It wasn’t just his aesthetic and his craft that knocked me sideways; it was his cunning, his wit, his passionate intent to sneak around the blind corners of the Cuban government’s glaring oversight.
His studio was a few cobblestone blocks away in the heart of Havana. There was no sign on the door, only a buzzer to call up. We climbed four narrow, steep flights of stairs and, when we reached the top, he greeted us with a wide welcome and shy grin. When I had read about artist Jose Toirac, I was intrigued by his work’s combination of Cuban politics and advertising. However, all my expectations fell short of the impression Toirac and his work left on me.
Through his work, Toirac reveals a side of Cuba the rest of the world has never seen. And it’s not through the images themselves (Toirac only uses official images within the public domain), rather it’s his artful and revolutionary context in which official images of Cuban authority and Cuban culture are presented. Though the artist may seem shy in person, his work is bold and daring, skirting around an oppressive government and declaring truth from the walls of museums around the world. As the artist walked us around his studio I grew more and more curious with each work of art, as if he were peeling an onion with every artistic nuance and the pieces themselves were the only objects in the room with all the answers.
Just before we left, Toirac ushered us over to a small table holding a stack of canvases the size of movie posters. As he lifted each canvas from the stack, I was spellbound. I felt as though I were watching Andy Warhol casually flip through his Campbell’s Soup Cans. How did I get here? This man is a genius!
These pieces were from Toirac’s series Tiempos Nuevos (1996). Each painting is saturated with social and political commentary. Take his piece, Marlboro, for example. Toirac has recreated the classic Marlboro ad to feature Fidel Castro, the anti-capitalist and Cuba’s anti-American leader at that time, as the quintessential American cowboy. This image oozes irony.
The Marlboro man – while formerly a positive image – has come to symbolize the unhealthy glut of the tobacco industry in the United States. The artist’s juxtaposition of commercial and political signs is a thinly disguised statement on the advertising of corrupt behavior and politics. Castro is the real paradox here: as Cuba’s President he was proud of the country’s system of socialized medicine and advanced healthcare and yet, Toirac portrays him as a crusader of the tobacco industry.
In his piece Obsession, we can’t help but notice the irony in Castro’s expression as he reads the headline, “All Police On Alert, Plot to Kill Castro!” There were over 600 attempts to kill Fidel Castro, and here the artist suggests that Castro revelled in this attention. Behind the image Toirac has tactfully placed a Calvin Klein Obsession ad.
In Toirac’s Opium, Castro is shown holding hands with the Pope. German philosopher Karl Marx once said, “Religion is the opium of the people.” A crafty play on words, Toirac recreates an Yves Saint Laurent perfume ad as a backdrop for two icons – one religious, the other political – shaking hands as though they are perfectly aligned with one another.
Heavily built with long dark hair, Toirac has a humble, unassuming presence. When he talks about his art he becomes magnetic, captivating. His passion resonates through his work and through those who have seen it, leaving a lasting impression of Cuban history and long suppressed sentiment that would be hard to come by in a textbook.
To learn more about Jose Toirac, please visit Pan American Art.