Atlántica # 59

The following conversation between Carmensa de la Hoz and Pepe Dámaso—unquestionably the most adored and beloved living artist in the Canary Islands today—was conducted during the closing ceremonies of the retrospective of the artist’s work organised by the Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno (CAAM) in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in mid-September 2017.


Why did you start painting?

I make no bones about it; I started painting because I’m an artist by nature. I was born an artist. In addition to painting, ever since childhood I’ve been doing what I still do today, which is to say painting, writing, reciting poetry, dancing la Rama, and enjoying culture.


The first thing I would like to point out is that this interview is being carried out with an 84-year-old man who hasn’t been well of late, and who has been in and out of hospital on various occasions. But looking back over my life, over all this time and all this toing-and-froing, I’ve come to the conclusion that I was born an artist.


It’s not something I inherited. There were no known artists in my family before I came along. Around the time I was born, in the early thirties, my hometown of Agaete had a thriving cultural life. It was home to singers like Lucy Cabrera, and I remember, for instance, that there were regular plays, concerts, and poetry recitals. All of the great writers from the Canaries left their mark on Agaete. The great modernist poet Tomás Morales lived there, and another great writer, Alonso Quesada, the author of La Umbría, spent long periods of time there with Morales. Another vivid memory I have of growing up in Agaete is of looking at the wonderful triptych by the Flemish painter Joos van Cleve. So, how could I have been anything else but an artist?


In the mid-fifties there was a shift in your painting from figuration to abstract informalism. How did this change come about?

Rather than a figurative painter, I would just say that I was a conventional artist who was beginning to realise that I was surrounded by a creative world that was anything but conventional. My parents used to run a boarding house and one of the guests was a figurative painter. I used to carry his box of paints for him when he went to the countryside in search of scenes for his pictures. He taught me how to handle a paintbrush properly and I immediately started to paint differently. A good example is the painting of the shell on the sea in a paper boat.


The “cemetery” paintings are also from my earliest period. In them you can see the skull, death, and the self-portrait of my hand that would become constants in my practice. These would be pivotal works. They were much more than copying from nature. Back in the fifties I was beginning to make interesting work. I don’t remember having any direct influence from artists like Miró or other Surrealists. You have to remember that, at that time, not much information reached the Canaries from the outside world. I was just 18 years old and had never left my hometown and the surroundings in which I was brought up. So my output came from my own artistic spirit and not, as far as I remember, from external influences.


You once said that you discovered the work of Juan Ismael, the surrealist painter from the Canaries, at the Wiot gallery?

That’s right. And that’s when I realised that there was another, completely different, way of painting landscape. I discovered his work while browsing around at the back of the gallery. I saw some paintings in which Ismael depicted landscapes in a modern style. He had a completely different conception and manner of approaching landscape and indeed painting itself.


The fifties saw the rise of abstraction, and as I have always been very intuitive, I immediately realised that I had to evolve and move on in search of other languages. I started practising the kind of abstraction that you could see everywhere around that time. The painters from my generation in Spain—and this was especially true for those of us from the Canary Islands—had to be fine-tuned to the scanty information that reached us from the art world outside. We pounced on any new findings and used them to inform ourselves and to experiment with new elements. It was almost like an obsession for us. I believe that living on an island marks you in so many ways. When I travelled to Madrid to practice drawing at the Prado, it was like a whole new world opening up to me and I was now able to share experiences and my life with other painters.


How did you meet César Manrique?

I had moved to Madrid in 1954 to do my military service. One day, while listening to the radio, I heard that there was going to be an opening of an exhibition by César Manrique, a painter from Lanzarote. So I decided to go and seek him out for myself. It was totally deliberate. I wanted to meet him. The exhibition, which was of abstract work, was at Galería Clan. So I have to confess that it wasn’t an accidental meeting. It’s probably the first time I’ve admitted this.


If by “meeting” we mean a chance encounter then that wasn’t the case, because I was bent on being introduced to him. Of course I already knew who Manrique was, because he had painted the big murals at the Parador de Lanzarote, which had caused so much controversy with Pildain, the bishop of Las Palmas at the time. I had read a report in the magazine Isla which was illustrated with some photos of the artist painting in shorts, and it said that he had received a scholarship to study in Madrid. I remember thinking: that’s interesting! I wanted to get to know this man. So it was no chance encounter, I went in search of him.


César used to say that as soon as he saw me he realised how much pent up emotion I had inside and we immediately started to talk. I confessed to him that I was homosexual and he replied: Pepe, you will always be a friend of mine. That night he dropped everything and we went off to have dinner together.


