TAUROMACHY the graphic art of Rafael Zarza
Curated by R10 (Jorge Rodriguez Diez)
July 1st, 2022
the graphic art of Rafael Zarza
The work of Rafael Zarza (b. Havana, Cuba, 1944), both in engraving and painting, constitute some of the most peculiar, disquieting, and valuable examples of the Cuban visual arts within the last 50 years. At 76 years old, Zarza has achieved a status that is difficult to obtain in any artistic context: his work is practically nondescript, unclassifiable, not only with respect to the most dominant trends that have been occurring within the course of Cuban contemporary art, but also in regard to international aesthetic models.
Zarza is known as the painter of ‘taurine’ or bullfighting figures. The bull is the protagonist in the grand majority of his work. Across cultures, the physical attributes of certain animals evolve to become symbolic projections of man’s virtues or vices. In this case, the virility, strength, rage, elegance, indomitability, and the majesty of the bull form part of the masculine ideal of the historical archetype that is the Spanish caballero (knight, gentleman). And by cultural heritage, these attributes also figure into the conception of masculinity in Cuban culture, however stereotypical they may seem today.
The metaphoric richness of Zarza’s work lies in the way in which he plays with that hispanic cultural matrix, but by bringing it to the plane of Cuban reality on which he has had to live. For this reason, the bull is something like the tip of the iceberg in his discourse; it is the key iconographic element, the most visible, and what takes up most of the composition. The animal is represented by Zarza as an object of torture, mockery, manipulation, and also as a character: an advertising model, a dictator, and a sexual symbol, amongst many other variants.
At a metaphorical level, the struggle between the man (the bullfighter) and the ferocious animal (the bull), is nothing more than a ritualistic aestheticized duel between man and the attributes of the animal that he wishes to obtain for himself–and at the same time, seeks to dominate, subjugate and submit to his willpower. In essence, Zarza’s work ends up being an account of the struggle between men, power dynamics, violence, manipulation, death; but also eroticism, sexual enjoyment, and carnal provocation. Eros and Thanatos, all expressed in raucous colors: greens, reds, oranges, yellows, and pinks that vibrate within the areas delineated by those synthetic strokes that characterize its distinctive figuration.
Although Rafael Zarza began his professional career in the mid-1960's after graduating from the Academy of Fine Arts, San Alejandro in painting and drawing, the majority of his work is practically unknown, especially outside of Cuba. He is a modest artist, who does not exhibit his work often. Nevertheless, Cuban art criticism and historiography recognizes Zarza, with complete consensus, as one of the most important artists of the last 30 years of the 20th century, and as one of the great living masters of contemporary Cuban art. In 2020, he was awarded the Premio Nacional de Artes Plásticas (The National Award for Fine Arts), the greatest honor that an artist can receive in Cuba.
The work of Rafael Zarza deserves, without any further delay, recognition on an international scale. For although he is currently an active artist at peak production, he possesses a sufficiently extensive oeuvre in terms of quantity and artistic significance that, if made widely known in all its richness, will surely arouse interest from collectors, museums and academic institutions in the field. For example, a retrospective exhibition on Zarza’s artistic production with work that spans from the end of the 1960s to present day, would in itself be an exhibition that would allow others to discover and study many artistic influences such as Pop Art, Eschatology, erotic art, social satire, dark humor, and the popular religions of African origins that have had a significant presence in most of contemporary Cuban art, and which in Zarza’s work become paradigms of a very refined, personal aesthetic. Additionally, the ways of exercising cultural criticism with art, to encourage reflection on identity, political and cultural phenomena in Cuban society with the flexible concept that is the metaphor, are characteristics of Cuban art that in Zarza, constitutes one of his most refined exponents.
R10 (Jorge Rodriguez Diez)
Translated by Odette Lopez