The Opening of the Exhibition
Thursday 2 March 2000 was the mother of all Cuban days for me – the opening of my third exhibition – this time right across the Atlantic Ocean, in the New World, tentatively entitled ‘Comunicando con el paisaje’, ‘communing with landscape’, i.e. with that of the Old World!
Stage fright had seized, at various times, first Mercedes, my pivotal contact, who had, by a sigh of an email, pleaded guilty to being stressed out about it two weeks before my coming to Cuba, followed by her gentle husband Juan, who talked of ‘mucha tensión’ the day before as he walked me home in his perfect gentlemanly manner, but in a tone that gave away that he had been worried about it for quite a while; and, at the very end, yes, ‘stage fright’ got to me as well – but only last, in that order. I had not really suffered from it; it was more a case of whether I would get everything done in time before leaving Canterbury. The only time when I became tense close to the event was around 3 o’ clock in the afternoon of the opening, when Mercedes and I arrived at the gallery, with our inaugural text in English and in Spanish completed, and found all my pictures still casually leaning against the wall, still stood up on the floor, with only two hours to go before the arrival of I did not know who.
Mercedes and I had been working all morning on the inaugural speech, Palabras de la Apertura, which I had drafted in the morning of the great day, unaware of the fact that Fernando Torres, the gallery director, had been doing the same, probably at the very same time, as transpired later. Surprisingly, I found myself writing my speech in 10 minutes flat, indulging in subtle understatement and not a little de-rigueur self-deprecation, a mode of English self-expression that had become so dear to my heart over the years of being honed into an Englishman. Needless to say, pleased as punch as I was about my little ‘after-dinner’ kind of speech, all tongue-in-cheek and inverted snobbism, all these English subtleties were, most politely, felt to be inappropriate for the occasion in Spanish, and so Mercedes perked up both tone and achievements in no uncertain way, which took several hours of step-by-step aggrandisement, a process of attrition that had a certain creative frisson to it.
When I first arrived at the gallery on the day after my late-night arrival, flanked on both sides by my most attentive friends Mercedes and Juan, the gallery space looked quite different from what I had expected, even though I had had a drawing of it sent to me by email before: the building was modern, all concrete and glass, rather like a secondary modern school with some artistic pretensions reminiscent of the late 60s. Big glass doors on the outside gave on to a free-floating, and somewhat bouncing, marble staircase up to the first floor that housed the exhibition space – a huge room that, at once, daunted with its size. I had not exhibited in anything like this size of space before, not even in the unexpectedly prestigious art gallery in Whitstable over the Millennium divide. The little flat carton pack, containing more rush matting as stiffening material than actual pictures, and my red ‘Tate Gallery’ roll, selected with tongue-in-cheek pretensions, in which I brought my poster-size offerings, seemed lamentably lacking in substance – in the face of the yawning space opening up before me.
What really threw me, however, was the inordinate mess of paintings, frames, sheets of glass, working tools and all manner of bric-a-brac strewn all over the seemingly vast floor, such as abandoned brooms, an African fly-whisk of a duster, teetering heaps of undulating water colours left on the floor, when I had expected a pristinely prim and proper, and, most of all, clean and empty hall ready for my input, especially in view of my late arrival on the scene. It was clear to me at once that no amount of goodwill and real hard work on my part to help, as promised, would bring my exhibition to life within one short afternoon, ready for next morning, as scheduled. These suspicions were confirmed to me by a number of people clearly ‘sleeping on the job’ on a government salary handout. An old black lady, with a kindly stoop and permanent listening posture, firmly sat ensconced in a cheap garden chair in the exhibition hall, being quite gainfully employed with nothing more than breathing in and breathing out at a moderate rate.
The gallery director, Fernando Torres, at first only stood out by his exceeding smallness. His stature was so short it seemed to lend his large Cuban cigar in his hand unseemly tumescent girth and proportion. Dressed in a blue-grey shirt, worn outside his trousers, with sown-in colour pattern patches straight out of an English folk festival gathering, he looked the very antithesis of a gallery director. Yet, he had large, kind ape-like eyes that grasped you firmly. He was an extraordinary blend of gentleness and leadership, leading by example, climbing up and down a step ladder to check measurements or cowering down on the marble floor to examine pictures and paintings put before him with a total lack of pretence or pretentiousness – a very Brechtian type of figure and approach to his work, I thought. He managed the feat of projecting a self-assured deference to the ‘artist’, in this case my humble self - with an output that fitted into two small awkward packages.