This was to be the beginning of a friendship that would last until his death in 1992.


 


Tell us more about this enduring friendship that lasted over forty years?

It was an intense relationship. It was a friendship between two artists, between two men with very different characters and also with very different ways of expressing ourselves visually. There are many well-documented instances of friendships between artists. A while ago I saw a film about the relationship between Cézanne and Zola. Ours was an exceptional friendship. It was an open, sociable attachment without any kind of creative envy. We respected each other’s work, which isn’t always easy for two artists. As you know, I was always aware how much Manrique respected and admired my work.


He would always ask me for my opinion. That made me feel a certain sense of responsibility and I was conscious of the importance of our friendship for him. Likewise, when it came to judging his work I was obviously heavily conditioned by the fact that an artist as significant as Manrique held me in such high esteem and supported me.


You can get a good idea of our relationship from our correspondence over the years, especially from the thousand or so letters that he wrote to me throughout our friendship. When they’re eventually published you’ll appreciate the extent of our relationship. It will be a paean to friendship, a look back over the events and characters in the art world in Spain and further afield. Our unique friendship is portrayed so well in Manrique’s letters thanks to his talent, patience, and vision.


You travelled all over the world with Manrique, and yet there’s one city that the two of you adored and, in the case of César, it was the city where he spent some fantastic years during the sixties. Can you tell us more about this experience?

Manrique lived in New York and was represented by the Catherine Viviano Gallery, which had a roster of really interesting artists. I especially remember Afro (Libio Basaldella). In his letters from that time Manrique talked about his life in New York, the people he knew, about other artists working with all kinds of completely different experiences. It made me feel part of that fascinating world. We sometimes travelled together and we often wrote to each other on airplanes flying to one place or another.


It was incredible to be shown New York by someone with such boundless energy and enthusiasm. As soon as he stepped foot in New York he knew that it was the place to be. The city was full of all kinds of artists working away. We were at one of Warhol’s parties, we went to incredible shows, we saw the first Land Art works by Robert Smithson and Dennis Oppenheimer. When Manrique saw these projects that introduced nature into the gallery space, he asked ironically, “and what about me and Jameos del Agua?” It was a wonderful and very rewarding experience. You also have to bear in mind that César was fourteen years older than me and had lived a lot more.


We went to the Apollo in Harlem without a second thought and we were practically the only white people there. We saw all the great singers of the time: James Brown, Odetta, and all the divas. I remember the transvestites in the boxes clapping and cheering like mad at their idols. I also got to see Warhol’s films, which I believe still hold up today. I’ve held on to many photos from that time. On Sundays we used to go to Washington Square. There were all kinds of people there, buskers and the first hippies with their groovy get-ups. There was an incredible atmosphere of fun and freedom without prejudice!


I want to ask you about your series called Juanita, a seminal work in your painting practice. Who was Juanita, and why did you choose this character?

Juanita was my first teacher. I remember that my father made me a little wooden stool to take to school. Juanita and her sister had been brought up in Cuba and they used to recite poetry. At one stage I wanted to pay tribute to all the unique wonderful and generous women in my life and I had always been moved by Juanita’s life. In her later years she used to be harassed and pestered by children and indeed adults too, and she ended up in the most abject misery. People accused her of being a witch. But all I saw was a poor helpless person who gave me the little she had, which was nothing more than a few pieces of old lace. And so in 1966 I started to work on this tribute to this extraordinary person with the idea of somehow turning her into a legend within my creation. And it’s curious to note how I turned out to be on the same wavelength as Arte Povera, which was just beginning at that time, but of course I didn’t have the slightest idea of the existence of that new movement.


I exhibited the series at the Galería Seiquer in Madrid with an edition of a portfolio of etchings. Manrique asked me to send some of them to New York for an exhibition paying homage to the poet Antonio Machado at Tibor de Nagy, the gallery run by John Bernard Myers. I’m sure Octavio Zaya will remember it. I still have the letters from him and also from Mauricio Aguilar, a painter from El Salvador who put us in contact with a very important person in Latin American art whose name escapes me right now.


I Will Be with You All My Life | Atlántica

Serie Juanita
Encajes, 1967. Técnica mixta: pintura y collage de encaje y fotografía sobre papel. 63 x 48 cm

Why did you start making films?

