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Damian Aquiles Christies

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Damian Aquiles Christies

  1. 1. [ 000 ] [ INTERIORS ] The Havana home of Cuban artist Damian Aquiles is, he explains to Lydia Bell, a work in progress Living rooms Photography by Mark Luscombe-Whyte
  2. 2. [ 000 ] [ INTERIORS ] This page Living room of Damian Aquiles’ house with Czechoslovakian chandelier, 19th century bronze statue, Murano ashtrays from the 1940s and 1950s and mid-century furniture Previous page Turn of the century wooden statue of Santa Barbara. Garden with artwork from the series Infinite Time, Infinite Colour, Infinite Memory and Infinite Destiny (2006), made from found metal
  3. 3. [ 000 ] he home and studio of Cuban artist Damian Aquiles reflects the enchanting disintegration of Havana itself. Although unprepossessing and tumbledown from the outside – unadorned aside from a dangling, metal-hewn globular sculpture gracing a side terrace – inside it is a stage set of ruined beauty that always appears part-way to being renovated from a state of dilapidation. With double-height ceilings and a plain cross-formation corridor off which rooms cascade symmetrically, the house is as perpetual a work in progress as the works in it. Art and house interact symbiotically, the walls left, in the main, untouched, and brushed with water to reveal layers of old paint. Aquiles ushers me into one of his sitting rooms, which functions as a living art gallery. Small metal cut-outs of human figures appearing to be marching are mounted in formation. They are fashioned from metal taken from refrigerators, water tanks and other Cuban white elephants. They are part of the series Infinite Time, Infinite Colour, Infinite Memory and Infinite Destiny which has been exhibited in New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, Cuba, Canada and Spain. Aquiles describes them as ‘one of the leitmotifs of my career’. Making art from found objects is de rigueur in Cuba. Discarded, recycled materials are everywhere. Raw art materials, in this country still stymied by poverty and the US embargo, are not. ‘My work is deeply connected with the search for an object or material that may seem at first glance to not have any importance,’ Aquiles says. ‘When discovered I transform its context and meaning. I work with these materials, painting, pasting and sewing, adding to them, giving them a new history and a new life.’ ‘I live in a country where time is viewed very differently from the rest of the world,’ he continues. ‘Some say it feels like time has stopped in Cuba, but by the same token, time has eroded and aged many of the materials I work with. Their history and texture attract my attention.’ Thus, while Aquiles does not consider himself part of any particular group, has not been adopted by the Cuban establishment and is markedly less political than many artists of his generation who graduated in the 1980s and 1990s, he is definitively of his context. But if there is a political message it is artfully generalised: ‘This [Infinite Time] is a piece with multiple interpretations. But the main focus of it is the theme of “protest”; and the “marching” shows not all of us go in the same direction. Not all of us are a part of an idea. There is always a figure walking in the opposite direction of the others.’ On the opposite wall is a piece from the series Building My Silence, for which metal from paint cans has been stretched and nailed to wooden frames and assembled to form a mosaic or pattern. American cars, Russian cars and other discarded »
  4. 4. [ 000 ] [ INTERIORS ] 01 03 02 04
  5. 5. Painting: Industria leal (2006) acrylic and pastel on found canvas; 1950s Lucite lamp 01 Terrace of house with artwork from the series Infinite Time, Infinite Colour, Infinite Memory and Infinite Destiny 02 Damian Aquiles 03 Corridor of house with Untitled, mixed medium 04 Artwork from the series Infinite Time, Infinite Colour, Infinite Memory and Infinite Destiny; mid-century furniture and modern Sputnik lamp from Palm Springs
