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Cuban Artist Juan Sí González

Full Interview with Cuban Artist Juan Sí González

Juan Sí González: An American Patriot

With a gleaming grin, Juan Sí González carefully scans each person in line with a metal detector. His red, white, and blue sneakers, with matching tie and wristbands, betray his patriotic zeal. Despite his apparent thoroughness, this security officer ignores the arbitrary beeps of the machine, instead focusing intently on his next task. Quickly he shoves
a mirror before each unsuspecting would-be terrorist.

“Is this your face?” González maniacally demands. Satisfied with each bewildered response, and waving away identification cards flashed before him, he shuttles groups of fifteen through a gaping hole in a foreboding black box and shuts the door with finality. In a moment he reappears, cradling a giant talking hot dog.

Despite all appearances of a crazed Homeland Security officer, Juan Sí González has reasons behind his paranoid actions. A Cuban by birth and an American by naturalization, Gonzalez quickly “smells” the dangers of propaganda and political abuses. Through his performances and photography he exposes the manipulative undercurrents of government, both covert and overt. Though his current performance piece, Patriotic Games and the Domino Effect, centers on the meshing of patriotism, capitalism, and religion in the United States, González’s art is rooted deeply in the politically oppressive soil of his mother
country, Cuba.

With the 1970 National Salon marking the end of artistic freedom in Cuba , a growing number of Cuban artists fled the country. Art became a tool of the propaganda machine, and soon the Ministry of Culture, created in 1976, actively promoted artists that followed its mandates of art created for the “common good” and promotion of the Party . By the 1980’s, a brief period of time touted by the Ministry of Culture to be the “Cuban Renaissance,” a number of emerging artists had involved themselves in the Rectification process. Rectification involves the repairing of the system within the system and does not
involve dissent with the ideological principles behind Cuba’s failing economic state. Instead, artists concerned themselves with refining the methods and inner workings of the Communist system in order to truly bring about its ideals . Others openly protested government oppression and soon found themselves unemployed, imprisoned, or executed.

The “Generation of the 80s,” the diverse group of artists that came of age during this time period, attempted to revolutionize Cuban art through experimentation and a breaking from traditional art forms. There were three generations within the “Generation of the 80s,” divided less by age, content, or chronology than by overall sense of purpose in their art-making. The First Generation, epitomized by the Volumen I exhibit in 1981, demonstrated a self-referential awareness not steeped in the dogma of the Party, while also paying attention to aesthetic value. They also engaged in Happenings and group
collaboration. Artists in the first generation included José Bedia, Juan Padilla, José Manuel Fors, Flavio Garciandía, Israel León, Rogelio López Marín, Gustavo Monzón, Ricardo Rodríguez Brey, Tomás Sánchez, Leandro Soto, and Rubén Torres Llorca. The Second Generation generally lacked a sense of vision having come at a time of relative stability. They, too, contributed a number of talented artists, such as Consuelo Casañeda, Gustavo Acosta, Humberto Castro, José Franco Codinach, Carlos Alberto García, Magdelena Campos, Anotonio Eligio Fernandez, Marta María Pérez, and Moisés de los Santos Finalé.

The Third Generation, of which Juan Sí González is a part, delved wholeheartedly into political ethics and deconstruction of Communist Party language and paid significantly less attention to the aesthetic value of their work. These artists abandoned the individualism evident in the Second Generation, and instead collaborated extensively. Grupo Provisional, Arte Calle, Grupo Puré, and Grupo Iman were a few of the art groups in the Third Generation.

Born in Santiago de Cuba in 1959, Juan Sí González grew up embracing the concepts of the Revolution, but eventually he rejected the government’s teachings as he witnessed and experienced firsthand political oppression The young González, a graduate of the Superior Institute of Art and the Cuban Institute of Art and Cinematography, at first enjoyed political support and success as an illustrator and graphic designer. Like others in his generation, nostalgia for the pre-Revolutionary Cuba did not hamper his creative output, and he abandoned traditional abstract art forms and photorealism for video and performance art. A member of Grupo Iman and Reunión, González participated in Arte Calle and the Galería L. As his work became more controversial, he found himself relegated to cleaning the streets, his art censored because of its political nature.

Cuban artists of the Third Generation had a penchant for using found materials and unplanned opportunities to express themselves, and Juan Sí González proved himself to be no exception. Pairing up with Jorgé Crespo, a disillusioned lawyer, González set up performances every Wednesday night at G and Twenty-Third Streets at five in the afternoon. Because the newspapers would never announce these pieces, the artists depended largely on direct communication for advertising their works.

