In Havana last month I was out in Espacios with a friend, Rita McNiff. Rita (Irish-American) runs tours in Cuba and has been living in Havana for about 6 years. Rita introduces me to a friend of hers, Jeff. Jeff stands for Jose Emilio Fuentes Fonseca, he is the artist who created the elephants on parade in the Miramar Trade Centre in Havana and he has a great story.
The next morning, Rita and I visited Jeff at his home/studio, he gave us a tour and then brought us over for a tour of the elephants.
When he was a child in Viñales (he’s 47 now) he picked up a hand grenade in a field that blew off most of his left hand. I mentioned that he was lucky that that’s all that happened with a hand grenade, it must have perished somewhat over the years, but I suppose luck is relative!
Anyway, as a child he dreamed of having a large family, lots of brothers and sisters to play with in the countryside. For whatever reason, he ended up being an only child. Then when he got married, he dreamed of having lots of kids to make up for his own lonely childhood. He found out he is sterile, he believes it was due to chemicals he was exposed to as a child in Cuba. So no kids.
He went to ISA in Havana and graduated as an artist. In 2009 he tried to enter the 10th Havana Bienal ( art show held in Havana every two years to promote modern art from developing countries) with his herd of elephants.
He close elephants as he always thought of them as very caring, social, gentle, family-oriented animals, which I suppose they are. And for him they represent the families that he did not get to have, as a child and later as an adult.
He was turned down for entry into the show as he was told elephants “have no relevance to Cuba”.
So he turned to guerrilla tactics. On the night before the show started, he got 45 friends and whatever vehicles he could, to line the elephants up on the Malecon, 12 elephants, adults and young, near the Prado and the friends stood guard (they were moved after that to a different location every 8 hours for the 5-week duration of the show).
On the morning the show opened, the installation that the art world talked about most was the herd of elephants on the Malecon. Since then, Jeff has had an invitation to every Havana Bienal.
An extremely nice guy, I ended up spending quite a bit a time with him, some great insights into the Cuban art scene and industry, basically it’s still the Wild-West. Tax-evasion, fraud and money-laundering is still the norm and seemingly officially accepted. When I explained to him that this would not happen in most other places he said, “Claro si, pero aqui el sistema de impuestas es muy joven!”
He has been commissioned by the Cuban government to install a piece outside one of the ministries, I can't remember which one. He showed me a picture of the piece as it will be when finished. An 11 metre (4-story) tall tree with a life-size mother elephant talking the last leaf off it to feed it to her child, representing shortages and sacrifice in Cuba. It's extraordinary.
In his home/studio he is building a bar and small barbeque restaurant, the proceeds of which will fund a foundation for young artists. It looks like it will be a bit like a mini-FAC, I promised I’d have an event there and I'd love to. It will probably hold 20-50 people and in Vedado, not far from the Habana Libre. It should be open by February. I think it will be a great little spot.
He likes cigars, at lunch one day in Espacios he bought a Monte 2. I made sure it was the last cigar he bought in my company. I can’t speak highly enough about him. One of the people I met on this trip that reminded me how much I missed Havana.
By the way, any Americans thinking of travelling to Cuba, get in touch with Rita. Nobody knows better than her the requirements and procedures for US-residents getting to Cuba at the moment.
Jeff at his home/studio in progress
Jeff and Rita
The Jeff Jeep
At the Miramar Trade Centre. He uses Hydro-forming expansion to make the pieces. He has a horse and a calf (I know) outside Espacios
On my last night, I was going to have a early night, Jeff and Rita came out to dinner with some other friends to Restaurante Yarini in Habana Vieja. After a birthday party for Punch Joe there and a birthday party for Punch Joe in Espacios, we (the stragglers) ended up in 1ra y 70 in a bar called Bom Apetit.
This was Baileys as we had already had a bit of a mix over the night that involved, wine, rum, tequila, amaretto, Frangelico etc. That's Vivian Melendez, manager of the LCDH Melia Cohiba, with us. Fun night/morning.
A well-ventilated ride home. That's Jessica, one of the waitresses from Espacios who joined us in 1ra y 70 after her shift. I'd spent some time with her and her boyfriend the previous week.
The bar at Jeff's studio.