I’m often surprised by the appraisal of many art critics and curators today of the relationship between my painting and my filmmaking. I believe I was always at the forefront. And if an artist has the ability, the boundless fantasy and creativity, and the desire to experiment with film, then there is nothing to stop him from using cinematographic expression as a key element to tell a story. I saw in film the means of capturing the figurative part of my work in a different way. Film allowed me to capture that total reality and has more expressive potential than painting.


In making La Umbría, I co-opted the wonderful expressionism of the original work by Alonso Quesada, who had moved to Agaete because of his tuberculosis. I was aware from the outset that I was making a kind of documentary, quasi-anthropological film. Due to the way I normally work, I used ordinary people from my hometown. As always, I made use of whatever I felt like using, just as I had done when I introduced the photo in Juanita. It has been a constant throughout my work and in whatever medium I am using at any given time.


I plunged straight in without considering the risks beforehand. It was a case of pure need to express myself visually. It was a vital experience and I believe now, in hindsight, that it was necessary in order for me to be able to move forward.


In my work I was never afraid of being figurative. Now, almost at the age of 84, and after a long illness, I’ve started to paint again and to take pleasure once again in my creative world. I’m even introducing lace into my canvases again.


My approach to filmmaking was heavily influenced by the great Brazilian filmmaker Glauber Rocha. There is a scene in his movie Antonio das Mortes with some black dancers and it always reminded me of la Rama, the popular dance from Agaete, which has been absolutely critical throughout my filmmaking. Rocha’s aesthetic commitment was key to my way of looking at cinema. The same could be said for Pasolini, especially his film The Gospel According to St Matthew, or Mamma Roma, and of course Theorem. His films and his homosexuality were a clear inspiration on my work. Another film director who influenced me is the great Tarkovsky, with his sense of time and image. His conceptual take on the commitment to life was instrumental in my painting and my films.


I played with colour, with the spectrum, with surrealism and the absurd in Réquiem por un absurdo. The glass of the lens in the camera is like a mirror in which the director or artist is reflected and, like an eye, he looks through it to see whether he has the talent to express himself through film. Making a film is incredibly tough. It’s a long hard process. On the other hand, it’s wonderful to think how young people today have such a range of tools available to them, and that you can actually make films with just a smartphone.


You once told me during one of our conversations that you aren’t afraid of anything. I want to ask you about your close relationship with death.

Facing death without fear is like facing creation. It’s like getting under the skin of the medium of what you are doing. Art moves people because it helps you to discover that other side. In a way it’s like arriving at death, it’s the breath on the mirror which is a camera lens. It’s like looking in the mirror of life or in the mirror of creation and going over to the other side in search of what is there.


The dying man doesn’t see himself in the mirror. He steams it up with his breath as long as he has it. Breath is made of countless particles that make an indefinable, misty, blurred, and grey whole. He who sees, who lives life is he who contemplates death. From life one can appreciate the Breath, go through the mirror, and search or feel about in the emptiness. How does a dying man see the mirror? Is it perhaps the Breath that draws the final form of what is behind the camera? Is the Breath reflected in the glass of the lens, a mirror all in all? Does the camera die when it captures that image which portrays who knows what?—Pepe Dámaso


In 1966 you were invited to take part at the First World Festival of Negro Arts held in Dakar, Senegal which was driven by the then president of the country, Léopold Sédar Senghor. How did you get involved in this adventure in Africa?

I’ve always felt very close to Africa and to Négritude. You have to bear in mind that the connection between the Canary Islands and Africa is continuous.


A friend of mine, Angela Pla, an actress and producer of the West Africa Ballet for who I had made some sketches and drawings for sets and stage designs, arranged for me to travel there and present my work. I went in a boat called the Anzerville. I was seasick the whole journey and couldn’t wait to set foot in Dakar.


I Will Be with You All My Life | Atlántica

Muerte en carroza, 1968. Técnica mixta sobre lienzo 200 x 115 cm. Colección del particular

My work was exhibited at the Spanish Embassy. Angela was a friend of the ambassador. I took some sketches with me and finished the works there. We chose a text by Senghor and made a poster for the opening, a linoleum with one of my hands white and the other one black.


The festival had a major repercussion worldwide but those of us who were there at the time weren’t aware of the country’s enormous efforts to ensure that the event would be a true international success, which it turned out to be. Picasso was a personal friend of Senghor and he had donated a work of his to partly defray the costs of the festival.


As there weren’t enough hotel rooms to go around, some people stayed on board ships. I spent my first night on a Russian ship. There were people from all over the world. There was an incredible buzz and the feeling that something new was happening. Manrique sent me press cuttings from New York with reports about the festival. This was where I met my great friend Marpessa Dawn, who starred in Black Orpheus, which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival.


