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Stealing Base: Cuba at Bat

Category:
Exhibition Essays

By Orlando Hernandez, Havana

Stealing Base: Cuba at Bat

I am the least ideal person to write this text. I am neither a connoisseur nor an enthusiast of baseball, much less a fanatic. Despite being Cuban, my relationship with the so-called “national sport” has been quite thin and as such very atypical, it seems to me either dominoes and “la bolita[1] could also claim that title. Perhaps my most evident link to what Cubans call la pelota is sharing a name with a world-class pitcher Orlando “El Duque” Hernández. But far from making me happy or proud, I must confess that this coincidence makes me a bit uncomfortable. Each time I extend my hand and say my name, especially in certain low-brow environments, I must endure, with a feigned smile, the same remark: “Ah, Orlando Hernández, like “El Duque”? That is to say nothing of a second negative consequence, particular to the digital age: the celebrity of his name has caused mine to be buried at the far bottom of any Google search. References to me only appear after additional search parameters like “Cuban art” or “art critic” are added.

My lack of competence to write about art and baseball, however, is not based on any bitterness about the fame of a retired Cuban baseball player who shares my name (or I his). Rather, another alarming fact. My heretical position follows from never having been a fan of any particular team. Being from Havana, or at least having lived here for more than 40 years, I do not suffer or get upset when our “home team,” the Industriales, loses a game or the National Series. If forced to choose sides, I would rather support “Team Cuba” or Cuban baseball in general. My uniform—if I had to wear one—would look a little eccentric because it would be a combination of blue, red, green, black, brown, orange, etc., and would don the insignia of each one of our teams. Still I don’t scream for joy when the Cuban team defeats Japan, the United States, or South Korea. In fact, I’d be inclined to applaud an opposing team if they play a better game. Haven’t the fastballs tossed by Japanese pitchers been the cause of recurring Cuban nightmares, as we see in the work of Reynerio Tamayo?

I definitely detest when baseball, or any other sport for that matter, functions with impunity as an instrument of chauvinism, regionalism, or serves as an expression of an exaggerated and xenophobic patriotism that only emboldens rivalries and a false sense of superiority. Such sentiments are far removed from the friendly spirit that should guide competitive sports. In reality, I don’t even like seeing the “opposing” team lose, and even less do I consider sporting adversaries my enemies. Isn’t it this kind of enmity, or desire to win at all costs, that Reynerio Tamayo has portrayed in the valiant Cuban baseball player wearing boxing gloves in his amusing work Boxing Ball? Or why master animator Juan Padrón has placed broken bats as the sharp stakes on which the Santiago team is about to impale the Industriales, as if the game were a never before seen episode of his animated film Vampires in Havana?

It makes me happy, for example, when a fly ball soars and becomes a home run, no matter where it came from or the color of the team that hit it. I delight at the ball make it over the fence, over the wall, evading the raised gloves. Those are the same gloves that the artist Arles del Río places before us. We are somewhat “starkly” invited to revel at the eagerness or indolence with which we sometimes expect things to fall from the “sky”—be that in the past the Soviet Union, and now perhaps Miami or Venezuela. And although it is true that perhaps “we all expect a fly ball,” as Arístides Hernandez (Ares) has said in his work, be that fly ball an airplane flight to god knows to where, or something much higher, spiritually speaking, we believe deserve it, and must jump to reach it.

For my part, I applaud the pure home run, the absolute “homer,” because I think it represents the untamable spirit of liberty and the exaltation of the energy, with which we can overcome all confinements, all oppressions, to leave behind all boundaries and transport ourselves beyond the here and now. Undoubtedly, that is the idea represented by the artist Frank Martinez using archival images in his painting, Otra manera de superar los límites (Another way to overcome limits). Another one of those mega-hits, that sends the ball out of the park and forces us to search for it in the parking lot or the clouds, is the work of Alejandro Aguilera. In his piece Bill and the baseball Game,” the artist invites onto his “team” none other than the famous self-taught artist Bill Traylor (Alabama, 1856-1949), an impoverished former black slave whose work is considered classic among the art of the American South. I’m pleased that a Cuban artist has decided to pay homage to such a simple and powerful man, whose dark and rotund poetry forces us to score a thousand runs, or at least the single decisive run of total freedom, beyond the small “diamond” and “fields” of a ball park.

