Whenever I walk along Obispo Street, I am deeply eyed by the growing number of human statues that take over public spaces and make more than one curious man stop. While it is true that not all present an attractive proposal, as a whole they have not ceased to arouse my curiosity from an investigative point of view. No one can deny that this is something new in our city, but we know little about its genesis and interiorities.
Thanks to a friend I was able to meet Antonio Ramón Ojeda Pozo, simple man, good conversationador and very colloquial, who introduced living statues in Cuba and has been the trainer of many of those who have taken that path today. After the presentation, I did not hesitate for a second to propose this interview that will allow us to approach the beginnings of an artistic manifestation that is on the rise in our country.
It’s normal to start the conversation with a presentation. I’m not going to change that rule, so I’d like you to do it today for New Word readers.
“My name is Ramon, but they call me Lolo, all thanks to an older sister they call Lola. My profession is an actor and I work with the theater group Buendía that runs Flora Lauten. I was born in Cumanayagua, a town in the province of Cienfuegos, there is a tremendous theatrical tradition and there is even a group of a certain national and international prestige, it is called Teatro de los Elementos.1 They basically work the genre known as street theater, you have to keep in mind that they move in rural and mountain communities where there are no theaters”.
Does this mean you’re an actor of academic training?
“No, I’m a self-taught actor who’s been outperdoing. What I studied was Meteorology and weather radar technician.”
So how do you get to acting?
“From the age of five, I had a cloth doll made by my mother who was a seamstress, with him saying the news of the day at school, I was placed behind a coffee table in the morning morning. From that first moment on, I was always an amateur. In high school, he was still in the theater groups that formed. I was closely linked to the group Teatro Escambay in the times of the Pre. This prestigious collective is based in a place known as La Macagua and did its field research in the area where I lived and studied. They went to our center and worked with us, together the play The Bride and Groom was mounted. That work was serving me as a preparation, I wanted to enter the Higher Institute of Art (ISA) here in Havana, but when the time came we learned that the admissions tests had passed and I had to wait until next year to opt for a place in the course of workers. I did, but the next year the workers’ course didn’t open. In the end I was never able to enter the prestigious university of the arts, but I dedicated myself not to miss an acting or theater workshop. That’s why I was forced to study Meteorology, something I had to do, didn’t I, but I never gave up my efforts to be an actor.
“Back in the terroir, one day the group Teatro de los Elementos appeared, the director is also from there and they decided to settle in the village. He proposed to me to join the group as an actor, which I accepted immediately. There were many workshops in which I participated as a student being with them. I studied day and night, said in good Cuban, “I ate the books”, that was my basic training. In 1998 I was evaluated as an actor, it was Vicente Revuelta who awarded me the professional category. This fact and the name of my evaluator in the supporting document began to open the doors of the world of acting to another level.”
From there you decide to come to work in Havana?
“I continued with Teatro de los Elementos in Cumanayagua, we did street and room plays. We prepare to attend two festivals, one in Brazil and the other in Colombia. It was in Medellin, in the Plaza del Río, where I first see the human statues, already knew of them by readings and also knew of the influence of Polish theater among its worshiprs, both of which have points of relationship. We had been invited to see a group that was going to show up, but when we got to the site I couldn’t see where the performance would be. Suddenly I am surprised to see some statues appear, they came in line, dressed in different colors, there I noticed that this was the setting. There were fifteen statues, the work was called The Album and was directed by Críspulo Torres, alluding to a photographic album where the statues made up the images and a narrator told the story of each print. We were at the same festival, that made it easier for us to get in touch with the Tecal group.2 In this way, it was that we started to learn something from what was new and attractive to us. Everything was promoted spontaneously and by personal relationships, it happened in the free moments we had, it was not an organized workshop or anything planned.
“Fernando Javier León Jacomino,3 who belonged at the time to the management of the Asociación Hermanos Saíz (AHS), proposes to Críspulo that he travel to Cuba to make a national tour. When the Tecal came, he was missing two actors from the cast and Críspulo asks me to make one of the characters statues, a military man. They arrived in Havana and we left directly from the airport for Holguin to the Romerías de Mayo, on the trip we rehearsed and began to prepare. The first thing that was done in the city of the parks was to leave all the statues mounted on a truck iron on an extensive city tour. We did the play in La Periquera,4 was a success. Then we toured to Havana, they brought materials for ten functions.”
Was that the turning point that made you a statue?
“Already running in 1999, that tour allowed several things, first, I consolidated the knowledge about the activity and second, allowed much of Cuba to visualize the artistic-plastic expression for the first time, but I was still with my theatrical group, I did not feel well prepared yet, I was not interested in being the first to do it, I never thought about it.”
How was everything done with the Tecal?
“The play lasted an hour, each actor had to make six statues at that time, six different positions from the analysis of where it was to be made. You have to go to the site, study the environment and architecture, this way you will know how to place the statues on the site for the best filling. It is necessary to know the position of the sun at the time of staging, one wears body paint and adds, this can ruin everything, besides that the public takes photos and they must look good, it is about securing the image of the setting and its memory. The work of the characters is articulated according to the conditions. It is not the same the stage of a theater to be with the audience, in this situation anything can happen and the actor must be prepared for it, so it does not break with the syntax of the play, there is also a previous study in all directions of the character.
