln: 2010)

[19] Roger Toledo, Interview with artist , Oct. 9, 2018.

[20] Roger Toledo, Interview with artist , Oct. 9, 2018.

[21] Tony Mendoza, Cuba—Going Back, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997): 26-27.

[22] Oxford Dictionaries, s.v. “sow,” accessed Nov. 28, 2018, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/sow

[23] Roger Toledo, Interview with artist, Oct. 9, 2018.

[24] “Of a Different Class: Artists in Cuba,” Sotheby’s Institute of Art, accessed Dec. 6 2018. https://www.sothebysinstitute.com/news-and-events/news/of-a-different-class-artists-in-cuba/

[25] Sotheby’s Institute of Art, “Of a Different Class”

[26] Ana Julia Jatar-Hausmann, The Cuban Way: Capitalism, Communism and Confrontation (Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press, 1999), 61−62.; Sotheby’s Institute of Art, “Of a Different Class”

[27] Sotheby’s Institute of Art, “Of a Different Class”