Several other people, all young, seemed to be floating around the scene like planets around the sun, performing the odd little chore with perfunctory sleight of hand. On the face of things, there seemed to be absolutely no rhyme or reason to any activities carried out, such as they were. One of these people that looked more like hangers-on than employees was an extraordinarily nice young man with intense eyes that looked at me with a mixture of caution and interest. He was called Sergio and he spoke a little English and so became my interlocutor when Mercedes was not present.
Mercedes is what we would best call a born ‘socialite’, extraordinarily good at melting into any group and, within seconds, emerging as their speaker or facilitator, due to an innate ability to listen well and use the information just received proactively. Quite fascinating. Presidential material, if there were a vacancy – not that her lovely husband, gentle Juan, could ever be president in such an imagined set-up. His manner was too affable and too shy, and his natural stoop too apologetic for that. He was thin and of slight build, and looked like a man who had been important once and humbled since, like the Czech president Dubcek of the Prague Spring era. I learned to love, appreciate and respect the many qualities he had but modestly kept to himself unless almost challenged.
I tried to make myself useful, doing whatever seemed most pressing without any obvious directives, and folded my exhibition catálogos, an A4 sheet, into three, inserting a Spanish version of my CV as I went, which had been concocted, with extraordinary facility, the night before after a Quaker meeting, which was an amazing experience in itself. While I was doing that, Mercedes, Juan and Sergio got involved in a deep discussion, standing huddled in a group in the vast exhibition space as if plotting a coup. They clearly enjoyed themselves very much intellectually, and time was no object for anyone, it seemed. I felt guilty at having sparked off this discussion with a brief confession to a sense of spirituality first experienced in India, but after having thrown it into the ring, at returning to making myself more obviously useful. It was Sergio who first broke loose from this spontaneous tete-a-tete, shrugging his shoulders to me apologetically with a parting ‘estamo filosofando’ and returning to what I now understood to be his job – putting my photographs into frames, locating them pleasingly as he did so.
Work ethics under communism – and in a hot and humid climate to boot – seemed very different, and I could not help a moment of concern and impatience at the thought of everything that still needed to get done. I would have never guessed that an opening could simply be postponed by as long as it might take to finish. Doing things in time does not seem an imperative.
It soon turned out, however, that although not up on the wall yet, all the pictures were located in the places I had chosen the previous day, and even grouped as I had wanted them. The only thing that was still missing was the picture captions to go on the walls by the pictures. Mercedes and I had prepared these earlier in the morning on my computer and her printer in Spanish by way of an amazingly successful trial-and-error method. Neither she nor I had any idea, however, how to produce consistent boxes for the captions and how to centre these inside them. But we soon found out, and I was brought up again sharp and short at the ability of people, whole nations, in dire need of everything to come to grips with things totally alien to them to start with in a way that seems to make formal computer courses appear to be an extraordinarily pedantic luxury. The result, there was no doubt, was totally professional!
Within seconds, to my surprise, my pictures, all 42 of them, now migrated up into their pre-measured positions, with Fernando, the gallery director, thinking nothing of doing much of the heaving and inching into place himself.
A further lot of pictures I had forgotten about – I had sent them to Cuba with Marigold by way of submission to the powers-that-be – had miraculously reappeared, and I was asked to place these to my liking on two large, low square exhibition tables people would have to walk around in the middle of the exhibition space. So, without even having planned it, there were over 60 pictures of mine in the show. Huge glass plates were laid on top of them on the tables, and the scene seemed nearly set.
