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José Manuel Fors

Fotografía del Artista. by José Manuel       Fors

interview transcript

Date of Interview: Apr 12, 2001
Location: USA
Topic: Interview with the artist in Los Angeles, CA
Interviewer: Bill Kelley Jr.

LatinArt:  The use of history – family history and memory overall is very important to your work. Can you talk about this?

José Manuel Fors:  It is very important. Not just family history, but throughout my work, historically all my work, I’ve discovered is created on the foundation of memories. When I’ve worked with the theme of nature, I have done so with older documented works, either by my grandfather or someone else. I find that my projects are not about going out and taking new pictures; much of it comes from previous forms of information.

LatinArt:  References to your grandfather come up quite frequently.

José Manuel Fors:  Yes, my father’s side was rather intellectual. My great grandfather was a famous doctor, my grandfather a famous botanist - my father, my uncles are all very studious...I’m the only black sheep that studied art. (laughs) This creates an ambience of learning and scholarship. But, my family has a very marked division. My mother’s side is less scholastically inclined, subsequently they were less preoccupied with documenting and conserving. That’s why the majority of images I use, the family portraits in particular, are from my father’s side. This is the material I use in my work. Really, I would have loved to have used documents from my entire family.

This is also how I started collecting. I was never preoccupied with collecting monetarily valuable things. In my work I treat the simple everyday things with great value, because they are. Trivial things are important too.

LatinArt:  In the Shifting Tides exhibition catalog this transition or shift from documentary photography to more personal kinds of projects is discussed often. How do you see or remember this?

José Manuel Fors:  Yes, that journalistic period was a great time for photography. There were plenty of materials to work with and it is interesting to read about how these works contributed toward the support and myth of national leaders. I think this period has had its process of birth, growth and death to a certain extent. I am foreign to this kind of work. Honestly, I studied painting, sculpture and other art forms at the art academy. I have a different way to do and look at things. I can’t take the camera out into the streets and take pictures...I simply can’t do that - they don’t come out and I don’t see images that way.

I am not a journalistic photographer. My works are very personal and it’s a liberating thing to create your own language. Local influences have always been of great importance to me, but I'm also dealing with the universal. Jose Luis Borges, is very Latin American, but at the same time very universal in scope and appeal. This is my situation as well.

LatinArt:  It seems your academic studies in painting and sculpture really influenced the way you work with photographs?

José Manuel Fors:  I am a painter deep down. I am using photography as a support for my work but I work like any multimedia artist, with painting, sculpture, installation, photography...

LatinArt:  Your earlier works were more installations and there has been a definite transition in the symbols and imagery you use in your work Can you speak a bit about this?

José Manuel Fors:  Yes, there was a period were I painted a lot and also worked a lot with installations. It’s a very rich way to work because you’re dealing with other elements like space. It’s true that today I’m a photographer, but I also include objects for installation, and use other materials. Many of the later artists in the Shifting Tides exhibition use these same ideas. The shift from the journalistic is very pronounced and obviously a lot of this has to do with the educational structures we have today in Cuba. A lot of the photographers in Cuba are trained in art academies and learn about painting, sculpture as well as everything else. People say that this change is a rupture with the past, but a lot of this has to do with the opening of possibilities an education brings. It also helps explain why Cuban art today is very rich.

As for my symbols, my first works, which were paintings, were abstract, the installations as well. With the installations I was more interested in materials than what they represented. As I started working more with photographs, I developed an interest with representing nature. With my family background, it was natural that I started using this imagery and after a while this transformed into using images of my grandfather and using portraits in my work. This interest in my family led me start using their letters, and other forms of documentation.

LatinArt:  In 1979 you organized an exhibit in your home in Havana called Pintura Fresca (Fresh Paint). Many of those artists went on to exhibit in Volumen Uno, which of course, was a highly influential exhibition. How were these early exhibits important to you?

José Manuel Fors:  Well, from these exhibits nothing remains; not one photograph, not one painting. Because of this there has been a myth about what was really done there. If we saw the show today, perhaps it would not create such a stir, but those artists really marked the changes of what was happening in Cuba at the time...and not just in photography. We had little access to information or journals, but we obtained everything we needed and made it work.

LatinArt:  I often see this theme being addressed by young Cubans. Artists like Los Carpinteros, Carlos Estévez or Abel Barroso deal with this issue of recycling materials and "making do."

José Manuel Fors:  The method I have of working with mosaics and including many small photos was initially a technical solution to this problem. I love to make large pictures, but I had no access to large sheets of film, so I started using smaller pieces. I used this dilemma to my advantage and really felt that I succeeded, to the point that, now that I have access to materials, I still use this visual language. Necessity makes you find creative matter what you’re working with.

Access to materials was much easier earlier on. We had "Socialist" materials brought in and they were very good. We would prepare the chemicals ourselves, mix pigments ourselves. Today, importing materials is difficult but sometimes we have friends bring materials. Somehow there’s always a way.

LatinArt:  How do you see the art scene in Cuba changing over the next few years?

José Manuel Fors:  I see things going very well. I’ve never had the feeling that things ever got stagnant in Cuba. Years and decades pass, and new artists keep coming, the older artists keep growing. In some countries there is one great artist, but here in Cuba there are numerous...our schools keep producing good artists.

LatinArt:  It's been pointed out, in regards to an earlier generation of Cuban photography, that the idea was primary and that technique was simply a structure with which to express the idea. How do you see this in light of Cuba’s increased presence in the art scene?

José Manuel Fors:  Well, that’s fine. Yes, it’s true I see the change. In the 80’s there was more of an interest in conceptual ideas and less material support. Now, with the introduction of the commercial galleries, collector’s and museums there is more care taken with the work, and a return to the object.

LatinArt:  ...and is this also a philosophical or intellectual shift, or more of a commercial one?

José Manuel Fors:  These are questions of the art market - yes, evidently so. When I started working, one created work but you didn’t have fantasies of selling gave it as gifts or you threw it away. Therefore no one cared about keeping, conserving or collecting these works. Artists didn’t worry about the material durability and technical quality of their works. The new economic realities in Cuba force us to protect ourselves economically. There has been a change with artists, a real care being taken at the point of creation. As Cuba opens up, the more contact it has with the world, the more artists will adjust to the necessities and the requirements of collectors.

LatinArt:  It sounds like it’s a positive thing to you?

José Manuel Fors:  I don’t see it as a bad thing. There’s movement in everything...everything has its moment and then it passes.

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