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
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
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
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