Without any doubt, baseball is a great generator of implications, of meanings. It can be and should be used as a grand metaphor to express or to understand not only art, but the reality in which we live. In my case, my little knowledge of the sport could be an obstacle to discovering these hidden meanings. In turn, I am forced to proceed little by little, feeling my way around, “Stealing Base,” to reach the still invisible and probably unreachable “home base” of this simple text. Because, in all honesty, if, by chance, I thought to venture to “The Hot Corner,” with my knowledge of baseball, I could not even sustain a five-minute debate. Headquartered at the left wing of Havana’s Parque Central, the most prestigious baseball forum in Havana is just a few meters away from the first statue erected to honor Cuba’s Apostle, José Martí—the very monument that was desecrated by a drunken US marine named Richard Choingsy in 1949.

I recognize that this last comment is a deviation, akin to throwing a curve, since that event has nothing to do with baseball. However, I would like to consider it one of the historical factors that influenced the creation of this baseball-related open forum. The vehemence with which the current participants at the corner debate the game evokes the fiery discussions and protests that the unsavory act of desecration generated among Habaneros around the figure of Martí. This is the same Martí, in whom the artist Villalvilla has vested all the sober attributes of the umpire, the Just Judge, and the infallible referee, within our world full of faults and infractions.

On second thought, perhaps what is most notorious, and most meritorious, about the forum at Parque Central is not actually the debate over baseball at all, but the exercise of freedom of expression that this debate represents. In fact, the “Hot Corner” probably is the most open and polemical space for dialog in the entire city. It is also likely that the space has the most heterogeneous social composition, for in it engineers, doctors, laborers, office clerks, professors, ex-ball players, as well as criminals, functionaries, and the unemployed all take part equally, without their having been pre-approved or elected by anyone. They use baseball as a topic, as a pretext, but freely enjoy the hottest confrontation of diverse, conflicting, and often completely contrary opinions. Is then the game itself, and the subsequent analysis of its plays, strategies, and statistics, a small escape valve? Don’t ask me. What do I know?

In any case, thanks must be given to baseball for facilitating a public stage for the meeting of the ideas, the discussion, and the debate so needed in our society, because, as a work by Reynier Leyva Novo states, “La palabra le corresponde al pueblo” (The word belongs to the people). Is it possible that one of those fastballs from “The Hot Corner” could break out into the street, igniting the cold, slow, and ineffective character that contaminates our discussions, which have to do with our most pressing problems and necessities, with our national destiny? One can only wish.

To deepen my shame, I should also state that despite living in Havana’s Cerro neighborhood for more than 15 years, I have never, to this day, attended a single ball game at the famous Estadio Latinoamericano. Known to locals as the “Coloso del Cerro”, it is the equivalent –if Wikipedia is to be believed– of New York City’s Yankee Stadium. This fact could very well mark me, in the eyes of most of my compatriots, as truly unpatriotic, even “an enemy of the people.” And that saddens me, of course, because I think that it is time we Cubans get used to coexisting with diversity, with the existence of unique Cubans – atypical ones with different concepts and tastes in sports, aesthetics, religion, sex, yes and even politics. This is exactly what we see represented in Yunier Fernández Figueroa’s beautiful and original bats, all of them unique, and each with a different function, history, symbolism, and meaning. The artistic gesture seems intent on showing us that, despite our differences, we can continue playing together, perhaps the same game, or perhaps another.

