The Parable of an Ideal. An Interview with Reynier Leyva Novo

For Reynier Leyva Novo (Havana, 1983), a hero is just that: the parable of an ideal, a pasture of fictions. Heroes as foundation stones. Maybe that’s why he placed in “Ni mármol ni suspiros (Los fundamentos de la nación),” first chapter of Lo que es, es lo que ha sido, five busts: Martí, Agramonte, Maceo, Calixto, Gómez reappear as marble blocks (of an exquisite marmoreality, of a sacramental polish, of a stentorian smoothness). Tottering busts, like tumbler dolls. About heroes (and not only that) I talk with Chino, sitting on the balcony of El Apartamento. We talk about ataxic heroes. Catatonic heroes. Lost heroes. Hypnotic heroes. Cataleptic heroes. Parabolic heroes. (Where it says “heroes”, it can be also read [just as well], “freedom”, “nation”, “homeland”).

Chino, what is in your opinion a hero? What is heroism?

A hero is the parable of an ideal. A hero is someone who lives a double life, his own and another one, of the mind, superior. It is like an incarnation of something else. That is why there is always sacrifice in the image of the hero. A hero sacrifices his life, his space, his existence to project an idea to others. About the homeland, about love…

You know, the other day you asked me this question and I had never asked it myself before. I’ve worked a lot with the heroes of the homeland, but in many occasions I don’t call them heroes…

What about the homeland? What is the homeland?

The homeland is a dreamed space. It is not a physical territory; it is a dreamed territory. The homeland is a common space. A space that can be inhabited by beings of the same community, also dreamed. More than dreamed, imagined. This community is only possible on the basis of certain ethical ideals.

The homeland, I insist, is an imagined territory.

So the homeland is a state of mind?

Yes, it is a mental state and territory. Although it is not a space with clearly defined borders, I do see the homeland as a space with dimensions…

Established dimensions? Established limits? Who sets the limits?

The limits are set by the same community that imagines that homeland. The community that imagines it in its own likeness and convenience.

Chino, but what is your homeland?

My homeland is me. There is a homeland that dwells in me. If I now remain seated, if I no longer move from this chair, I can live in my homeland. My homeland dwells in my body. It dwells in me and it dwells in everyone. That which dwells in everyone, that which can be common, is what we project as that territory in which we dwell.

From what you say I sense that the homeland is a consensus. Is that so?

Yes, of course it is. The homeland is a consensus. It is not anchored to a specific territory. The homeland is like a vapor…

A vapor… A drowsiness…

It is like a drowsiness…

It is almost intangible. But you can feel it.

Apart from your body, in what other places, spaces, territories, is your homeland?

Bro, the closest thing I have to my homeland is Párraga. It is the place where I was born.

Where were you born?

In Párraga. On Justo 63 Street.

Well… I was born in a hospital.

In Hijas de Galicia?

Yes, in Hijas de Galicia.

But my birthplace is Párraga. My first memory is on Justo Street.

Is it a hill?

It is a hill. It’s the top of a hill, from where you can see all of Havana. That’s my house. That’s my studio. That’s my workshop. That’s my homeland.

Do you need a studio to work?

If I have a computer, some books, information, Internet, I don’t need more. Right now I need the Internet. At another time I didn’t need it.

Does that mean that today you can’t be offline?

Yes, I could, but I think that today communication is fundamental. Today communication is happening, above all, inside the networks.

Do you have an early memory associated with heroes?

When I was a child, my mother took me to history museums. I remember that, when I was very young, four, five, six years old, I was already in the middle of those objects. A hero or a martyr transcends the physical body of a person. I wondered how I could learn about them through mundane, limited, everyday objects like a pair of eyeglasses or a shirt used in war. I wondered how that material culture can somehow be emptied of that spirit that inhabited them, but how, in the same way, you can connect spiritually with that.

In the museums there were…

What was there, Chino? What do you remember?

The museums were full of those objects, of those things…

But I realized that the heroes were not there. One day I learned that they are in people’s minds.

For me, the idea of a hero is very much associated with war…

To combat, to battle…

To the battle…, to that epic hero.

There are other heroes, the everyday heroes, like my grandfather, like my mother who was a heroine. Together we lived through some very complicated moments in this country…

Which ones?

The fall of the socialist camp, the Special Period, a deep economic and political crisis. My mother often embodied the archetype of the hero.

However, the heroes you selected for “Ni mármol ni suspiros (Los fundamentos de la nación)” are associated with the war, as you were telling me. Busts of Martí, Agramonte, Maceo, Calixto and Gómez.

But for me these people are…

What are they?

They are the heroes. I think they are the heroes, really.

I know that these people were made of flesh and blood. I know they were human beings and they had thousands of conflicts. Every day I learn more and more about the problems and differences of ideas, of concepts they had. Even fighting for the same homeland, not all of them had the same idea of what that homeland was, that is why they did not get anywhere. That is why the wars of independence in Cuba did not result, none of them, in true independence, in true freedom.

The freedom of the Cuban people has still not been achieved. For me that freedom has never been achieved.

Which freedom?

The freedom to which the Cuban people have aspired and for which the founders of this homeland, of this people, of this country fought. The freedom for which they fought has never been achieved. We have always been committed, driven to achieve it.

Look at the situation we are living right now, an extremely complex moment. Those ghosts that do not allow you to be free can be as real as they are violent. Those ghosts, in order to restrict the freedom of the Cuban people, have changed shape many times in the history of this country.

