«Ambivalence entered my work because humor, and irony especially, are so important to me. I am interested in the ambivalence of daily life. The unambiguous doesn’t attract me because there is no room for interpretation.»
Tonel appears serene, obliging, and very friendly at all times. He moves in the world with a wise and calm composure, with unpretentious discretion and urbane professionalism. I have never seen him moody or taciturn; he always seems amenable for a conversation. He exudes a certain British understatement—a far cry from Cuban clichés that embrace anything loud and overtly obvious.
Tonel converges on his artistic themes and contents in a highly playful manner, full of elegance and the type of humor that does not stop short of his own person. His works go far beyond political and social satire and always reflect their own message at multiple levels.
Evolving gradually and steadily since the 1980s to this day, his work consists mainly of rather small-format drawings. It is easy to trace the long historical tradition of all these numerous black and color-ink and pencil images back to European and Cuban “humorous” drawings—from William Hogarth to Wilhelm Busch to Santiago Armada (Chago). Tonel addresses the psychosocial constitution of the Cuban people as well as the so-called battle of the sexes, omnipresent machismo, and the supposedly «revolutionary» political attitude of his compatriots.
But it would be too short-sighted to reduce Tonel’s drawings to political satire or even caricature: they are far more polyvalent. Tonel usually holds their meaning smoothly afloat. They are frequently elliptical, full of subtle irony and require the viewer to follow his thoughts – much in the spirit of concept art, which Tonel has of course received since his youth. It is no coincidence that most of his sheets are underlaid with text, either as explicit titles or as written comments that form integral graphic components. Words and images thus mutually refer to each other and together constitute the image content.
Tonel’s drawings contain many personal dreams and fantasies as well as numerous collective, “avant-garde” socialist utopias. His graphic reflections on the subject of pop art are particularly characteristic. Entirely in the style of pop art, they at the same time reflect the pamphlet-like features of their formerly propagandistic templates, thus becoming a systemic meta-criticism of sorts. Humor, systemic and self-criticism, as well as “philosophical” aphorisms («Coito ergo sum») are the common threads running through his drawings, which sometimes take a sarcastic turn («Mal de lengua»).
So like Cuba—or not?
Tonel created not only drawings, but also installations. One of his most important works, and incidentally also one of the most emblematic works of all of Cuban contemporary art in general, is «El bloqueo», a floor work composed of concrete blocks arranged in the shape of the Cuban archipelago. The statement made with this «image» could hardly be simpler and more obvious, and yet so genuinely ambivalent, in Tonel’s sense, at the same time. The artist created the work on the occasion of the third Havana Biennial in 1989, virtually coinciding with the fall of the Berlin Wall. What followed, due to the support from the Soviet Union being ceased, was the so-called «periodo especial» in Cuba, a time of utter economic deprivation.
«El bloqueo» is the Cuban term for the U.S. embargo imposed in 1960 at the beginning of the so-called revolution that has not been lifted since. The entire domestic political legitimization of the Castrist military regime was based on this «bloqueo», which Fidel Castro and his cohorts were therefore keen to maintain throughout their lives, as it enabled them to justify all and any of their actions to their citizens.
The «bloques de concreto», the concrete building bricks that the work is made up, merge to form the «bloqueo», or blockade. However, they not only symbolize the «bloqueo» imposed by the U.S.A., although this was the «official» interpretation that secured a prominent place in the permanent exhibition of the Cuban National Museum of Fine Arts (sic!) for this work. The true meaning of the work lies in pointing out the futility of any «efforts» on the side of Cuba to build up something of its own—all endeavors have only ever led to absolute immobility, to stagnation, to rigidity cast in concrete, and to an unresolvable self-blockade. Or hang on, did we just misinterpret something there…?