The most interesting thing for me was the exhibition of black art held at the Musée Dynamique, which had been purpose-built for the event. Curated by Iba N’Diaye, the show featured work by African artists.


I’m reminded of a curious story. After the festival, I met the saxophonist Archie Shepp in New York and gave him a piece of African fabric and the poster for the festival as a gift. Shortly afterwards he sent me one of his latest records and on the cover was a photo of him wearing a t-shirt made from the fabric I had given him.


In 2000 I had an exhibition at the Dakar Biennial in the fortress on the island of Gorée. I was showing new work alongside older work that I had kept from my first trip there in 1966. The Minister of Culture came up to me and gave me an emotional hug, telling me that he remembered being at that original exhibition way back then with his father.


Over all these years I’ve never stopped working with Africa and Négritude. It has been a constant throughout my life.


Antonio Zaya once said that Négritude was alive in me, in my loves, and in my friendships. I’ve always been interested in people, and not as some kind of conceptual speculation. My three series, Mango Negro, Tragedias Atlánticas, and Dámaso a Cuba, from different moments in my life, give a good account of my relationship with Africanness.


What went through your mind when Luis González Robles called you in 1970 to take part in the 35th Venice Biennale?

I can remember now how excited I was. Can you imagine what it must have felt like for a young man to be given the honour of representing Spain alongside other artists in such a setting as the Biennale? I couldn’t make up my mind what I should take. It was a great opportunity for me but also a great responsibility. I finally chose a series on “Bing,” the short story by Samuel Beckett, who had won the Nobel Prize in Literature the year before. I started working on this strange and highly fraught suite. It’s a series of large drawings in sepia against a white ground with bodies all stuck together, which you didn’t know if they were alive or dead.


Manrique travelled with me to Venice and it turned out that Visconti was shooting Death in Venice at the time. We were really excited with so much going on around us.


Later on I received a letter from the high commissioner for culture informing me that Luchino Visconti had bought two of my works. I can’t tell you how happy I was to know that such an incredibly talented film director had acquired two of my works for his collection.


I also remember that we travelled from Madrid to Venice by bus with González Robles. We stopped along the way and he took us on a detour to Avignon, where Picasso had an exhibition at the Palais des Papes. It happened to be his last exhibition during his lifetime.


I Will Be with You All My Life | Atlántica

La mordedura. Lamelama. A pleno semen o cuarto sangrante, 1976. Técnica mixta sobre lienzo 214 x 203 cm (c/u)

You have defined yourself as homosexual. You’ve said it often and openly. It’s not something you’ve ever tried to hide. My question is, did it mark your life in any way?

I suffered more for friends of mine who were more camp, weaker, or more effeminate than me, and who were rejected by people. But I stood by them. As far as I know there was an internment camp for homosexuals in Fuerteventura that was still in use until the seventies.


Culture was a big help for me. I believe that I actually suffered more by virtue of being an artist who created innovative work. People always seem to react against the new. It’s widely believed that artists have a strong homosexual component. We all know of many great homosexuals in art, but of course it isn’t an indispensable condition. There you have Picasso, so you don’t have to be queer to be an artist. Then we have two good examples in Visconti and Pasolini, two filmmakers who produced such different work. Visconti was a refined aristocrat and a Marxist while Pasolini was a man of the people and a communist.


I also have to mention García Lorca because of course his work had a profound effect on me. I have a project in mind with the book Poet in New York and my photographic work from New York which I hope to produce some day.


What did it mean for you to be so closely involved in the project to set up the El Almacén cultural centre in Lanzarote in 1974 alongside Manrique?

Everything just seemed to come together at the right time. We were able to bring life back to a nineteenth-century mansion with the cultural and social values of a society almost without cultural references in the strict sense of the word. First of all we decided on the approach to take. After all, this was Manrique’s island and he had the financial ability to do it. In my case, though I was not as famous as him, I felt it was my duty to support the project. I believe that my intellectual input was decisive. Together with the Zaya brothers, Antonio and Octavio, we did a performance which I think was called TWINS, in the Scene of Repetition (Displaced Differences) in 1974, and also a conference, Duero y el Apocalipsis or El Triunfo de la Locura. We screened a video that I had recorded with Antonio Zaya, in which he ate a poem written by the two. He stood naked in front of a mirror and recited it inside a bubble where Octavio was supposed to be.


