The Cuban Lazaro Saavedra is one of the most eminent artists of his generation. For decades he has played an important artistic role on the Caribbean island, not least in his capacity as a teacher who has lastingly informed entire generations of artists. He has been exhibiting all over the world for many years, but his international breakthrough is yet to come.
Down to Cuban earth
Lazaro Saavedra’s lack of international renown may in part be due to the fact that neither does he produce marketable art nor does he engage in self-marketing activities. Also, he has always lived in Havana and is an integral member of Cuban society with his feet firmly on the ground of Cuban everyday life, to which he owes a considerable amount of inspiration for his art production.
He is deeply involved with his Cuban environment and observes the political doctrine decreed from above in a decidedly critical manner, full of irony or even sarcasm—thereby mastering a tightrope walk that is not entirely unproblematic to say the least. But then, some things can only be adequately assessed and judged on the spot.
Lazaro Saavedra’s work is not easy to get a grip on. There is no catalogue raisonnée, and the artist himself does not belong to the kind of people who will readily volunteer any information. Instead, everything has to be laboriously coaxed out of him—quite in contrast to other famous Cuban artists, for instance the natural-born self-promoter Tania Bruguera.
The attempt to read about him will also not go very far: it almost seems as if no one wants to have their fingers burned on him. Most texts about him are official insular Cuban eulogies confronting the reader with a jumble of Cuban local art history, in which the artist is categorized predominantly as a successor to the witty, humoristic caricature tradition. In this way, Lazaro Saavedra’s actual and current political virulence is sidelined, and the authors elegantly avoid the problem of having to take a stand. A good number of his works of central importance quasi inevitably fall by the wayside due to being politically disfavored. At the same time, nevertheless, the regime organized a major exhibition for Lazaro Saavedra in the National Museum in Havana in 2003. These are the kind of contradictions the islanders simply have to cope with…
Outside of Cuba, Lazaro Saavedra’s artistic quality is known only to a relatively small circle of specialists, not least because there have been but few significant exhibitions, not to mention a retrospective, featuring his works abroad.
So what is the common thread in Lazaro’s work? Or is it difficult to classify him precisely because his works defy «classification»—and that this feature constitutes their intrinsic quality? His strategy lies in circumvention and a subversive approach to all and everything. These are the lines along which my thoughts run when dealing with Lazaro and his way of working. To me, it is not so much a matter of understanding the work in itself, as this would presuppose a certain coherence. I would rather inquire into the significance of coherence in Lazaro’s work in the first place: is it coherent, and does it necessarily have to be coherent at all?
Solid as a rock
To be sure, Lazaro Saavedra has also produced works that are objectual in the classical sense, often reaching iconic status, such as his «Detector de ideologias» or his installation «El espectador y la Obra». Informal and performative characteristics, however, prevail in his oeuvre—fabulously, for example, in his «Egocentrismo funerario», where he puts himself in a coffin. Lazaro’s «OjoVideo Corp» or his performative video installation «Muriendo libre» are outstanding examples of video art.
I think it is above all Lazaro’s attitude that is reflected in his entire creative work. His is an attitude that seeks «true freedom», an attitude that he tried to convey as well and above all as teacher at the ISA (Instituto Superior de Arte). It is a deeply human, intellectual, but also ethical, moral attitude: An attitude that is evident in his actions, as in his meaningful and imperative reactions to Cuban events.
Lazaro always has been and remains like a rock in the Cuban surf: an informed source of reliable knowledge, a paradigm of peaceable critical competence, and an impregnable fortress of liberal constancy. In the midst of the minefield that is Cuba, Lazaro takes his stand, comments, and criticizes. When I first met him some 20 years ago, he already had his computer running constantly, providing a place of information and communication. As they say in Cuba: «Hasta la victoria siempre!»