“From the streets to the academy” just about sums up the career of Cuban designer Santos Toledo, whose first work was a sales sign at a bodega (corner store) and who is today an important figure on the Cuban arts scene.
This succinct phrase is the motto that is livening up the celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of the artistic career of Santos Toledo Argudín, born in Havana in 1950. Santos Toledo was the 2016 winner of the Eduardo Muñoz Bachs Design Prize, the most prestigious award of its kind given by the Cuban Fine Arts Association, part of the Artists and Writers Union.
Memorable posters and record sleeves for top recording artists, publicity campaigns with a particularly artistic touch for national and international festivals, wardrobe design, hairstyling, public spaces—his work runs the gamut of artful image design for people and events. A man of great talent but few words, he prefers his work to speak for itself.
In conversation with CubaPlus, Santos Toledo recounted the beginnings of his career at the age of twelve, which he described as tremendously difficult from a human point of view.”
“For family finance reasons, I had to work in a bodega. There was too much merchandise and they asked me to make a sign that said ‘Hay orejas saladas’ -”we have salted ears”. It caused such a sensation that they gave me a place at the Diego Rivera School of Drawing in Centro Habana. That was around 1960-1962.”
Having trained as a topographic draughtsman and cartographer during his military service in army, he began to make inroads into the world of culture under the tutelage of celebrated Cuban maestros such as Esteban Ayala and Raúl Martinez.
“They helped me so much, with the same affection and the same enthusiasm with which I help young people now.” And at a difficult time, the designer received much-appreciated support from two executives of the Culture Minsitry— Pepín Rosette and Gilda Betancourt—directors of the ministry’s information division in the 1980s.
Music in particular has inspired his work, and he has designed for many true icons of his generation and younger ones. Rita Montaner, Ernesto Lecuona, Rosita Fornés, Celeste Mendoza, Elena Burke, Bola de Nieve, Benny Moré, Celia Cruz, Farah María, Beatriz Márquez, Chucho Valdés... “To me music is something truly great and people who dedicate themselves to music deserve my utmost respect,” he said, adding “I think to be an artist, a singer or an actor, implies such great responsibility that you have to admire it and celebrate it. And the best thing I can contribute is to represent it graphically.”
He has also designed extensively for theatre and dance in Spain, for Antonio Gades and Cristina Hoyos, in Argentina for the company Les Luthiers and in Cuba for Lizt Alfonso, Danza Nacional de Cuba and many others.
Austria, Hungary, Italy and Mexico are other countries where Santos Toledo has worked. Two Mexican institutes in Mérida and Campeche will be hosting exhibitions this year featuring his work with Cuban and Mexican music, to celebrate his fifty year career.
In some ways, he says, he owed a debt to Mexico having worked there when he was young. He had always wanted to return with all his works. He started a cultural exchange bringing notable Mexican designers and photographers to Cuba. In Cuba, the fifty year career of this veritable master of design will be celebrated with exhibitions in Cienfuegos, Camagüey, Santiago de Cuba and Havana showing different sides of his work.
Lately his portfolio has expanded in a new direction, into the world of sport. He considers his work for the Salón del Deporte Cubano some of the best of his career. The work spans posters, drawings and even designing the national team uniform for the 2018 Central American Games.
Among so many things you’ve done, what has given you the most satisfaction? For me, design one thing alone and I do everything with the same pleasure. It’s been fifty years of work and the main thing has always been to give my love and my heart to a public that appreciates it.