Interview with Carlos Martiel
Marcial Godoy: We wanted to start with a general question: What prompted you to use your body as the raw material for your work and your political expression?
Carlos Martiel: I started working in 2007 in Cuba. At that time, I still wasn’t doing performance art. I was doing drawings with blood, closely related to the theme of race. The raw material I needed was blood, my own blood. In Havana, I would go to the polyclinics, which are public clinics in Cuba, to ask them to draw my blood—secretly, because an 18-year-old is not allowed to do that. There was always the impossibility of doing this because either they didn’t take the amount that I needed, or they simply said no. The frustration generated from not being able to carry out the type of work I wanted, let me think of my body in another way, and I realized that I was referencing racial questions in which the body was of utmost importance. That led me to performance art.
MG: What were your earliest works like, your first steps in that direction?
CM: In my earliest works, as I was saying, I was interested in the problem of race. My work was very closely tied to tribal African cultures and all of their sacrificial rituals intended to initiate adolescent boys into society as new men. Then I shifted to questions that were more related to migration, to the Cuban state’s use of power in relation to its citizens. In other words, my work, within Cuba, moved in other directions.
MG: You mentioned the idea of corporeal sincerity: Could you explain what that’s about and how you achieve it in your work?
CM: I don’t know if I have entirely achieved it. But it’s about making use of, as an artist or intellectual, critical resources, and not making merely illustrative or abstract art, but rather, art that is focused on social questions. If one has the possibility of doing that, why not do it? Art has always been the tool for expression that I have had in and outside of Cuba to address the questions that affect me and other people (because of their social, racial, or economic condition).
MG: Looking over your work, pain appears as an important element: What role does it fulfill and how is it tied to the duration of your works? How does it relate to the experience of the audience that is a witness to your pain?
CM: As I said, when I started doing performance art, I was very interested in African cultures and their rituals, and that marked me. I identified with them. I was rediscovering my body. It was getting close to what forms part of all human beings. So, beyond my own pain, it was about issues that affect us all. Painful things, not physically but, in my work, I have to do it in a physical way. I work with pain as a denunciation, as a critique of situations that are affecting us.
MG: And the experience of the audience as a witness?
CM: When I present a piece, I don’t have the audience so much in mind. I do when I think, “How would they understand this piece?” But in the exact moment of the execution, it doesn’t interest me so much.
MG: Another formal element that caught our interest has to do with your work with stillness: There are many instances in your work when you remain absolutely still. In this sense, do you see any relationship between your work and sculpture?
CM: In San Alejandro, which is the school where I studied visual arts, I specialized in precious metals. I’ve had that relationship with sculpture from the beginning. Given how my work has developed, if I weren’t a performer I would be a sculptor. Because of the very themes that I’m addressing, I like the fact of making the body into a kind of living monument.
MG: Related to the body as a monument, your recent work Hacerse olvido [Becoming Forgotten] comes to mind, could you talk to us about that work in relation to sculpture and monument?
CM: That’s a work that I did a little while ago in Cuba, after five years of not doing anything there. It was part of an individual exhibition. And it’s a piece that’s conceived through the Cuban migration to the United States and through all those lives that have been lost in the 50 years of the Cuban regime and that can’t be quantified because there isn’t a reliable count. That strait in the gulf is practically a cemetery of Cubans. It was about revisiting the topic because it’s not a topic that’s being spoken of in Cuba. Now, a year’s gone by since the change in the migratory policies regarding people who can come to the United States. The Cuban government should deal with the topic because it’s there. And the families of those affected continue to be there. So, we shouldn’t just look at it from here, from the United States, but have a dialogue with Cuba. In that piece, I had taken two sedatives and I was lying on a tire during the opening of the exhibition.
MG: It’s a very intense topic, especially in relation to the theme we are exploring in this issue, which is “expulsion.” This brings us to another recurring theme in your work, which is the sea. It reappears in your work in various ways: as a limit, as a border, or as a tomb, just as you were saying. If we recall Virgilio Piñera’s lamentation (“the damned circumstance of water everywhere”) or think about your work “Sujeto” [Subject] (2012), what has been your relationship with the insularity of Cuba?
