The Truth: Raciel Gómez Golpe

by Píter Ortega M.A.

Raciel Gómez Golpe

In the year 2000, Cuban artist Raciel Gómez Golpe graduated from the San Alejandro National Academy of Fine Arts, located in Havana, one of the most prestigious art schools in the entire country. And he did it with two superb works, which from such an early period predicted that what was coming for Cuban art was an enfant terrible, a rebellious artist whom the art market, critics and cultural institutions could never tame or pigeonhole into predetermined molds. In one of those works Raciel showed several fish locked in coffins, and its title was “Prisoners of Sheol”. It was an installation made of clay, oxides and wood that referred to the world of the dead, while the fish were humanized as well as languishing, dying. Beyond the possible religious meaning, those caged fish symbolized the destiny of an entire society devoid of many freedoms, whose illusions had been kidnapped. We were already seeing a key characteristic of Raciel’s work: he is a patriot, an artist who never turns his back on the destiny of his country and its people. A humanist who knows that the ethical dimension of creation is as important as the aesthetic.

Raciel’s initial idea was to make a public intervention in a cemetery with about 20 or 30 coffins. Due to a logistical problem it was not possible, and so the artist mounted the pieces on a wheelbarrow, took them to the Old Cemetery of Guanabacoa, in Havana, took photos of them once inside and left. All of this clandestinely. Raciel did not give up, as he has never done in his entire extensive artistic career.

Raciel’s clandestine action has more value and impact than his own physical work, because it symbolizes the irreverence of an art that does not bend to the norms of a surreal, abnormal society and island, sick with bureaucracy. That is why saying that Raciel is a painter, a sculptor, a photographer or a potter are all imprecise, incomplete terms that simplify the scope of his visual production. Raciel is more than all that: he is a visual anthropologist obsessed with the future and the present of the human species and the island where he was born. He is a humanist who puts his art at the service of emancipation and the struggles of man to live in a fairer world. He is an acerbic philosopher trapped in the universe of artistic creation.

That installation is so good that it earned him the second prize at the Amelia Peláez Ceramics Biennial in Cuba, when he was only 21 years old. Raciel went beyond the traditional concept of ceramics and opted for a strongly conceptual piece where the process, the performative character and the intervention in the space were the true protagonists. The clay was just a pretext.

In another early series, even before graduating from the San Alejandro Academy, that deep ethical dimension of creation that I have spoken about before is evident. The series is entitled “SOS Natura”, and in it the artist launches a strong criticism of the destructive and irresponsible action of human beings on our planet and its species. Here too the fish is the fundamental symbol, and it is seen subjected to nails, chains, shackles and other sharp objects that lacerate it. But there is a specific work that is extremely important because of the procedure used by the artist. In it we see a dead fish on top of a coral, and on the mutilated body of the animal appears the imprint of a boot, a human footprint. It was Raciel himself who stamped that boot on the work, in a process of aggression or destruction of his own art. Once again, the artwork goes beyond its physical presence or its final result to include an important phase of the process. And here is another feature of Raciel’s art that will accompany him throughout his career as an artist to this day: the self-conscious nature of the work, art thinking of itself in an intense, strong way. In this sense we can say that Raciel carries conceptualism in his veins. Even when we see him disguised as a landscape artist, that is nothing more than a strategy to mislead the untrained viewer. Raciel will never be a pure landscape painter.

Even in his landscapes that seem more traditional, Raciel digs into the deepest wounds in Cuban society and the works end up being a cry of pain, a howl of desolation and despair. Whether in the landscapes made with acrylic or those made with charcoal, the artist represents destroyed houses, many of them on the verge of collapse. An almost uninhabitable architecture, where the fragility of the support structures become a metaphor for the fragility of a failed, incompetent social system. They are houses where, curiously, the human being never appears, but we can feel his suffering. We can imagine the sadness that dwells in the interiors, even when Raciel shows us the exterior. We can imagine an anguished mother trying to figure out what to prepare for dinner, or an old man in the most stale despair. In this direction, the doors become a decisive element, since they are mostly closed, as if hiding the collective secret of multiple generations of Cubans. There is only silence and solitude in those houses.

Serie Kotel Installations, 2022 Mixed media on Wood panel Variable dimensions

But in Raciel’s landscapes we must also highlight his great technical virtuosity, without a doubt. The excellent job in recreating the textures of wood and stone, the magnificent contrasts between lights and shadows, the outstanding management of perspective and space, as well as the exquisiteness of his drawing, make his landscapes a sublime aesthetic experience. And in them two trajectories or patterns can be seen that will remain constant until today: the evolution from general views to detail shots and from figuration to abstraction. Raciel’s landscapes mutated year after year in search of the synthesis and simplicity of the image. In this arduous path, the “Simple Form” series, from 2010, occupies a special place, and is probably one of the most valuable series made by the artist. Here the beauty and visual impact of the sienna and ocher colors, together with the audacity of the compositional schemes, are delightful. These are one of those works that make you fall in love at first sight due to their elegance and good taste.