“The actor has to make a rigorous preparation to seek endurance, train the gaze, achieve concentration, develop and channel common energies between him and the character. You are required to find elements of relationship with another character and with the public. This is only achieved with many hours of physical and psychic work, just as an athlete can. The mastery of breathing is vital, it is almost the same as that of singers, diaphragmatic and abdominal, statues have to breathe slower, ‘they are statues’, it is almost always in critical position and the correct breathing prevents movements and tremors, but at the same time the body needs oxygen for its proper functioning that cannot be given to it”.
Is the time of action planned for the issue of not affecting health?
“Whoever demands the work or the performance. You also have to assimilate the story and create an ‘inner story’ in which one must enter in the course of acting, it is a mechanism of reproduction and concentration that will help everything go well and do not get tired, it is like passing yourself a mental film. What’s left is to act the character, make it believable. The manifestation has a lot of care, therein lies much of the charm of the statue. Let’s think that she appropriates a space on the road that doesn’t belong to her and if she doesn’t motivate, people pass by and don’t even see it.
“Doing this for the first time in Cuba with the Tecal was practically a challenge, we already know how we Cubans are, people wanted to touch you, they did you thanks to get you out of the character, they threw little things at you, imagine, I didn’t have a full workout at the time, seen from today I understand that it was a little risky and even crazy, but it was done and it looked good.”
Then this setting is over is that you decide to devote yourself completely to the difficult art of being a statue?
“No, I return to the Theatre of elements group to continue working on the play we had assembled. One day we go to the village of San Blas, in the Escambray, there we came up with the idea of making statues, another actor and I made two. We took mud as makeup for body and costumes, we designed two peasant coffee pickers. Everything indicates that these were the first two statues made in Cuba only by Cubans. After a few months it was that I saw others doing the same thing. It should also be thought that it had already been rotated from Holguin to Havana with tecal and many had appropriated the idea.”
And how do the statues get to Havana?
“I go to Spain, I am on La Rambla in Barcelona and I see those there, something fantastic, I convert with many of them and I feed on their experiences. I made statues also more than once on site, the goal was to learn and do it alone. I found out there was a market for that, on that and for that. Many did not have an acting preparation, they trembled, they moved, they were to seek their lives. There were also actors and they did it flawlessly, but they weren’t a majority. On my return I go to the FAR Artistic Ensemble as artistic director of one of his groups, that’s where I continue with the statues. I made them myself and taught a lot of young people. With them we began to do statuary activities in Havana. At first we did them in Calle Veinte de Mayo, then online and in the Plaza de Belén in Old Havana, always in the framework of agricultural fairs of the Youth Labour Army (EJT) that were made on weekends. People came to see and pour money at the foot and even in their pockets. Everything was spontaneous, he never put on any baskets, no hats, no brushes, that was not the goal of that, it was about staging. One day I told the astonished boys that in Spain many lived to do that. I don’t remember seeing statues in Havana before. They began to appear in the first decade of the 21st century, some of my students from that anecdote were the initiators here as a manifestation of street theatre and half of sustenment at a complex stage.”
Do you consider that the individual who makes statues should be seen as an actor or as a person trying to make a living?
“Recently an event was held in Matanzas where I was invited to evaluate individuals who make statues, they call it the Statue Race contest, it’s like a catwalk. I recommended that you evaluate in two ways, in two categories, the popular category, which is that statue made by an individual without acting preparation, but which the public gives you and statues made by actors in preparation, was fair, so none were discriminated against. In the end it was done in this way, the most popular statues were chosen and those that the jury considered to be technically the best conceived, measured by a series of artistic parameters. Those are the two aspects that I notice are being followed, I prefer to talk about amateurs and professionals, but they both act.”
Does this mean that there is one type of statue that is made as a means of sustenment and another as an artistic realization?
“It means that there is one that has a higher level of artistic realization than another, but both are intended to provide an economic entrance, there is no doubt about that, it is also a way of life of the artist. What many are looking for is a balance between art and sustenment.”
Statuary art is a sum of elements of scenic and plastic manifestations. Dramatic performance, care, design, scenery are integrated into one act and music and lighting can even be included, all depending on achieving the best performance.
In your case, how do you conceive of the work?
“I am one of those who seek the balance between art and half-life. However, there are statues that one sees and immediately discovers the good bewitching, the actoral, the good realization. In other cases, it is recognized by bird flight that only interests to collect, it is given away in the dressing room, posture, makeup, the place of the basket. One aspect that excels in the professional is the posture, always free, balanced, clean. Something fundamental is the face, the face is armed to transmit emotions. Chaplin said a lot with his face, a well-trained statue would never cover his face, the makeup, incorporates expressive elements according to the character he represents. I try to conceive of my work in compliance with the best patterns of the genre.
“When you look at a statue in a sitting posture, lying down, supported, that’s a person without proper training, I always try to get away from those issues that deluse the proposal.