CM: When you’re Cuban and living in Havana, the sea is very present in your life. It’s something you can see on your way to school, to work, or when you go to have a good time on a Friday night in Vedado or in Old Havana. But it’s not only the sea but also the policies of the government and the complete impossibility of Cubans to travel outside of the country. The sea is always reminding you of your insular condition. So, early in my work, I created lots of pieces like A donde mis pies no lleguen [Where My Feet Do Not Reach] (2011), Capitulación [Capitulation] (2011), Lazos de sangre [Bloodline] (2010), and Isla muerta [Dead Island] (2011), those works are related to the insular condition, although the sea doesn’t appear. The insular condition has marked my work. Even what I’m currently doing has a lot to do with the place that I come from.
MG: The presence of the sea opened up to other seas: Could you talk about your work Mediterráneo [Mediterranean] (2017) and why you chose that action for the Cuban Pavilion at the Venice Biennale?
CM: It’s a work that I conceived a couple of years ago and that I had the chance to carry out recently. It’s based on the drama of African migration to Europe, but above all, it’s based on what underlies that issue. We speak of the numbers of those who arrive or of those who have died. But we don’t speak about why they come. We don’t speak about all the companies that are investing in African land and that keep the population living in extreme poverty. It’s a chain of things that are happening and that end up affecting those who leave. Both the Caribbean and the Florida Strait are cemeteries, as is the Mediterranean. I am also an immigrant, and whenever I go to Europe, I try to touch on this topic because it’s a problem that affects me. And particularly in Italy, where thousands of immigrants from Africa arrive every day.
MG: I know you have a Jamaican passport: Could you tell us your migration history?
CM: I left Cuba in 2012, just after the Biennale. I lived in Ecuador, but I realized that it wasn’t a space for me. I didn’t want to return to Cuba so I crossed over land, illegally, skirting border controls the way that all illegal immigrants do. When I was in Ecuador, I went to YouTube and started to look for how to cross the border from Ecuador to Peru, from Peru to Bolivia, from Bolivia to Argentina. And that’s how I made my way. I was in Argentina for a year until I was invited to a festival in Canada, and I decided to go. Being there, and having a brother living in Florida, I saw the possibility of reuniting with my family. So I came to the United States. With regard to my Jamaican passport, my family is descended from Jamaicans and Haitians who arrived and settled in western Cuba (Holguín) in the 1920s as coffee and sugarcane workers. Luckily, in my family, we still have the passports, especially that of my great-grandfather, who was from Jamaica. With that as my starting point, I’ve recently become very conscious of my origins and I have tried to research and celebrate that part of me. That also led to my decision to apply for a Jamaican citizenship. And now I’m also a Jamaican citizen.
MG: This acquisition of formal citizenship makes me think of Expulsión [Expulsion] (2015), a piece tied to the removal of citizenship. It’s a work you showed in 2015 in Greece, and it was one of the editorial inspirations for this issue of the journal, which is based, precisely, on the category of expulsion. Could you talk about that piece?
CM: They invited me to a festival that was part of the Thessaloniki Biennale. When I arrived, I saw a number of Africans selling things in the street. There were five or six. But all of the black people I saw were selling in the street. I asked the curator about the legal status of these people, if they were fleeing from the police, etc. She explained to me that even if these people had children in Europe, they were unable to acquire citizenship or legal residency. They live with the specter of illegality and of the possibility of being expelled all the time. In Greece, and in all of the European Union, people live with that in their day-to-day lives. That’s where my work Expulsión was born. In my work, I’m standing there with the stars of the European Union flag sewn to my skin. At one point, someone enters and removes them one by one, and when they are all gone, I walk out of the space.
MG: You have lived in the United States for many years and your work has touched on the problem of racialized violence in this country and also on themes such as gentrification, especially in a piece like Desalojo [Eviction] (2014). In this work, the relationship between racism, class, and the city takes center stage: Could you about this work?