The “Limited Access”, “The Wall” and “World of Shadows” series, which began in 2009, are also tremendously significant within the artist’s creative career, due to 3 elements that have an important presence in these series and that define who Raciel is today: the appropriation of the graffiti universe, the importance of numerology, and the use of collages with paper and other materials. Within these, there is one piece in particular that I find extremely powerful because of its message. This is “Door 31”, from the series “Limited Access”. What we see is a closed, aged and practically dysfunctional wooden door, with the letters “TQM” painted on top, which refer in Spanish to the phrase “I love you so much”. The message of the work is deep and shocking: love transcends any physical deficiency or economic precariousness, its strength is more powerful than all material misfortune, there is no door or obstacle capable of annulling its healing effect and its purity. What a beautiful work! And how important for the moment in which we live.

On this path towards visual synthesis, there is a group of works that represents a climax point. They are a series of abstractions from the year 2003 made with mixed media, essentially acrylic and charcoal. Although Raciel has been very close to abstraction at various times in his artistic career, it is only in this group of works that he has fully delved into it. In other series he has flirted with the abstract universe; but here he made the leap to the very center. The drippings of the red color on top of the gray, black and white tones of the background, give these pieces a powerful expressive force. The chaos and unbridled movement of areas and colors, together with the symbolic value of those red pigments that look like blood spilled on the cardboard, place these works among the best of Raciel’s artistic production. Not to mention the “wounds” or cracks that the artist makes on the material, using a knife or spatula, which place the works on an even higher level. The level of the major leagues of art.

At this point in the text, it is necessary that we also talk about Raciel’s photographic work. And I will do it by mentioning a series in particular, entitled “Sheep without a Shepherd.” In these pieces, Raciel makes a cartography of the deepest Cuba, the one that escapes the narrative of the island’s official press. The Cuba of those men and women who live frozen in time, without hope for the future, absorbed in the misery and pain of their day-to-day lives. Men and women adrift, without a “shepherd” to guide them, to protect them along the difficult and cobbled path. Among all the photos in this series, there is one that has been haunting my head for several days: it is a woman leaning on a wooden door and with her hand resting on her nose and mouth, while looking at the camera. The look of this woman is so strong that it is difficult to describe it in words. In those eyes there is so much pain and rage at the same time, so much impotence and anguish, so much distrust and so many wounds… It is a look that contains the suffering of an entire people, the death of a nation’s illusions. That poor woman needs her pastor, she cries out with those defiant, desperate eyes.

Serie Kotel Permutation 3, 2022 Mixed media on fine art paper 12 x 12”

I had already mentioned the importance of graffiti and numerology in certain works by Raciel. But it is in 2012 when these two elements begin to acquire almost absolute prominence, through the start of an emblematic series: “Kotel”. At this time Raciel was already living in the United States (he moved to this country in 2010), but he had in his possession images of documents of the most popular game for money in Cuba: “la bolita” (the “little ball”), the insular and clandestine version of the lottery. In this series, Raciel performs a digital manipulation of these images and prints them on canvas or photographic paper, to later add brushstrokes of acrylic and varnish on top. The result is fabulous: behind all those numbers the illusions and dreams of millions of Cubans are hidden, the desires, victories and failures of people who see in “la bolita” the only way out of the many problems of their lives. That is why Raciel could not have chosen a better title than “Kotel”, establishing a connection with the Western Wall, a vestige of the Temple of Jerusalem and one of the holiest places of Judaism. Cubans place a large part of their faith and expectations for the future in “la bolita”.

Also known as the “Cuban Charada”, la bolita consists of a table of consecutive numbers from 1 to 100. As Gretchen Sánchez explains for the Cibercuba portal, this is “one of the most popular games of chance in Cuba (…) Although some people write down their number lightly, most choose mystical or dream experiences that they assume as revelations and transform them into numerical codes. How can they do it? They know the meaning of each of the numbers in La Charada so, if they dream of a butterfly, 2 cannot be missing in the numerical combination.”

In the group of works entitled “Permutations (+ a number)”, made in 2022 and also belonging to the “Kotel” series, Raciel goes even further in his approach to the universe of “la bolita”. Here the artist himself uses chance to name his works in an almost performative act. How does he do it? Well, he puts pieces of paper with the numbers inside a cup or other container and selects one of those numbers at random. That digit will then be part of the title of the piece. In addition, the artist writes various texts in the works to refer to the meanings of certain numbers in La Charada. But that “performative” sense that I spoke of does not only stay in the title. While enjoying a delicious coffee, Raciel spills this liquid on the pieces, letting the accident also form part of the visual narration. At other times he even stamps the coffee cup on the work. An entire atmosphere that defines the artwork as an experience and not just as a finished physical product.

“Permutations” is also important because Raciel expands the limits of the work beyond the portion occupied by the printed digital image. Thus, he uses the empty space on the 4 sides of the image to give free rein to the texts or numbers written by him.

