View Abelito's works  

Abel Pérez Mainegra, known as "Abelito," identifies himself as a "pintor primitivo." "Primitive," politically incorrect in our own vocabularies, is replaced with 'autodidactic" or, even worse, in my thinking, "outsider." Outside of what? Outside academic artistic practice certainly, and for that reason, often free of standards that may not always be liberating.

Who are other "primitives" that come to mind, and what might they have in common with Abelito? Henri Rousseau "Le Douanier" is probably the best-known primitive, with works prominent in art history and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Others are Mose Tolliver, Bill Traylor, Clementine Hunter--- African-American artists whose work came to the attention of the mainstream art audience with the "Black Folk Art" exhibition originated by the Corcoran Gallery in Washington that then toured nationally during the early 1980s. Like Abelito, they employ devices that are hallmarks of primitive painting: flat areas of often brilliant color, patterning--- dots, stripes, concentric circles, stars--- and a disregard for Renaissance illusionism. No fictive space. The work is direct--- in the process of its making and in the content it propels.

But aren't some of those stylistic markers also the trademarks of abstract expressionism? The absence of differentiation between foreground and background, the non-hierarchical arrangement in which the center and the edge are equal in importance? All-overness? Abandonment of verisimilitude? Perhaps the appeal of primitive painting for contemporary eyes comes, in part, from the sense that primitive painting is so contemporary.

But the real appeal vitality of the work is its vitality. It is exuberant. First, the animation of his surfaces. Abelito fills every space with dots or hot colors, words or flags. The blood-spattered deck of a ship fuses with cannonballs against the sea in a battle between pirates and Spaniards.

But it is distinct from modernism in its persistent emphasis on the figure and story-telling. Abelito is a history painter. He records and celebrates the whole bloody chronicle of Cuba's epochs of slavery, wars, exploitation, revolution, and player in world events. His memorializes the heroes of the Cuban Wars of Independence, with Antonio Maceo most prominent, his hair bristling and his moustache curling to echo a grimace. He depicts the massacres of the indigenous peoples. He records current events up to the minute. There is even commentary on the Elian incident and the U.S. Presidential election.

But most of all, Abelito lauds José Martí and the heroes of the Revolution: Fidel, Camilo, Che. These figures are ubiquitous in Cuba, with busts of José Martí in front of every school, factory, gas station, and ministry office. Che is most frequently depicted, the heartthrob of every Cuban girl and the role model of many of the boys. "Seremos como Che." We'll be like Che. Every Pionero school child is instructed to follow this model of self-sacrifice and commitment, to emulate the inventor of "trabajo voluntario"--- working beyond your job for no pay. Che worked in the nickel mines, on the docks, all with no sacrifice of sex appeal. Abelito's heroes are formulaic, but they exude real love for these men who liberated his country.

A particularly charming piece shows Camilo Cienfuegos, believed to have been lost at sea when his plane mysteriously disappeared, alive and well and riding a seahorse over the waves. In Abelito's vision, Camilo is not dead, just cavorting with the mermaids.

Abelito was 29 when the Revolution changed everything. But he has lived and worked his entire life in Trinidad, the city that sugar built, and that UNESCO has designated a Heritage of Humanity. It is a small city renowned for its architecture, not only for the mansions of those who made their fortunes in the industry that still occupies the greatest land area and mental space in the country, but for the local residential architecture. Abelito and his extended family occupy one of these traditional houses. And while everything may have changed in 1959, Trinidad has probably had a better time of it. Tourism came early to bolster the economy, and its way of life is probably less deeply altered just because distance from the capital allows for certain things to go on more or less as they always have.

Abelito paints in the house, one front bedroom stacked with works. A nephew is also a painter and another, a musician. Abelito remains close to home, but the work travels. It has been shown in five foreign countries. He has had more than 45 exhibitions since 1991.
- Marilyn A. Zeitlin

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