Though timid at first, eventually the artists gained confidence, developing bolder and more offensive political pieces. For La secretaría ideal (Plate 1, lower right hand corner), a fully-dressed young woman with the photo of a nude female body draped in front of her made a blatant statement about prostitution and Cuban youth, and in Me han jodido animmo (Plate 2), Juan Sí enveloped his body in plastic. These performances took place in guerrilla fashion, with the artifacts for each event hidden within a briefcase toted around by the participants. Eventually the authorities were notified. For one performance, the
authorities threatened imprisonment if González and his cohorts unveiled their artwork. Undaunted by the imminent threat, the artists continued the performance, leaving the covered artifacts in plain view of the audience. The blatant censorship exhibited that night became the performance. Interrogations, brief imprisonment, confiscation and destruction
of artwork, and a continued authoritative presence increased. They moved to San Fuego, where they lived within a community of the visually impaired. Again, they used their art to protest censorship, but this time they used Braille. Working undercover with Amnesty International, Juan Sí González collaborated on a series of undercover interviews that exposed human rights abuses in Cuba. This work, along with controversial videos produced with Crespo, increased political pressure on Juan Sí, and in the early 1990s he fled to Costa Rica. During this time period, Jorge Crespo and Eliseo Valdez were sentenced to two years in prison for their work with Juan Sí, and González joined the group of Cuban exiles unable to return to the homeland.

In 1993 Juan Sí González came to Miami. Unable to speak English, he found that a new barrier – language – limited his ability to express himself. Nevertheless, the following year he performed in Art Miami with Art is Nourishing. Providing bread, cheese, and wine, González organized a free food event. Young people actively participated, and local restaurants complained because their customers were choosing bread over their exquisitely priced cuisine. Where was González during the feeding frenzy? Dressed like a busboy, and unable to mutter more than a few words in English, the artist set himself to the task of serving the participants. For another piece, Internal Exilio/Exile (Plate 3), González set up a mock reading room in a store window. In 1999, using the same venue, the artist arranged an elegant dining room table where he was served rice and beans and danced with a fellow diner for Hoy Como Ayer (Plate 4). In actuality, the impoverished Juan Sí lived in the store
window during the exhibit, the food served to him being his only stable sustenance. English can Raices (Plate 5) explored the exploitation of immigrants through expensive language programs guaranteeing perfect English in just a few days. During the 1990s Juan Sí González continued with his performance pieces in Miami while exhibiting video work in New York where his Grupo Iman brother Crespo now lived. In 2002 Juan Sí moved to Yellow Springs, Ohio, accepting a professorial position teaching Latin American literature and art.

There in the heartland of America, partnered with his second wife Dallas Paloma, life as a father enveloped him. Departing from the usual politically caustic work, the pair, under the new name JParalelos, created Interface/Interfase, an installation that details the private struggles of getting pregnant. A photo of Dallas emboldened with bloody tampons stated, “I wait but I continue to bleed.” Another image series followed the graphic steps of the González’s vascectomy reversal. Scrabble-style words, prevalent throughout the bulk of Juan Sí’s recent work, lined the steps, the walls, and the floors of the gallery space
(Plate 6). A chart parallels the chronology of the husband and wife team, focusing on times they may have met in the past had fortune intervened. The two collaborated on other works, such as Memory Livido (Plate 7) and For Home and Country (Plate 8), where even the young Camilla participated in her first performance art piece.

After a decade of not being able to express himself because of language, Juan Sí González finally found his voice again. Armed with broken English, he began questioning the government’s actions, except this time the target was the United States. A talented photographer with an eye for the absurd, González began snapping photos that paralleled
the propaganda of his homeland (Plates 9-11). These images he compiled initially for the 2006 exhibits Natural American Spirit and For Home and Country, later incorporating them into Patriotic Games and the Domino Effect.

Juan Sí González’s current work centers on the theme of fear and propaganda. He sees a parallelism between the practices of the Cuban government and the American government in regards to political dissension, promotion of ideology, patriotism, and the role of art in the midst of this turbulent time. Despite his fear and seemingly anti-
American rhetoric, González values the United States because of its diversity and its Constitutional protection of free speech. These are ideals which González feels should be shared throughout the globe, not capitalism and weaponry. Juan Sí González strongly opposes America’s military presence throughout the world, voicing strong objections to the
Embargo and the war in Iraq. In addition, González is a member of the Latin America Working Group, an advocacy group that promotes foreign policy decisions which benefit Latin American countries and immigrants. He continues to lend his service and art to such organizations, attempting to bring about change through awareness.