In “Ni mármol ni suspiros…” you work with prototypes of heroes…

At the time when they fought for Cuba’s freedom we lived in a rather crude colonial system. At that time Cubans did not have control of their own land…


Actually the thing in “Ni mármol ni suspiros…” goes in a different direction.

A lot of damage has been inflicted by turning these people into the pieces of stone they are now. They’ve been completely dehumanized. People no longer see human beings in them, but ideas frozen in time.

The very action that unifies them dehumanizes them, takes away the intrinsic difference from which we could get a better understanding of why we have arrived here. This country has always been a disaster in terms of unified thinking. There has not been an idea that has been able to unite Cubans. Except for Martí, who at some point achieved it, this piece of land has always been divided. Each region of Cuba has wanted to have its own autonomy with respect to the other. The idea of nation is a construction that has not been in accordance with the reality of the men and women who have fought for that dreamed homeland.

I am a great admirer of each of those figures, of those prototypes that are there, but not as prototypes, but as human beings who fought, who spent years in campaign.

I have worked several times with Martí, from different approaches, reaching other places, worrying about other aspects of his life as a politician and thinker. I have worked with Calixto, Maceo, Agramonte…

I made this perfume series with them…

The smells of war.

Yes. “Ni mármol ni suspiros…” is part of a research I’ve been doing for a great part of my life. Ten years, maybe. A little more, maybe much more, fifteen years. But I had never worked with their physical form before. I had never been interested in working with their faces, with their figures…

With their outward appearances…

Neither with their outward appearances nor, much less, with their features. Their features never told me anything. For me, the idea behind them was stronger than their features. It was a rejection of their physical forms.

What happens with these people is their ideas have been used to mold the people, the masses, to take people in directions that have nothing to do, exactly, with what those people wanted. That’s where they get lost…

Where they totter?

Where the thing totters a little bit. It is sad to see how those ideas can be used for other purposes. As time goes by, circumstances change and all this has to be seen from a very specific perspective, in its moment, in its historical context. Right now to talk about the ideas of these people has a limited sense. Many things are meaningless.

I wanted to ask you why these and not others. I thought of Varela, for example, who is not here.

I don’t remember sculptures, busts, of Varela. Surely there are.

This is a selection of sculptural portraits that have a weight, a presence in the national imaginary. They are easy to identify. I wanted to play with that archetype.

Seeing those archetypes move, totter, as happens in “Ni mármol ni suspiros…” feels weird.

“Ni mármol ni suspiros (Los fundamentos de la nación)” is an exhibition of sculptural busts. I play with that genre within the plastic arts, within the traditional fine arts. I play with that canon and make it totter.

Chino, what is a bust for you?

What is a bust? A bust is a mutilation.

In the end a bust is a fragment, a dismembered body. And the bust of Martí?

That is quite a revolutionary bust. It’s quite atypical, that’s why I love it. [Juan José] Sicre did it that way. He made it as if it were buried, with his chin pointing down. There’s something very curious about that bust, and it’s that people tilt it so that it looks slender and so that Martí doesn’t look as if he has his head bowed. That head pointing downward is usually associated with sadness, with…

With resignation.

With a strange resignation. I’ve seen them around in the study I did to select the bust, seeing where they were.

Where are they?

Mostly in schools, workplaces, parks…

Are they made of plaster or bronze? I remember one that’s at the Zoo on 26 street, in bronze.

Many are made of cement. Some, not many of them, are made of bronze. The bronze ones were the originals made by Sicre. Later he made molds and they were mass-produced in cement or plaster. Almost always the ones made of plaster are used in interiors and the ones made of cement, the ones made of concrete, in exteriors.

Sicre’s Martí has an absent stare. Not upwards, towards the sky, but downwards, towards the earth, towards himself. I have seen them chocked up, lifted by the chin, so that he looks up. Looking up is associated with dignity.

Some people say that Sicre’s bust is the thinking Martí. Compared to others, that look colder, this one has a meditative posture.

What about courage, Chino? How do you understand courage in heroes?

We can no longer cling to that courage or that sense of courage that these people had. We don’t have to go anywhere to fight. The sense of courage now is something else. To have courage right now is something else.

What is to have courage right now?

To have courage is to be yourself. It is not being afraid of what might happen to you. It is being able to be who you are and express it. To have courage is to live decently. It is being able to be an upright person. It is to be able to live the way you want to live.

Have you managed to live the way you want to live?

I have taken some risks.

What risks?

Not belonging to things. Not accepting things. I say things so as not to give specific examples. Not being where I don’t want to be. To be where I want to be. It is difficult to be what one wants and can be. For me it is one of the great challenges in life, not to let myself be carried away by the social inertia of the moment, but to be one step behind or one step ahead.

Contemporary societies, not only here in Cuba, take you to another place. In their dynamics, societies generate a stress that always pushes you not to be what you can really be. The dynamics of today’s societies lead you to function more for society than for yourself.

To have courage right now is just that, bro, is to live as you want.

Edgar Ariel (Holguín, Cuba, 1994). Journalist, researcher and art critic. Master in Theoretical Studies of Dance (2020) at the University of the Arts of Cuba (ISA) and Bachelor in Journalism (2018) at the University of Holguin. He is a graduate of the Centro de Formación Literaria Onelio Jorge Cardoso. He is currently researching on the configuration of post-critical aesthetics in Cuba. He is part of the Rialta staff.


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