Contemporary Art

An Interview with Ernesto Briel

By Gustavo Valdés

B orn in 1943, Ernesto Briel found inspiration in Optical Art amidst the constraints and limitations of his native country following the Cuban revolution. Facing both the isolation imposed by the US cultural embargo of the sixties, and the relentless persecution by the Castro regime against homosexuality during the early seventies, Briel found motivation in these challenges that would nurture his prolific artistic life. The following text is based on the interview published in STET, vol. 1, no. 2, special edition Winter 1992 (p. 13). Translated into English by Francisco Arevalo and Gustavo Valdés.

Ernesto Briel in front of two works in his solo show of drawings at Galería Habana, Havana, Cuba, 1971. From the Ernesto Briel archives. Courtesy of The Estate of Ernesto Briel, New York, U.S.A.

Ernesto Briel, tell me a little bit about your beginnings as a painter. How did you discover that painting was what you really wanted to do?

I was fascinated by my surroundings ever since I was a child and loved to try to recreate and repeat the things around me on paper. As a young man, I was impressed by the modern art I discovered through the books and magazines I had access to. It was during this time that my perspective began to change, as I started to reinterpret the things that inspired me visually through a geometric lens, rather than simply repeating what I saw.

I made a series of small oil paintings in this early period titled Gallinas y Retratos (Chickens and Portraits), some of which my friends in Cuba have kept. And so, with an avant-garde outlook and a great deal of excitement, I entered the Academy of San Alejandro in Havana only to discover that the school’s politics were completely opposed to the modern tendencies I had been inspired by. It was 1961 in Cuba, and although modern art had already been half a century in the making by this point, I had to fight hard for its acceptance in this context and experienced a lot of rejection during this time.

Nonetheless, my academic training ended up only reaffirming my passion for modern art. It was as if modern art rose up more invincible each time I was forced to submit my work to the strict rules of the academy, whose art was limited to merely representing what is recognisable.


In 1980 you left Cuba for the United States. What had become of Briel the artist and Briel the man?

When I left my country in 1980 on the Mariel boatlift, nearly twenty years had passed since the start of my artistic career, and in this time I had taken part in a number of solo and group exhibitions both in Cuba and abroad. My work also became part of the permanent collection of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana (Cuba’s National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana) in its Young Artists Galleries.

I had travelled to Europe with the theatre, but I returned to Cuba to face a horrible climate of increasing totalitarianism, as the state was staging its implacable claim against our most basic freedoms as both artists and human beings. I left Cuba for the United States, not driven by the desire to succeed, or moved by the classic “American dream”, but because I could no longer live freely in Cuba. Cuba was killing me as a human  being, as I saw the claims of “free education for all” as a means to crush people’s brains and “free public health for all” to poison their hearts.

I wanted to live in a place where I could once again be a citizen of a nation and not one more inhabitant, another piece of the state’s property. I have been living in the United States for almost twelve years now and during this time I have had the opportunity to rediscover myself as a human being. I have witnessed the fall of communism, of which I no longer consider myself a total victim, but a partial one, because thank God, I no longer live in Cuba.


Your pictorial work, as a whole, has remained in the vein of hard-edge abstraction. However, its evolution is quite evident. What do you do to encourage your work to develop and how have you managed to remain at once faithful to your own style and imagery, but still keep it feeling fresh after all these years?

I do not see geometric abstraction as a style that I adopted, but rather as my only and constant way of expressing myself artistically. I think perhaps that the freshness you are referring to is due to the sincerity I feel obligated to convey in my art through its many stages.

Many people would argue that art, in our time, is in a state of deterioration. What do you think of this opinion?

I think, perhaps the eighties has been defined by a predominant tendency towards conceptual art. It is as if painting, in its most traditional aspect (academic or career painting), is being displaced by a shift to activate objects and forms and convey their most metaphysic conceptual function. I, personally, really enjoy conceptual art, and while I do not think that it should be seen as the only or absolute direction of contemporary art, I do think it is an area that should be taken seriously.


Do you share the opinion that Latin American art is being recognised in the international market, especially in North America?

Yes, and I think we mostly owe it to the big auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s, and their annual auctions of Latin American art. It is also due to greater promotion of Latin American art in general. There’s no better example than the “Frida-mania” that’s sweeping the United States at the moment.

Any future plans?

There is a University, and also a gallery, that are very much interested in doing a retrospective of my work next year (1993), which would be accompanied by a catalogue including everything related to my artistic career, beginning with my first major exhibition in 1966. Over the month of September of this year (1992), I will be exhibiting my work alongside the Cuban artist Carmen Herrera at Jadite Galleries in New York City.

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