And precisely this desire for expansion reaches the top in the artist’s most recent production: an intervention as a Site-specific art carried out in the Freedom Pavilion in Tampa, Florida. Almost all artistic manifestations converge here: photography, painting, drawing, installation, etc. The artist exhibited his works in a space of great historical significance for all peoples who have fought or are fighting for their freedom: The Berlin Wall Art Collection. The collection’s website explains that it “features one-of-a-kind art created from and on authentic remnants of the historic Berlin Wall, including pieces from the Rainer Hildebrandt Collection (…) The collection contains 350 authentic slabs of steel-reinforced concrete from the East German side of the Berlin Wall that were purchased just before the wall was dismantled, in order to preserve history. “ Rainer Hildebrandt was a German anti-communist resistance fighter, historian and founder of the famous Checkpoint Charlie Museum in Germany, focused on the Berlin Wall, the cold war and the most important of the border crossings in Berlin at the time. Among other things, the Checkpoint Charlie Museum maintains a list of deaths at the Berlin Wall.

Serie Kotel Permutation 5, 2022 Mixed media on fine art paper 12 x 12”

Being an unconventional space, Raciel came up with a very effective solution: he covered the walls with kraft paper and placed the pieces from the “Kotel” series on top of it, to later complete the project with spectacular texts written in the style of graffiti that occupies a large part of the space and in which many things can be read: names of Cuban dissidents who have fought for the freedom of the island, names of victims of communism in East Germany and of the crisis in the Berlin wall, names of common Cuban and American citizens, numbers with their meaning in “la bolita”, among many other visual metaphors.

The realities of Cubans are very similar to those suffered by the people who tried to cross from one side of the Berlin Wall to the other in search of freedom. With the only difference that our wall is the sea, a sea as deep as it is dangerous and lonely. The parallel that Raciel establishes between the Cuban and German realities is strong and heartbreaking. Even more so when we manage to read the largest text written on the wall: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Because, beyond the original religious context of the phrase, many Cubans on the island need to know the truth in order to one day be free; they need to confront a lie that has subjugated them for more than 60 years.

This exhibition by Raciel in Tampa reveals a solid, mature artist at the most vigorous moment of his entire career. It has been 22 years since he graduated from the San Alejandro National Academy of Fine Arts, and today Raciel is more self-confident than ever. At every turn he seems to carry the deeper meaning of the words “nothing to prove, nothing to lose, nothing to hide” on his forehead. And, when an individual is so focused as a human being and as a good son of God, great things always happen. That is why we must closely follow the projects by Raciel that are coming. Judging from my conversations with him, there are plenty of surprises to come. A Raciel that reinvents itself and is reborn with each new idea.

So, let’s stay tuned. Meanwhile, let’s try to be closer to that truth that so honestly transpires in Raciel’s works.

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La Verdad: Raciel Gómez Golpe (Spanish Edition)

The Truth: Raciel Gómez Golpe

Raciel Gómez Golpe, (Havana, Cuba, 1978). Graduated from Havana’s National Academy of Fine Arts San Alejandro, his style stands out for a powerful domain of pictorial technique and drawing, especially the management of space and perspective, chiaroscuro, textures and color contrasts. The landscape is one of the most addressed genres in his work, always from a deep and critical social approach. His opus has been the subject of seven solo exhibits, more than fifty group shows and has been featured in important fairs like Art Miami, Art Palm Beach, Circa Puerto Rico, Artbo Bogota Colombia, Art Moscow, Arte Americas and Houston Fine Art Fair. His “La erosión del límite” (“The Erosion of the Limit”) was met with critical success in one of Havana’s leading galleries, La Acacia. Gómez Golpe has received awards in ceramics (National Ceramic Museum) and painting (National Landscape Juried Show). His paintings appear in major collections in Spain, Italy, Mexico, Holand, Belgium, Canada, the United States and France. 

Píter Ortega M.A. (Havana, Cuba, 1982). Art critic and curator. MA in Journalism from the City University of New York, CUNY (2008) and BA in Art History from the University of Havana (2006). He has curated more than 20 exhibitions on contemporary Cuban art in galleries in Cuba and abroad and has systematically practiced art criticism in numerous magazines, newspapers and exhibition catalogues. In 2008 he was awarded the “Guy Pérez Cisneros” National Prize for Art Criticism, by the National Council of Visual Arts of the Republic of Cuba. In 2011 the Juan Marinello Cuban Institute for Cultural Research published his book Contra la toxina, with essays and reviews on contemporary Cuban art. In 2012, he was the recipient of a grant leading to a curatorial stay in Paris, awarded by the Brownstone Foundation. His books El peso de una Isla en el amor de un pueblo and The Millennials Generation: Cuban Art 2001-2016 were published in Miami, Florida in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Ortega has also been a television news reporter in the United States for Univision, Telemundo and NY1 Noticias, and received an Emmy Award in 2022.


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