To my surprise, a gaggle of young people had gathered outside the glass admission doors to the gallery an hour before time, and it was explained to me that these were the first visitors waiting to get in. A truly extraordinary feeling for me. Sure enough, I did not know what kind of promotional machinery had been grinding away in the background, without me knowing. All I knew was that the day before, Fernando and I, in one of these almost wordless exchanges where instinctive aesthetic concordance took precedence over words, placed two posters of mine plus cut-up pieces of the ‘catálogo’, as well as previous exhibition posters in a large display that had been put up by the side of the entrance to the entire university building.
The only thing left to do was to affix the captions to the walls in the right places, causing much flitting to and fro across the hall. However, it turned out that, unaccountably, we were short of captions for the largest posters as well as for the extra dome pictures Fernando had been very keen to include. In fact, on this occasion they were placed in ideal sequence on the back wall, divided symmetrically by a picture with a pointed church spire carrying an onion dome.
Suddenly a seemingly agitated woman, clearly determined, knocked on the glass doors, an hour before the due time, demanding to be let in. Juan went to her aid, as always cigarette in hand. His friendly protests that it was not time yet soon gave way to a ‘bueno’; the lady was let in, while the others remained outside, and she flooded me with a torrent of Cuban Spanish to the effect that she could not come later on, and whizzed around the show at lightning speed, yet taking it all in. Minutes later she made a bee-line for me, thanked me profusely, and, frankly, said a whole lot more of which I only understood ‘muy lindo’, which I recognised by then since other people amongst the gallery staff had found these words of appreciation before.
This little whirl-wind over, I suddenly realised that all the other people to do with the gallery had melted away into some back rooms, and I was the only person stalking about the place, with my ‘Palabras de la Apertura’ in my hand, which I was still, hopefully, going to read through before their delivery, now possibly only a few minutes away.
Just as I was going to search out the others and abandon the exhibition hall to a few moments of total peace and quiet, I noticed that my picture of the Taj Mahal reflected in water was the wrong way up, even though we had joked about it the day before. I found Fernando, and in a sudden flurry of speedy activity not seen before, the matter was put right, even the position of the picture within its frame was corrected to account for its different orientation. Peace and quiet reigned once more.
I now withdrew to the catacombs as well, and, incredibly, people were thronging outside the glass doors; unaccountably, it reminded me of the ‘pan et ludi’ spectacle in the ancient Colosseum in Rome we had been taught about in school, when the lions would be let in from the outside into the arena, and perhaps I was going to be mauled up by them.
Then came the moment. With a quick comradely gesture, Fernando now beckoned us out into the open space, and the doors were opened to the people crowding in. Needless to say, I had not, after all, got round to re-reading my speech!
People spread out through the gallery, and before I could gather myself together, the first people came up to me to make my acquaintance. I was simply astonished at the number of young people being clearly eager to see the exhibition and to talk to me. The little catálogos seemed to be so successful they went like hotcakes until the old black lady with the permanent listening stoop scooped them up and took them ‘backstage’, as it were, handing them out most discriminatingly at special, insistent requests only.
Suddenly, a fair-haired lady, perhaps in her mid-forties, with a gyrating sort of limp, approached me and addressed me forthrightly; somehow everyone seemed to know that I was the ‘artist’. She proved to be the new Austrian ambassador of, as it turned out, just three weeks’ standing. She was very friendly, very down-to-earth, and congratulated me on my pictures, already wielding one of my leaflets in her hands. If she had read it, I could not help wondering what she would have made of my CV – gypsy roots, Jewish reference and turned British quisling all in the space of a few introductory lines before you could catch your breath and say ‘Jörg Haider’. Yet, she was extremely friendly, with a no-nonsense upfrontness about her. As she had caught me unawares, I quickly summoned the gallery director as well as Juan and Mercedes to the scene and introduced her ‘highness’, the Austrian ambassador to them – my fifteen seconds of fame! The ‘embajadora’ proved quite adept at communicating in Spanish, English and Austrian, giving all three languages the same ‘na net?’ upturns at the end of her sentences. She told me she was from Graz and that I should come and see her at her ambassadorial residence in Havana’s diplomatic quarter and take lunch with her, and she evidently meant it because she took the trouble to look for a visiting card in her handbag to hand to me. So my good suit, which Mercedes wisely thought would simply stand up all the other guests at the official opening, would get an outing in Cuba, after all!