  6. 6. [ 000 ] [ INTERIORS ] metal objects combine to create these sculptures that ‘weave together Cuban stories’, he says. Cubans are open about their artistic influences, and Aquiles is no different. He is a self-professed disciple of artists who’ve developed careers with found material such as Rauschenberg, Tàpies and Kiefer. ‘Understanding these artists in particular and their work processes have helped me to create and inform my own development,’ he says. This house – to which his studio is adjoined at the back – was built in 1905 by one of Havana’s myriad American residents. The daughter of the owner – a Mr Cooping – married a Cuban but died childless in the 1960s. The maid of the house, Vicenta, inherited the house. It was Vicenta who was living here when Aquiles’ American wife (curator Pamela Ruiz who has brought artists including Louise Bourgeois and Robert Mapplethorpe to Cuba) first spied the house in 1999 when scouting for locations for a production company. Unusually, Vicenza was the sole owner: since the revolution, most substantial houses have been occupied by multiple families, summarily portioned off and impossible to buy, mostly in a state of near-ruin. When Aquiles and Ruiz finally acquired the house six years ago it was also a wreck, with 19th century cables wrapped in fragile cloth tangled together throughout. ‘When it was raining, it rained inside,’ says Aquiles. ‘When it stopped, it carried on inside for the next three days.’ They slept in a tent. The paucity of galleries in Havana is well documented. The prevalence of artists in Havana is vastly out of proportion with the number of state galleries, and private galleries are outlawed, so artists form relationships with galleries outside the island or sell direct to visiting collectors, like Aquiles does. Which is how the house turned into an informal exhibition space during the 2000 Havana Biennale. Aquiles and Ruiz launched an exhibition here, This Is Your House Vicenta, which helped to expose artists including Angel Delgado and Ernesto Leal, and brought in American artists including John D. Morton and Kerstin Zurbrigg. While it lay outside the official programme of the Biennale, it was rammed: the couple say that they are uneasy about doing that again for reasons of privacy, but that they are developing a Cuban residency programme to expose other artists who’ve been unable to break into the establishment. ‘The house helped my work, because I have been able to show it here without the need of a gallery. This house is not a white box; it is a living room, a dining room, with art. That gives the collector a chance to see how the art looks in display.’ While Aquiles is not associated with a gallery and describes his CV as ‘unimpressive’, his collectors include Ben Rodriguez Cubeñas, Beth Rudin DeWoody (‘one of my earliest supporters and now a close friend’), Thomas Dicker, Cindy Miscikowski, Jerry Gorovoy, Robert Wilson, Rita Schrager and Paula Traboulsi. Many works are bought first hand by collectors who pass through his home on a word-of-mouth referral. The other trajectory of Aquiles’ work is abstract paintings, for which he takes inspiration from De Kooning, Twombly and Howard Hodgkin. For these he heaps paint, layer upon layer, and often incorporates a graphic element. Most are painted over multiple previous incarnations. ‘The painting process for me begins with the moment I open a can of paint,’ Aquiles says. ‘I paint over and over, creating layers, which changes the colours and their intensity. I use a lot of colour, which I am not afraid of. Spontaneity is a big part of my process. Days pass by and I lose the perspective of time. I forget to eat.’ Aquiles’ whimsical mentality is accepted as usual in the cultural context of Cuba, where artists are revered. Moreover, the peculiarity of the dysfunctional economic context means art is as viable a career option as neuroscience and, quite possibly, better paid. Many artists, trapped on the island, find themselves unable to be inspired without it when they finally break loose. Cuba remains a source of unique dreaming. While Aquiles prefers to see himself as ‘an artist, not a Cuban artist’, even though he finds the summers ‘painfully hot’, he, too, chooses to remain in the heartland. ‘I have created many of my works outside of Cuba, and I do I believe that art has no nationality, but I find a special source of inspiration on Cuban soil. Also, some of the materials that I use are either easier for me to find in Cuba or have a very different meaning when they are found here. This is a creative place in all respects. As my wife says, the very act of living in Havana is an art.’ ◆ Below Bathroom of house with 19th century shipping trunk and 1930s lamp Opposite Kitchen of the house

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