“The prop also discovers the type of statue, the improvised chooses the easy and that is at hand, can even be a domesticated animal. The trained man uses and elaborates props, creates for his characters, builds and preserves his repertoire, never makes every day the same statue.”
When you conceive of the characters, do you do so thinking of a work collective that accompanies you or to do it all by yourself?
“This is a purely individual job, from the creative process to the street. The props, the costumes, the makeup design, everything one conceives. This is not to say that you do not advise with specialists and even, they are sent to make utensils, no one knows or can do everything alone. There are cases where you collaborate with other artists.
“Now I’m making a character who’s a loan, his name is Pepe the santiaguero, he walks around the world, he’s created by Isaac, one of my students from the Stage of the Artistic Ensemble, but it’s not generality.”
How do you get the characters?
“That’s a mystery, they come from anything and at any time, but they usually arise from a story that can be real or fantastic, one takes it, matures it and develops it.”
Do you conceive of your proposals as ephemeral art or as characters who will live with you and the audience?
“How good this question is, I had never been asked it, nor had I thought of it. I think it’s a relative issue, I’ve created custom characters that I’ve never returned to. I do others that are very mine and always accompany me. When a performance is made in a place and never resumed, it was lost, it was short-lived, but if a person kept a photo, it perpetrated it forever. Look, in the memory of many there is still the image left to them by the Tecal with those colorful statues, that is something very complex, they are not physically, but they endure in remembrance. The issue of statues can be perfectly ephemeral. Pepe the santiaguero I didn’t believe it, but I know he will be with me for a long time, because it serves to put him in any square, everything is circumstantial.”
Let’s talk about abundances and deficiencies. It seems to me that the abundance that we can have is in the preparation of actors, in the knowledge that is acquired through our system of artistic teaching, but when it comes to conceiving resources that it is not easy to have them at hand, what do they do to fill this void?
“Behind this world there is already a great industry, she makes body paintings, costumes, creams to remove makeup, props and many other things, we can not access it, in Cuba there are no theater shops. We get some products thanks to friends and for specific orders that we make, although they are the least. We are also looking for ‘criollas’ solutions, for example, the black color, which is the one that abounds the most, we achieve it with burnt cork and olive or sunflower oil, as the buffalo did. I once found the solution of mud, there are others who achieve white with a type of kaolin, now I’m thinking about how to achieve the color of rust because ‘we are metal statues’. Tecal used pigment-made paints from some Amazonian plants. There are countless creative outlets to fill gaps, always being careful, nothing should be harmful to health.”
Do you think that more than twenty years after the appearance of your first statue in Cuba, you have already achieved recognition within the acting world and the public?
“Already people recognize the statues shown in Old Havana, in that has a lot to do with Isaac, because he is a true promoter, organizes events and takes art very seriously, but do not believe that there is an official recognition of theatrical or cultural institutions. Theatrical criticism still doesn’t talk about the demonstration, I don’t think they understand it or know it properly, most estimate that it’s just an expression of street theater when more, many look at it as an invented thing to look for money, consider it minor art, it pays taxes and can work on the streets of Old Havana.”
Don’t you have an organization between you yet?
“No, it doesn’t exist, there’s a facebook profile,5 Isaac organizes events, but there’s nothing official yet; However, some do wonders. In Matanzas they have joined plastics and create great things, there are human sculptural proposals even in levitation postures, creativity abounds within the actorly or professional world, but there is no organization. If something were to be done in recognition of the support received, she will be forced to pat herself by the AHS, she has the merit of having helped promote the work of the statues.”
What future do you see in the demonstration?
“Mixing, it will be more integrated into the theater, to the performance, I have no doubt that it will be integrated. A sample of this we had at the gala for the five hundredth anniversary of the city, many statues participated within an activity conceived as a television show, they can be integrated into any type of artistic manifestation”.
Time and space always limit these encounters, it has been fabulous to have the opportunity that has given me to publicize some of the interiorities of the artistic expression that it cultivates and about its introduction in Cuba. Thank you so much for everything.
“Thanks to you for looking and thinking about us, I hope this will help you better appreciate the demonstration and see the human side of the matter correctly, nothing is more rewarding than public recognition.” Ω
1 Theater of the Elements: Grouping founded by José Oriol González in 1990.
2 Teatro Tecal: It is one of the most prestigious Colombian theatrical groups, dedicated to the presentations of dramatic art in public spaces, has represented Colombia in the most prestigious theater festivals in the world.
3 Fernando Javier León Jacomino: Poet and theatrical critic, born in Yaguajay, in 1968, is currently Deputy Minister of Culture.
4 La Periquera (EcuRed): A famous and historic place, a symbol of the city of Holguin, inextricably linked to the history of the northern territory of eastern Cuba, is housed in a building declared a National Monument for its architectural values, and for its connection to all the local event since its inception. It is a multipurpose museum that treasures funds from all over the holguinera provincial jurisdiction (https://www.ecured.cu/Museo_Provincial_La_Periquera).
5 Consult https://www.facebook.com/pages/category/Art/Carrera-de-Estatuas-Vivientes-Cuba. Photos of the author, Antonio Ramón Ojeda and the Colombian theater group Tecal taken from the Internet (https://www.google.com.cu).