Afro-Cuban Painter Jose Montebravo
by Joan Crystal Pearlman
Jose de Jesus Garcia Montebravo was born on October 15, 1953, in Cienfuegos, where he still lives, on the south coast of Cuba, about four hours by car from Havana. A prolific artist, he has had 12 one-man exhibitions and taken part in more than 200 group shows in Cuba and abroad. Since 1984, he has received 58 prizes and 15 honorable mentions for his work. Montebravo came to New York City for the first time in July 2000 for the opening of his one-man show at the Cuban Art Space at the Center for Cuban Studies.
The artist says: "Drawing is freer, something I do from the inspiration of the moment. The work comes out in one session which isn't the same with my painting. Generally I work on the floor or stretched out on the bed using the color directly. The compositions shape themselves without previous sketching. There has been a progression in form because now it's not so naive as it was in the beginning in terms of lines or strokes and codes used. In the latest stage, there is a deeper study of the elements used. Pertinent to my style is my own personality, together with the condition of being self-taught."
Montebravo is self-taught and, therefore, could be called a folk or intuitive artist. He also could be called a visionary because of the spiritual landscape of his themes. However, because he has a well-grounded sense of his art world and Western art in general (from which he draws part of his inspiration), it is difficult to categorize him. Montebravo says that not having art training seemed unfortunate at one time. Now, however, he regards it as an advantage that has given him more freedom to express himself.
Montebravo has been painting since he was quite young but only in a serious way since 1980. He graduated from college with a degree in geography and taught for 19 years in secondary schools before turning to painting full time. He admires Picasso, Goya and the Impressionists. His Cuban influences include Benjamin Duarte, Rene Portocarrero, Manuel Mendive and Mariano. He has read what others have written on Afro-Cuban themes, as well as doing his own research.
Montebravo's paintings have at least three styles. Some are portraits of Afro-Cuban orishas (Santeria deities) with their symbols and attributes. He has fused these deities with images of Afro-Cuban women in lush costumes. He calls these his hijas del monte (perhaps a play on his name), and he brings to these portraits a subtle psychological focus on the somewhat abstracted faces. When he depicts the ladies' full-skirted dresses, he includes painted fabric collages with loose brushwork.
Another early style reverberates with bold black-and-white linear designs of animals, Cuban plant life and religious figures. His strong sense of graphic design is apparent in these compositions that fill every inch of the painted surfaces with pattern.
His most recent works move into fantasies (escenas fantasticas) where people and animals are blended with circus and folkloric elements. He includes motifs from nature in the form of lizards, fresh water tortoises, roosters, the moon and other Afro-Cuban symbols to draw the viewer into his mesmerizing realm. He describes these as coming from both Cuban roots and universal ideas, and his compositions as "loaded with different elements from nature and folklore that are fused through color and form."
This later series moves from the single focus of the early orishas and from the unifying all-over pattern and design to a fragmented multiple focus employing strongly symbolic and mysterious figures that only occasionally relate to each other. These ambiguous paintings leave the viewer wanting to know more about these unfamiliar realms and rituals. There is invention and emphasis on a strange, ethereal beauty.
Montebravo's demeanor is dignified. He has a pensive quality combined with a calm trustworthiness. A slim man with thick, dark hair, he is an only child who lives with his mother. His art fulfills his greatest need -- to create. He says he finds joy in connecting and in "knowing when someone identifies with what I've done."
[This article, in slightly different form, appeared in a brochure for Montebravo's exhibition at the Center for Cuban Studies.]
JOAN CRYSTAL PEARLMAN is an instructor in Folk Art History at The New School University, New York City.
As seen in:
[#52] Vol. 14, No. 1, Winter/Spring 2001$15.00 ppd