Fernando then persuaded her to stay for just a few more minutes to be present during his and my inaugural speech. We all stood around in a circle – I was told later on some 160 people, while Fernando read out his speech - rather too quietly and monotonously, pausing only when enunciating my name Rainer very clearly while turning to me.
Then it was my turn to read out my ‘palaver’ in Spanish, and I tried to pause and meaningfully look at all the people I was acknowledging. I hardly knew what I was reading at that stage, but it seemed to be alright, and everyone seemed very focused. That done, the Austrian ambassador dashed off, but not before Juan had planted a most humble, traditionally Austro-Hungarian kiss on her hand, in a gesture meant to be suave but looking somewhat comical and off-balance.
Then it was the turn of other people to come forward. One group of two young student girls were especially open and heart-warmingly friendly, with a lovely black girl asking me quite uninhibitedly for my favourite picture in the display, and then giving me her favourites in return. She introduced herself as Maria-Luisa and turned out to be a photography student. This was then followed by a succession of other people who paid their compliments, amongst them a surprising number of extremely well dressed women, really chic and sophisticated. Their skin colours took in any shade of colour from snow-white to pitch- black. Some introduced themselves as painters or writers, even one publisher of foreign books who pressed his visiting card on me; he wanted to publish a book of my photographs for me.
Others were introduced to me by Fernando or Juan, amongst them a Chinese-Spanish Cuban photographer, a Mr Hung, who wanted to hog my attention for rather longer than decent, producing leaflets of work and exhibitions of his own from his pockets galore. He was into technical trickery with filters and multiple exposures, sweeping aside my comment of being in favour of natural simplicity.
I was struck, time and again, by the incredible diversity of faces and shades of skin colour, hair-styles from long flowing blond hair to tight frizzy hair in dignified old-age white, and even one or two young men in pony-tails. For a staunchly, stubbornly communist country, the diversity and sheer individuality and obvious self-assurance of all these people was truly bewildering. I felt very happy and elated, not just because I was at the centre of so much attention, but because I felt such affinity to all these different specimens of the human race. Here, my mixed-up roots made me an insider.
Amancio, the young head of the university’s computer department housed on the top floor of the building, in looks like a Nigerian with a knowing cat’s whisker’s smile permanently smirking on his bearded face, and barely a day over 20 years of age, it seemed to me, had set up the computerised slide show, accompanied by fairly loud Spanish pop music. Mercedes and I had decided to let him have his way, even though the music did not fit in with the contemplative nature of the pictures at all, but he reassured us that a big hall like ours needed a fairly beefy sound track to keep proceedings going ‘con alegría’ – and who was I to protest? He knew the music would be swallowed up by the sheer number of human bodies in the gallery, and he was absolutely right.
People happily stood in front of one of his computers moved down from the computer department and set up on a plinth in the exhibition hall. In the typical Cuban way of things, the computer had to be nearly cleared of everything else in order to accommodate the contents of the CD provided, and he knew it would work better if run from the hard disk direct. So this aspect, too, worked a treat, and people paid their respects to the computer as well, it seemed, so seeing another 120 or so pictures, before leaving the exhibition.
By 7.30 pm only the die-hards were left, amongst them a delightful young couple, always demonstratively entwined, who had clearly wanted to wait long enough to have a serious exchange about photography. The gentleman later proved to be a computer specialist who had set up Cuba’s most celebrated painter’s web site.
Some people troubled to enter a few words in the visitors’ book as well, started with some panache and flourish by the Austrian ambassador. Fernando later presented me with a photocopied set of all the comments, whose heart-felt nature and lines of quoted poetry brought tears to my eyes.
The person, unknown to me till then, from whom I rented my apartment in dingey, dark and dangerous downtown Havana in Calle 27 Noviembre, showed up as well, a tall, very white woman of some considerable sophistication in an immaculate trouser suit. Mercedes had described her to me before as the purest soul she knew, but to me she looked like an accomplished, man-eating temptress.
Most people troubled to pass by me briefly before leaving, in a gesture of extraordinary politeness. An ancient black writer, a lady with an amazing face and white hair, made herself known to me only on her departure and pressed her card into my hand. She wrote a poem in the Visitors Book, I was to discover later.
