andrew kruse-ross | creative neighbors | april 2016
Just a few short days before U.S. President Obama was to embark on a journey 90 miles south of U.S. shores to visit with Cuban President Raul Castro, Cuban-born artist Eduin Fraga and his wife, Christin DePouw, sit down to discuss his work.
Fraga has predicted the historic visit well in advance as depicted in “La visita de Obama." The piece, like his others, is mixed media, incorporating collage, painting and drawing to represent social themes – most of those themes are representative of a Cuba few American's will know. “La visita de Obama" depicts the Obamas on either side of Castro. Seated next to them is Roberta Jacobson, the assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs. All are smiling and seated upon the MalecÃ³n, the expansive roadway and seawall that stretches some five miles along the coast of Havana. It is one of the city's most popular and iconic destinations. Interestingly, its construction began during America's temporary military rule of Cuba in the years following the Spanish-American War and was completed, in stages, by various Cuban governments. Seated some distance away from the smiling dignitaries, and looking somewhat left out, is EliÃ¡n GonzÃ¡lez. The custody and immigration case of Gonzalez brought Cuban-American relations into the cultural spotlight in 2000. Seated even further away is Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Rubio is the son of Cuban immigrants and an outspoken supporter of the embargo against Cuba.
DePouw, now an associate professor at UWGB, was involved with a study abroad program through UW Eau Claire when she met Fraga in Havana. Fraga displayed his work at his home studio – a converted garage – that was frequented by students in the study abroad program. He jokes that the studio was a means to “trap" lady visitors that came to see his artwork.
“I was nervous to see the paintings," adds DePouw, “because if they were bad we couldn't continue [dating]." Fraga's work passed the test, and the two were married in 2014.
Fraga's formal artistic education is somewhat limited; he took drawing and painting at a post-secondary school – the American equivalent of a vocational school, but he already had a burgeoning career as an artist.
As a mixed media artist, Fraga employs both acrylic and oil-based paints. Pencil, charcoals and pastels are also used, but it is his use of collage, more specifically, newsprint, that is his hallmark and adds further depth to his work. For those works that display life in his native Cuba, Fraga uses four newspapers – all of them Cuban. They are the communist newspaper Granma; Trabajadores, representing the Workers' Central Union; the local Havana newspaper Tribuna de La Habana; and Juventud Rebelde, a newspaper geared toward the youth.
Fraga attempts to match these newspapers with his subject matter. For example, in his work “Pioneros," which depicts grade school students in the traditional uniform of the Pioneers of Communism (red shorts or skirt with blue neckerchief), the red of the shorts and skirts is provided by Fraga's use of the multiple Granma logos, the communist newspaper. The blue in the neckerchiefs is provided by the use of multiple Trabajadores logos. But Fraga's use of newsprint doesn't stop here.
In his work “Cola del pollo por pescado," people are seen waiting in line at a state-run store to buy subsidized food. Strangely, for an island nation, fish is in short supply and when fish rations are low, chicken is used as a substitute. Here, the artist has been selective in his use of newsprint. In the background, behind the faceless subjects, is a printed list of items – including huevos (eggs), pollo (chicken) and mortadella (sausage) – and the rations each family is allowed.
In other instances, Fraga uses his work to oppose the headlines that appear in the Cuban newspapers, which are tightly controlled by the government. “Sometimes he uses the contrast between the real situation and the headline," explains DePouw. “The whole context of the painting shows that this headline should be read in the opposite way."
Lines play a prominent role in Fraga's work, as they are so prevalent in Cuba due to shortages. “It's very common in Cuba," says Fraga with a laugh. He admits to having spent much time in line himself. He explains that as the Cuban economic situation declined, the lines increased. Household items are in high demand and difficult to obtain. News travels quickly when a store suddenly has a needed item for sale –such as baby wipes – and a first-come-first-served system is employed. Cell phone cards are always in short supply, according to Fraga. And many that own a cell phone are left without service.
“I just wanted to show the social problem that we have in the country," says Fraga. Adding to such problems are Cuba's two forms of legal tender, the Cuban peso (CUP) and the Cuban convertible peso (CUC). The CUC can be valued at 25 times that of the CUP. However, those working for the state are generally paid the bulk of their wages in CUP. And certain stores will only accept one currency or the other. Essentially, one currency (the CUP) is reserved for basics like fruit and vegetables. The other (CUC) is used for all else. If it sounds confusing, that's because it is. “So if someone receives 400 pesos for their monthly salary, this is maybe only 20 dollars in CUC, but to pay for your monthly cell phone bill you have to pay in CUC, so you're spending a week's salary to recharge your cell phone," explains DePouw.
This system has caused many Cubans to forego the work offered by the state and the promise of devalued money to seek out a living by other means. Cubans have gotten creative in finding ways to make ends meet – including buying up scarce items in bulk whenever possible to resell them to others. “I've seen people with a shopping cart full of baby wipes," says DePouw.
In his work, “La vendedora de javas," a woman sits on the sidewalk with her back propped up against a building. She looks as though she may be asleep or nodding off. In her hand she holds plastic bags she hopes to sell to passers by. Fraga says this is a common sight around farmers markets, where vendors do not supply a means to carry the items they sell.
Earlier in his career, Fraga worked jobs outside of his art and says the early days were the most difficult, but he pressed on, making connections with others and amassing a collection of work to sell. With the job market and economy in Cuba a shambles, the decision to devote himself to selling paintings full-time was easier than it might have been otherwise. He could simply earn more money painting than working a traditional job. Fraga, now 42, has been a full-time artist for 17 years.
Whether depicting vintage cars, food shortages, or men passing the time with a game of dominoes, Fraga's work requires multiple looks. It is at first visually interesting and stark in its depiction of ordinary lives. It's simple and honest. Upon closer inspection it tells a story, often quite literally, bringing further depth and meaning to his subject matter. Fraga chronicles a history that is identifiably Cuban, but it doesn't have to be. The faceless people that reside in his work remind the viewer that they could be anyone, even us.
Fraga's work has been exhibited in Cuba, Germany and the United States.
His work is currently on display at the Trout Museum in Appleton in a juried exhibit along with 100 other artists.
Locally, his work is on display at Liberty Café, 228 N. Adams Street, in Green Bay and the Wisconsin Arts Gallery, 1780 E. Allouez Ave, in Allouez.
Visit eduinfraga.com for more information.