“In my series with Cuban flags, flowers and barbed wire, the barbed wire represents things that hurt us, that are unresolved, and the flowers can be good things but also the people who leave (Cuba). I would love to do a series of these same flags with flowers that return, to build a more beautiful country, like the one that (José) Martí dreamed of.”
That was an explanation by Cuban painter Michel Mirabal, in an interview with Cubaplus, of his most recent series, which he described as “sharp social criticism, with a lot of respect, about life experiences.”
Pieces from his successful series on Cuban flags can be found in the private collections of Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez, actor Danny Glover, producer Quincy Jones, the Rockefeller Museum, the Cuban Council of State, former Haitian President Rene Preval, legendary boxer Muhammad Ali and businessman Donald Trump, among others.
In visiting Mirabal—one of the best-known artists of his generation—and touring his studio,it is fascinating to look at his other creations, such as pieces from the series Las manos (Hands), which have been turned into persons, independent characters that cry, laugh, kill, love, and are born, like human beings.
Under a window, we spot the installation Quejas y sugerencias (Complaints and suggestions), which was on display at the 11th Havana Biennial: an ordinary mailbox like the kind found on any street corner, but with teeth and fangs that insinuate an unwillingness to have anything dropped inside.
In addition to painting, Mirabal's work includes installations and sculptures using materials such as grains of rice, beans, and, of course, barbed wire. Feverish is a good word for his imagination, which he describes by saying, “Wherever I see something that will give me art, I use it.”
Michel Mirabal (Havana, 1974) is a graduate of the Institute of Design and the San Alejandro Academy of Art. He started out as a set painter for the National Ballet (BNC), decorating enormous backdrops, 10 to 15 meters long, for ballets like Swan Lake and The Nutcracker.
“The company still has the backdrops I made and they are restored every year. One day I'm going to go help them,” he predicted.
Perhaps that was the beginning of his love for large format art. He also works with other sizes, “but in reality, I like working with large format.”
Mirabal aspires to an immediate impact on the viewer of the main message in his work. “I don't work for people to like my work; in fact, I make pieces that, when you see them, you might say, ‘Man, that is ugly,' and it might or might not please you. It might be aesthetically crude, but you get the message.”
Regarding his favourite pieces, he told us: “From my flag series, the most popular that I have right now, is “Identidad” (Identity), which Gabriel García Márquez has, and which was the first flag with flowers and barbed wire. It's very well-known. From the series Las manos, it's “La rumba prohibida” (The forbidden rumba); and from the series on Havana streets, it's “La esperanza herida” (Wounded hope), the most important work that I've ever done, the one that I've sold for the highest price, and the one that I miss the most, as well. It is a wall on La Esperanza street, with three embedded arrows that wound it and make it bleed.”
From his grandmother, Marta Jean-Claude, a great Haitian singer, Mirabal inherited his love of music, and when he paints, he is almost always listening to rap or jazz. He likes other genres, too, but “I listen to a lot of rap because the directness of its discourse inspires me; it is a form of expression similar to what I'm trying to do with my work.”
“I know there are people who would like to use art to escape from reality, but that is not my case. I take you reflectively into reality, because you have to keep your feet on the ground. I thing it's great that there are things that decorate your surroundings, but I decorate with reality. I think that the most interesting beauty is whatever is natural. I try to do art by talking with reality, and if it is Cuba's reality, even more so, because it is where I live and where I am and where I decided to live.”
In May 2012, Mirabal staged a performance at Havana's Acapulco movie theatre, an interaction of painting and music called “Créeme” (Believe Me), from the song by singer-songwriter Vicente Feliu, who also participated in the program featuring young hip hop artists. Mirabal announced that a DVD/CD of the show by award-winning director Ian Padrón is now being produced by the Cuban label Colibrí.
For this artist, music is essential to the act of painting, whether he is alone in his studio or in a theatre with other artists. “I think that at that moment I am an actor, and I am on a film set, but acting out my real life. I get into the song and I make like I'm the character in the song. I try to have the expression of what I am forming in a state of ecstasy flow from my hands.”
His passion for colour comes from the influence of colourist Amelia Peláez, and he admires Roberto Fabelo's talent for drawing and composition, and Jean Michel Basquiat's social critique. “For me, a mixture of those three gifts in a single person would make a great artist.”
Mirabal says his plans include “a series involving more matter painting, for which I am working with the theme of bombs made out of nails; continuing to work with installation, which I really enjoy; and for the not-too-distant future, I would like to do a project that fuses all of my series—a monumental series that fuses all seven series. The one on hands, on Christs, cups, Cuban flags, Havana streets, installations and the monumental, which I still don't know what to call it. All in a single work.”