Would I ever be able to make use of all these potentially amazing connections? Mercifully, by this time I had learnt to say ‘Encantado’ with real conviction when meeting people, even if I was unable to add anything much further to it – for fear I should court a lot of lisped Cuban Spanish in return that would show me up as the utter fraud I felt. But a goodwill-smile went a long way.
The Chinese-Cuban photographer Mr Hung, sidled up to me once more, clearly needing to tell me of one more artistic exploit of his, and inviting me to visit him. Another invitation! Other people had also given me their visiting cards, and I was so flustered, I just handed them all to Mercedes whom I instantly promoted to my Commercial Manager, which she took with grace. To keep things balanced, Juan jovially accepted the role of Artistic Mentor of mine. As a celebrated painter and well-connected artist, he had been the real mover behind the scenes. Was all this real or were we just playing at it?
Juan, normally intense and introverted, was becoming more garrulous by the minute now, and his world-embracing gestures grew evermore expansive and encompassing. The reason for this was, of course, the Cuban rum for the reception that had enlivened all his parts normally deadened by the depression of the stone-broke, desolate artist that he now was whatever rank he may have held in the past in the Ministry of Culture, much respected by everyone though he was. It was a pleasure to see this lovely, gentle, quiet man enjoy himself so much, even if his speech was beginning to slur a little.
His strong-minded wife, Mercedes, did her hosting thing as only she could, always being aware of who needed to be spoken to at any one time.
Fernando, the gallery director, loosened up as well and began to crack a few jokes, spontaneously grasping my arm to swing it up and down in friendly relief at the obvious, yet somewhat unexpected success of the show. He had taken an extraordinary risk by putting on my exhibition. They were very pleased with themselves and with me. And I was pleased not to have let them down at all. Fernando was so delighted with the success he kindly offered to have his hand-written opening speech re-typed and given to me as a memento.
I now spotted the lovely, young black lady in her white tropical hat, with her large soulful eyes underneath, who I had sat next to the previous evening in a roadside flat at a most incongruous Quaker meeting that Juan and Mercedes had taken me to. She was very effusive, too, and got quite carried away with a proposal she was making on the spot, namely that we would set in train a ‘last supper’ kind of ‘clausura’ – a send-off gathering for the exhibition of an invited artistic community, in which she would match the colours of my pictures on the wall in tropical fruit and vegetables placed on a long refectory table in the middle, a lovely idea, I thought.
My head was buzzing – and far too big for my own good. My halting, apologetic explanation that everyone was only allowed 15 minutes of fame met with incomprehension or fierce opposition by those who could make the cultural leap.
Sergio and his lovely, diminutive girl-friend, who, disarmingly, he had introduced as ‘hopefully his future wife’, had disappeared into one of the small ‘satellite rooms’ around the big exhibition hall to enjoy an orange, a prized fruit barely affordable by anyone, only to end up forcing it on me as a sign of friendship.
Fernando’s wife, in a charming show of loyalty, had turned up to go home with her husband, and both Juan and Mercedes were really pleased with the way things had gone – as, indeed, was I. I could not have wished for a better opening, and far from finding it stressful, I basked in the genuine warmth and affection – and total, unreserved acceptance offered to me by everyone.
By the time we left the building, the night porter, with his fierce dog beside him, already manned the desk opposite my huge promotional display at the entrance, with a ghetto-blaster rocking the marble staircase in the night of the building.
Fernando picked up his bicycle, and in view of his wife’s arrival, walked it along the pavement with her, while an unusually happy Juan placed a gentle, guiding hand on my shoulder, not only to steer me in the right direction but also to steady himself a little.
Thank God, I had only taken a little sip of Cuban rum. It was numbingly strong. The success of the exhibition had done quite enough to go to my head, without need for fortification, or rather enfeeblement.
Thank you very much, I thought, to whoever and whatever made me embark on this undertaking, my first comprehensive solo show abroad, and to all those who had helped me with various aspects of it. The pleasure was all mine! Muy encantado!
The Exhibition Guestbook
Content © R Reisenberger, 2000