There were drama groups, and I especially remember a company of deaf people who put on the play La Estatua y el Perro by Alberto Omar; it was one of the three or four theatre companies in the world at the time made up of deaf people. We screened the films of the moment, we publicised the work of philosophers and writers who we invited to give lectures. Alberti and Aranguren were among the many intellectuals who visited us. We were keenly aware of the importance of what we were doing. And young people played a particularly germane role in the various projects we undertook.


The exhibitions we organised were all at the highest level possible. We put on a show of Pierre Alechinsky’s Vulcanologies series. The artist himself came to the opening with some Belgian friends. There were other exhibitions by óscar Dominguez and Wifredo Lam. Many up-and-coming young artists got their first chance to exhibit their work at Sala El Aljibe. Our embrace also transcended national boundaries. El Almacén was a kind of laboratory of ideas and cultural practices. The people who visited Lanzarote all came to visit El Almacén, where everyone was welcome to get involved. I remember the great Núria Espert with the Argentinian scenographer Víctor García, and Lindsay Kemp, Pedro Almodóvar, John Malkovich, and Manoel de Oliveira, who were bowled over by the island and Manrique’s spaces.


I Will Be with You All My Life | Atlántica

Sala Muerte

What does Lisbon mean to you?

I adore the city. To me it seems as if it were living in some glorious past. I lived there for a time and that’s where I discovered the wonderful work of the writer Fernando Pessoa. Years later I decided to work on a series dedicated to Pessoa, and I asked my good friend José Saramago to write the introduction to the catalogue. The work was exhibited in the museum dedicated to the writer and afterwards the Spanish Ministry of Culture asked me to represent Spain with the series at the Lisbon Expo in La Cordolaria, a wonderful venue. I also created a plaza on the island of Tenerife dedicated to Pessoa. Saramago said that it was probably the first public monument in the world outside Portugal in honour of Pessoa.


Why did you decide to stay in the Canaries?

It wasn’t easy. All my painter friends had left the islands to go and live in other cities, although Manrique did return. But I believe that in the end it was the best decision for me. I stayed in the islands with the essential premise that in the Canaries we were already cosmopolitan. We receive millions of people who come in search of the pleasant climate and its unique landscape and nature, which have always inspired me. I have to say that at times isolation is conducive to creation, and I couldn’t separate myself from this rich and interesting context.


Mount Teide, Agaete, Néstor, Tomás Morales, the Héroes Atlánticos, the sea, las Caracolas, the palm groves… are all part and parcel of a world that is inseparable from my creation. To be honest, I could probably have lived anywhere in the world, but now I’m happy to have stayed in the Canaries.


I have the affection of the people of the Canaries and that is reward enough for a whole life.


Are you happy with the survey show at CAAM which has just ended?

I am really happy. The turnout of people broke all records. The wonderful work of the whole team at CAAM was truly impeccable and professional. I have been discovered by the general public. It wasn’t easy to select the work from among the thousands of paintings but I’m really grateful and surprised. At my age and after almost seventy years of painting, this overview and analysis of my work has left me perplexed. The mounting was wonderful and there were many fantastic acts programmed, especially the lectures by Rosa Olivares, Alfonso de la Torre, Lázaro Santana, and yourself. There was even a visit from a cultural representative of the Republic of Indonesia.


Finally, tell me more about your relationship with the Zaya brothers.

My relationship with them is like the one I had with Manrique, truly exceptional and transcendental. I wouldn’t dare to suggest that I discovered them, because they had their own criteria. However, there’s no doubt that my collaboration with them was instrumental, and we did a lot of things together. Their talent and their personality were hugely important for contemporary art in the Canaries and of course for the whole of Spain and indeed for the rest of the world too.


They have proven their worth with their know-how, their professionalism, and they’ve discovered many great contemporary artists. My relationship with them was very fruitful and fantastic. I have especially fond memories of our collaboration in Cancer, the wonderful portfolio which was presented in Galería Conca—the Dadaist poem Cancer, which Eduardo Westerdahl called a magnificent poem.


With Antonio I did many things: Cuba, Cometas, Cielo Raso, La Biblioteca Pintada, and many essays and reviews in art journals and the Spanish press.


There are many memories to treasure: Africa, homosexuality, Latin America, the joie de vivre, craziness, laughter, costumes, complicity, playfulness. They admired me and the feeling was mutual.


I wrote a text for them called El Marinero Cotidiano de la Serpentina, which I hope to publish together with a series of drawings and collages.


Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, 18 September 2017

I Will Be with You All My Life | Atlántica

Cosmos Nasas, 1975-2017