Photo: Juan Diego nusa Peñalver

A huge woman’s face looks out to sea from Havana’s Malecón and its sculptor, Cuban Rafael San Juan, reveals that he was inspired by the movement and spirit of Viengsay Valdés.

Seven months ago, the lead dancer of the Cuban National Ballet helped him to define the pose and the form of the neck of Primavera (Spring), as he baptized the eight meter high, recycled steel sculpture, for the 12th Havana Biennial.

“Study of the movement of Valdés conveyed the spirit of the piece to me and then her explanation of her concept of the Cuban woman captivated me. One of the suggestions she made was not to have her looking down, as here women are strong, they confront happiness, work, problems head-on,” San Juan told Prensa Latina.

Given the suggestion of the renowned ballerina, the sculptor assures that while Primavera does not reflect any face in particular, rather a combination of many, the spirit of the piece comes fromValdés, a tireless worker and admirable Cuban woman.

Observation and exchanges with various dancers from the ballet allowed San Juan to broaden his vision of muscular movement, but his love for the anatomy of the human body is longstanding, and he began to feed it from the age of 18, during his military service, when he obtained permission to enter the cemetery and take a human skull.

Workers there were going to deposit a large number of human remains in a mass grave and given his unusual interest they encouraged him to take the bones of a complete body home with him in his rucksack, which today resides at his home with the name of Hector.

Of course, in order to put the skeleton together he had to seek the advice of medical faculty and his interest was such that he ended up being admitted for a postgraduate course in human anatomy. This academic connection helped him in using human organs and bones in future exhibitions.

It’s worth noting that the artist has academic standing, he studied at the prestigious San Alejandro National Fine Arts School and in the 1990s was a set designer for plays such as Electra by Teatro la luna and for Fabio, The Tempest, and Terriblemente inocente by the Cuban Contemporary Dance company.

“Definitively, creating scenery helped me to see things on a monumental scale and favored my dedication to large format works,” the artist commented.

San Juan traveled to Mexico in 2002 with the mission of designing the Cuban pavilion at a literary festival, and there he built his first giant piece: the face of the Cuban National Hero José Martí using books, which on the day of the closing ceremony were taken down one by one and given to children.  

That was the starting point for the artist who currently has monumental steel sculptures of feet, hands and faces located in public spaces in the United States and Mexico, where for example, five faces of women placed in Guadalajara’s Central Park each represent a continent.

Women are a constant in the faces he creates, as Rafael sees this gender as intrinsic to the beautiful, meanwhile for hands he prefers to represent those of a man due to the expressivity of the effect of work on them, seen in their toughness.

For the Biennial before last, San Juan devised Contención (Containment), a piece made up of human organs preserved in containers with formaldehyde, all supplied by the medical faculty, which also proved indispensable the following year when he displayed 99 real skeletons under the title, La muerte es un proyecto (Death is a project).

Primavera is the first monumental sculpture that the artist has been able to begift his country and following the 12th Havana Biennial it will be donated to the City Historian’s Office which has supported him in this endeavor.

The work,locatedon the corner ofthe popular streets of the Malecón and Galiano,is a tribute toCuban womenand a bunch of mariposas, the country’s national flower, form her hair.