People talk about baseball as an element of super-Cubanness, and here we touch again that old issue of our national symbols. In reality, however, the sport’s portrayal in the arts has been very sparse and understated. Despite thinking long and hard to find examples aside from the recent works mentioned here, I can only come up with two works that truly stand apart: the famous and controversial painting by Antonia Eiriz called La muerte en pelota (Death by baseball, 1966) and the September of 1989 performance by Cuban artists and art critics called La plástica cubana se dedica al béisbol (Cuban Fine Arts Dedicate Themselves to Baseball), also known subsequently as El Juego de Pelota (The Ball Game).

Significantly, both works are intimately related not to the opening of a National Championship or the Pan American Games, but to the unpleasant phenomenon of censorship. That is to say, in one-way or another, both were civic responses by artists to the intolerant attitude of official institutions toward freedom of expression. In the case of Eiriz, works like La muerte en pelota (Death by Baseball, 1966), El dueño de los caballitos (The Owner of the Carrousel, 1965), or Una tribuna para la paz democrática (An Open Forum for Democratic Peace, 1968), that are shown today, with astonishing ease, at the National Museum, although the museum guides do not mention the works’ real history. In their day they were officially deemed to to be “conflictive” or “pessimistic” works, which did not exhibit the triumphalist attitude expected from a revolutionary artist. Such receptions led Eiriz to abandon painting altogether and dedicate herself instead to making papier-mâché figurines with her neighbors in the Havana barrio Juanelo. She painted nothing at all from 1968 until approximately 1993, in other words, most of her life.

In the case of artists from the 1980’s generation, the malaise was collectively felt. On top of individual censorship, public spaces dedicated to showing avant-garde art, like the Castillo de la Fuerza Project, which had traditionally supported the young creators, began to close. The artists decided that if they could not continue creating on their own terms, without the State’s constraints, then they would do something completely different—play baseball. Although humor has never been absent in the rebellious attitudes of many of them, it was no joke. Soon it was clear that the erroneous decisions, which led to the creative “walkout,” were to have dire consequences. Almost immediately afterward began the mass exodus of artists to Mexico, the United States, Spain, Venezuela, etc. Therefore, both the large paintings and collages by Antonia Eiriz in the 1960s, as well as 1989’s El Juego de Pelota, must be understood as two huge sociocultural milestones in the history of Cuban art.

On the work La muerte en pelota (Death by Baseball), it is encouraging to find an artistic exploration as rigorous and attractive as that created by José Angel Toirac with his piece La muerte en pelotas (literally “Death by Balls,” but really “Death in the Nude”). This work is not only a well-deserved homage to Eiriz’s mordacity, but also offers new possibilities of interpretation of her impressive work. In his research Toirac uncovered the identity of the batter, previously an anonymous, phantasmagoric figure, through to his discovery of the original press photo used by Eiriz as model.

Looking at the total box score, it is curious to note that between La muerte en pelota (Death by Baseball, 1966), and El Juego de Pelota (The Ball Game, 1989), there is a 23-year interval, almost the exact same interval (24 years) that exists between that last event and the current pair of exhibitions (2013), both of which have baseball as their central theme: the Clásicos del Béisbol (Baseball Classics) at the ICAIC Culture and Film Center in Havana, and this one today at The 8th Floor in New York City: Robando base: Cuba al bate (Stealing Base: Cuba at Bat).

Are there any elements in this pair of 2013 exhibitions that can allow us to compare them to those other two of 47 and 24 years ago? In any case, I think that we can conclude that baseball has had a worthy role as active companion to that impugning, critical, and revolutionary spirit which Cuban artists have brandished almost permanently when facing with acts of dogmatism, official intolerance, and censorship. Thanks to that, we realize that the game is not yet over.

Orlando Hernández

La Habana, May 9, 2013

[1] A traditional illegal form of gambling that combines elements of Chinese charadas, numerology, and regular “numbers” lottery games. Traditional Cuban “bolita” games are based on drawings from a bag of 100 small, numbered balls. Players typically pay a small fee for a ticket to bet on matching the string of numbers pulled from the bag, with the jackpot divided among those players with the most matching numbers.

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