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Review: '11 Days' Exhibit By Cuban Artist Chooses Joy Over Death

Freedom For Everyone Including Me
Natalie Weis
Freedom For Everyone Including Me

Among more than two dozen exuberantly painted canvases on the walls of Moremen Gallery, a flat-panel screen plays a KET documentary about one particularly treacherous crossing undertaken by migrants making their way toward the United States from Central America. Journalist Judy Woodruff introduces the report with the warning that the “images...may disturb some viewers.”

Yet the images in “11 Days,” the first U.S. solo show by Cuban immigrant José Manual Puerto Nápoles are far from disturbing, despite the fact they depict the painter’s own experience completing the same harrowing journey documented by the reporter. A few years ago, Nápoles was among the hundreds of people — most fleeing political persecution, war, famine and other atrocities — who attempted to traverse the Darién Gap, an extremely dangerous stretch of terrain straddling Columbia and Panama.

In the video, migrants struggle to wade across rivers with currents rushing above their shoulders, grasping at tenuous vines to clamber over jungle walls, trudging through dense mud and vegetation as they pass the skeletal remains of others who had not been able to complete this same journey. One might readily expect that any group of paintings inspired by this most perilous of pilgrimages would be dark and distressing, yet the first words that come to mind when encountering Nápoles's work are ones like happy, vibrant, and playful. Joyous, even. 

“He’s always happy,” says his fiance, Maria, who helps translate for me when I meet the couple in the gallery. “In the hard moments, in the difficult moments, he tried to see the best part of the thing. He enjoyed the fact to be in the jungle, to be seeing nature, different things. And he used that to paint.”

Born in Sancti Spiritus, Cuba, Nápoles was trained in the classical tradition of drawing, painting and sculpture, and later taught in one of the nation’s arts academies. But the work he created outside the school was delightfully humorous and subversive, employing elephants, rabbits and other animals in bright cartoonish compositions that critiqued a government he viewed as oppressive, degrading the quality of life in Cuba. The government, for its part, took notice of Nápoles’s work and briefly imprisoned him.

The artist then travelled to Venezuela, where he worked for a short time, exhibiting in two major gallery shows. The works he was now creating were a departure from his earlier pieces: oversized canvases prepared in the manner of Jackson Pollock, the famous American abstract expressionist Nápoles had studied at the academy. Venezuela, however, was increasingly falling into economic crisis, so that living and working there was becoming prohibitively expensive. Nápoles knew he could not return to Cuba after experiencing Venezuela’s relative freedom, so he set his sights on traveling to the U.S. In what would become a roughly 30-day journey through nearly a dozen different countries, no stretch was more hazardous than the 11 days he spent crossing the Darién Gap with a caravan of refugees, among them about ten fellow Cubans, many of whom are represented in the current exhibition. 

The painting Woman With A Gun, for example, is a triumphant portrait of the lone female of this cohort, a Cuban woman with unusually blonde hair. Clad in an orange miniskirt and a kelly green t-shirt, the woman stands amid red and pink flowers blooming under rain clouds, her mouth contorted in a wide grin of jack-o-lantern teeth as she clutches a rifle across her chest. 

Nápoles paints in what some might consider a faux naif, or “falsely naive” style, largely abandoning Renaissance conventions of linear perspective and chiaroscuro for a more primitive, childlike approach that uses simplified forms and an imaginative color palette unrestrained by reality. The effect, when combined with the weighty subject matter of his work, is as unsettling as it is exultant: victory of joy over death.

Nápoles refusal to succumb to despair is evident in another of the works, Me Eating Myself, which portrays a moment in the Darién Gap when they were offered a dead monkey to eat. Though some may have considered it repulsive, Nápoles regarded the meat as a gift, delighting in its evolutionary proximity to his own DNA; the title of the work reflects his own laughter in the face of desperation.

Other works in the show include tightly cropped portraits that might recall the sort of monsters that stalk children’s books, but actually illustrate the intense fear that haunted the faces of Nápoles’s fellow travellers — especially the Africans, he says. In Freedom For Everyone Including Me, the overpainted outlines of other faces bleed through the grotesque visage-like demons that prowl the nightmares of a child, the faintest scrawl of the word “liberty” beneath the subject’s desperate, upturned eyes.

That such real and present dangers as starvation, rape, robbery and murder, encountered by Nápoles and thousands of others in their quest for freedom and safety, could be transformed into figures that provoke no more terror than the imaginary beasts of fairytales is a true testament to the power of art, and our ability as humans, to reclaim our own narratives. Through painting, Nápoles shows us that beasts can be conquered, fear laughed out of existence and happiness something we make for ourselves, even in the darkest of circumstances.

“11 Days” is on view until February 13, 2021 at Moremen Gallery, 71o W. Main St., Second Floor. moremengallery.com


Support for this story was provided in part by the Great Meadows Foundation.

Kate Howard is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.