When Juan Sí speaks about free speech in the United States, he notes that in America, while one has Constitutional rights prohibiting censorship, there is a different type of self-censoring that takes place. Especially in his hometown of Yellow Springs, Ohio, he finds that those that voice opposition to the current administration’s policies in Iraq are quickly labeled “unpatriotic”. While he can freely express what he thinks, there exists a general social disapproval of certain viewpoints. In addition he outlines the correlation between the Bush administration’s links to capitalism and private enterprise,
which propagate the enmeshing of patriotism, war, and religion. González believes that “democracy is not a slogan,” yet finds that commercialism has created a country where even Jesus is a product used to promote war and what he labels as American terrorism – the invasion of Baghdad. “Ignorance and misinformation” leads to “hate, prejudice, cynicism,
and duplicity, and later to apathy.” Continued exposure to this inundation of ideology robs society of its ability to judge and think, leading to a loss of civil liberties without a single ripple of dissension.

For Home and Country found Dallas and González using some of the performance actions that would later become a part of Patriotic Games and the Domino Effect. For this exhibit, instead of an actual metal detector, the pair used a plastic Star Wars light saber to examine each person (Plate 12). The participants in For Home and Country did not expect the impromptu security checks, and many were offended. JParalelos provided delicious American dishes on plates and cups imprinted with the colors of the American flag (Plate 13). At the end of the show, each person was encouraged to take a hand wipe in
order to “…wash your hands of all of this!” (Plates 14-15) This warning would also accompany Natural American Spirit, shown at the Archetype Gallery in Dayton, Ohio. Natural American Spirit showcased thirty-five photos that demonstrated the intertwined relationship between commercialism, war, and religion. Artifacts included a red, white and blue bomb-shaped water bottle and a Wal-Mart “Hero” toy soldier. Both of these shows would provide fertile ground for Juan Sí González’s next endeavor.

Patriotic Games and the Domino Effect, presented at Florida International University this past fall, addressed these issues in an absurdly poignant manner. After bypassing Juan Sí, who played an overzealous Homeland Security officer, each “passenger” carefully attached a miner’s lamp to his or her head. Attendants handed out a series of instructions. Each rule began with “For security reasons it is required that…” and continued to list a variety of safety procedures necessary for proper protection. A large square monolith, reminiscent of an airplane’s black box, and etched with Scrabble-style words
“power,” “rhetoric,” and “hate,” swallowed the hapless patrons in its cavernous darkness. Once inside, muffled ramblings about democracy filled the cramped space as men and women attempted to maneuver about without blinding each other. Photographs, bright with red, white, and blue propaganda covered the walls, while on the floor, stuffed Wal-mart
bags formed bizarre obstacles. Images of patriotic merchandise, American religious mandates, military toys, and a clueless Jessica Simpson flashing a “Peace” sign, were among the plethora of snapshots. Messages of hate, also bathed in the stars and stripes, visually screamed racist epithets under the guise of radical patriotism. Though a ridiculous caricature
of America’s paranoia, Patriotic Games and the Domino Effect did challenge each participant to unveil their eyes and truly see that insidious thread of propaganda spoon-fed to each American via the media and commercialism.

Juan Sí González’s next piece involves the rediscovery of Cuba within his new American homeland. Within the borders of the United States exist nineteen small cities christened with the name “Cuba.” Juan Sí has made it his mission to travel to each of these communities, many within the heartland of America, to meet his “Cuban” brothers and sisters. Documenting his travels through photography, he has created a new map of Cuba,

all within the United States. His fascination with words continues, as he creates political statements out of billboards he encounters on his way. In one photograph, a Burger King thrives at the foot of a billboard that states “Cuba…100 miles.” González wonders if the image foreshadows a future Cuba once Castro has died and the Embargo has been lifted. Will his motherland become another capitalist haven? This project, Looking for Inside Cuba, originated in 2001, will take Juan Sí through Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, New York, Missouri, and a half a dozen other states. Having already traveled to some of these locations, González has discovered that his newfound family is not as accepting of their Cuban heritage as he had hoped.

Patriotic and piercing, Juan Sí González delivers controversial messages with a smile, exposing the United States as a country of both promise and fear. Satirical and honest, his art challenges Americans to avoid the tendency to blindly accept the government’s version of the truth. He continues to ask, “Who is truly patriotic? The dissenter or the government?” With a foot in both worlds, capitalist and communist, free and oppressed, González explains his role, “I was a dissident in Cuba, and now I’m a dissident here.” His performance pieces question contemporary society within the familiar context of commercialization and marketing, warning how “innocuous language is designed to provoke hatred and create dangerous divisions in the name of God or a national identity.” It is the fear of America becoming another oppressive nation like Cuba that fuels Juan Sí González, as he fights against our unquestioning consumption of governmental misinformation and propaganda. Truly he is a modern American patriot.


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