CM: It’s a work I did in 2014. Though I had been in the United States for a while, I had recently arrived in New York. One day I was running some errands in Corona, and I got lost and ended up in Williamsburg. Immediately, because of the energy of the space, I realized that something was going on there. When I got back home, I started to look on the internet and I saw the whole issue of gentrification in this area, the evictions that are happening, all the closing of small businesses that largely belong to Hispanic and Latino immigrants. Later I returned to that space and I did that piece: I was lying in a puddle in the street and two people dragged me out of the neighborhood. I did it to reflect on this issue and how this happens everywhere in the United States. One constantly lives with the consequences of gentrification and the impact it’s having on people’s lives. And they are always the most vulnerable people, those who don’t have a great economic advantage, people with dark skin, Latinos or Hispanics. It is always structured so as to push out the most vulnerable people in the United States.
MG: Being Cuban and black, how do you experience the circumstances of race here, in the United States? Is it different from Cuba?
CM: It’s very different. In Cuba, there is institutionalized racism. For example, you walk down the street and constantly see that black people are being asked for their ID card. There is a violence, but it is much more measured than what happens here. Here they take it to an extreme. The fact of being black here puts your life in danger. Cuba seems like a paradise compared to what you experience here. In some way, I feel that that’s been inserted into my work. For example, in January I’m going to go to a festival in Los Angeles and I’m going to do a piece related to police brutality. I already did one in 2015, in which I was under layers of soil taken from places where incidents of police brutality had been registered. And now I’m going to do a piece in which blood is drawn from between three and five African Americans who live in Los Angeles, and I’m going to stand in a puddle of that blood as part of the performance. It’s to talk about the violence that African Americans are constantly experiencing here in the United States. And it doesn’t end. And Los Angeles is a thermometer where the temperature is always rising.
MG: How is your current relationship with Cuba? How do you see the changes that are taking place there and what do you think the horizons of the country are?
CM: The issue of Cuba is a bit uncertain. With Obama and the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, things started to open up, but now with Trump, they’ve closed again. Currently, there are changes taking place in Cuba, minute ones. But even so, Cubans aren’t benefiting from them. For example, I went to Cuba in February. When I was there I saw a big group of Indian workers and I asked, how is that these Indian workers are here? What happens is that the government has a standard rate at which it pays people, but the companies that are building hotels in Cuba pay much more. And the government can’t pay construction workers that salary. People are not motivated to work for or a salary like the one the government pays. There’s also no efficiency, and the people who are investing in Cuba need agility as all business people do. So these investors decided to bring people from India, paying them salaries that Cubans could be earning, on the other hand. There are changes, Cuba is opening up, but there’s no benefit for the Cuban people. On the political front, everything is the same. The only person running for president in 2018 is someone who has the same discourse that the Cuban government has had historically. You don’t see a change. When I go to Cuba I see the same reality, people with the same problems, with basic problems, of getting food. In Cuba, the land is not being cultivated… things aren’t going well. There is no willingness on the part of the government because they want to maintain the same rhetoric that they’ve had for years and that is totally out-of-date.
MG: Have you had any difficulties entering or leaving the country?
CM: I’ve never had any problems. The last time I went they treated me normally. They had me in the immigration line for a half hour, but in the end, they let me go.
MG: What plans do you have for this year in terms of production? Do you plan to continue with the theme of expulsion or migration? What do you have on your agenda?
CM: The theme will depend a lot on the sort of invitation I get. In January I will do the Los Angeles piece on police brutality against African Americans in the United States, and I’m also going to go to MOLAA with a piece that’s called América and that has to do the fragmentation of this continent. Then I’m going to Argentina to work with the issue of the Mapuches, creating continuity with the pieces I did this year with the Guaranies, the Kayapos. I’ll be working with the indigenous populations in those spaces.
*Translated from Spanish into English by Tess Rankin.