Opium. Works by José Toirac

Curated by Octavio Zaya, Curator and Art Critic
Advised by Alejandro de la Fuente, Robert Woods Bliss Professor of Latin American History and Economics and Chair, Cuba Studies Program

Since the early 1990s, José Toirac has been a well-known artist in Cuba, even if his unassuming and reserved personality didn’t propel him into the instant fame and recognition that was granted to other artists from his generation. Despite the obvious political irony of his paintings and drawings, or perhaps because of it, José Toirac was awarded last year’s National Prize of Fine Arts in Cuba, a much deserved acknowledgment to his independent career that is finally catching up with what we understand as his “political poiesis.” He brings that irony mainly through the juxtaposition and combination of political and advertisement iconographies, but he is never explicit in his intentions, and his work is always full of nuances, successful pairings, and encounters.

On the one hand, the exhibition presents 10 drawings that anticipate his rather successful and recognized series of paintings Tiempos Nuevos (New Times, 1996). These drawings bring together the iconographic public figure of Fidel Castro along with well-known and globalized adds from worldwide famous brands, such as Opium perfume by Yves Saint Laurent, Marlboro, or Benetton. Perhaps Toirac is underlying the commercial component of politics, and perhaps he is equating commercial brands with the charismatic and selling potential of celebrities such as Castro. 

On the other hand, the exhibition introduces a collection of new works—originally published in the book Parables (2017) along religious poems by Robert Gluck, inspired by the Bible—to highlight once again the juxtaposition of religion and politics, theocracy and cult of personality, through known public images of the late Cuban leader. All together, they represent the beginning of an overdue introduction of Toirac’s work to Harvard.

Octavio Zaya is an independent art curator, writer and editor. He has been Director of Atlantica Journal for the last 18 years. He has curated more than 40 exhibitions for more than 17 museums throughout the world, including the Guggenheim Museum, New York (1976) and the Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid (2000, 2001, 2018). He participated at the First and Second Johannesburg Biennales, and was a curator of Documenta 11 (2002). He curated Spain’s Pavillion at the 55th Biennale di Venezia (2013).

The exhibition was part of the DRCLAS Cuba Studies Program’s activities related to the 60th anniversary of the 1959 Cuban Revolution, and part of DRCLAS’s contributions to the 2019 Latin American Studies Association Annual Conference.