Celebrated Cuban artist Tomás Sánchez explores the beauty and loss of our environment with his incredibly detailed dreamscapes — moving from sprawling garbage dumps to idyllic visions of paradise.
We caught up with Tomás to talk about Volumen Uno, his love for the Romantics, an acquisition by Fidel Castro and his takes on paradise, meditation and the internet.
Tomás Sánchez was born in 1948 in Cuba, and now is based in Costa Rica.
In the 80s you were a part of Volumen Uno, which is now remembered as an important movement in Cuban art history. How did it feel to be a part of at the time?
Tomás Sánchez: Like many projects that become artistic ‘milestones,’ the participants of Volumen Uno were fully aware of its effect and importance for the Cuban art context many years later. Clearly the manifold of conversations and personal exchanges, our interests in transcending the paths of the artistic practices of the moment, presenting other kinds of work and being able to theorize and talk about it, already aimed to be an exhibition that would mark a before and an after on the island. As I’ve mentioned many times before, I feel enormous admiration and respect for the artists who were part of Volumen Uno, many of them are absolutely essential to tell the history of Cuban art in the second half of the 20th century. But looking back on those days, I was just sharing the stage with seven of my alumni with whom I had so many other connections beyond that spirit of rupture — that was a very fulfilling process and, literally, vital for me at that time.
Early in your career your work was destroyed by the National Art School, ENA, because it ‘belittled human power,’ and later on you sold a work to Raúl Castro as a birthday present for Fidel! How has your position as a Cuban artist changed in your lifetime?
Tomás Sánchez: Part of my work was destroyed at the National School of Art due to political motivations and also because there are human beings who are instrumental in carrying out such unedifying gestures in those circumstances. Power cannot do anything by itself if it does not have those tools, which in this specific case were men — many of them my colleagues. There were also others who rescued some of those works. I have recognized some of them, such as the artist Rafael Cáceres, whom I thank so much.
Years later, one of my pieces came into Fidel Castro’s hands, actually through his brother Raúl. It is not that I sold the work to a specific client or destination, but rather that the work was given to them to allow me to visit specific natural landmarks on the island that I would not have had access to otherwise. Today those experiences of seeing, for example, the Sierra Maestra mountains, are still important to me. Nature is not ideological; nature carries its own ideology. So, I can say that my position on Cuba has not changed over the years because I am the same person, a fervent admirer of the diversity that exists in nature and humanity, of which we belong, and that I have always believed in individual freedom as the foundational fact of being.
I don’t know if my paintings can change the way we relate to nature, but in my experience, it leads us to that first stage, which is reflection.
Moving from utopian visions of nature to dystopian garbage dumps, how do you balance hope and destruction in your work and how does this relate to environmental issues more widely?
Tomás Sánchez: For many years I have insisted that the garbage dumps and the works that depict nature in a more contemplative fashion are part of a whole. Both are landscapes and both directly address our relationship with nature. A landscape where nature is in its most pristine state somehow expresses it in all its potential, that hopeful narrative that is at the centre of all the cataclysms that lie ahead — at least to those who live attentive to the gradual destruction of the environment. The dumps, which are so colourful and imposing, bear witness to these cataclysms, the impact of man on his environment. It is a duality, I believe that one could not exist without the other. Both are calls for attention — red flags — not a lesson about the current situation because I am not a moralist, but it is my way of insisting that there is a future scenario for which we are collectively responsible. Every detail of the garbage, which is usually massive in my work, bears embedded depictions of who we are as humanity. I don’t know if my paintings can change the way we relate to nature, but in my experience, it leads us to that first stage, which is reflection.
Meditation is a key theme in your work, often represented by small figures engulfed in vast landscapes, could you tell us a bit more about how it influences your painting?
Tomás Sánchez: As expressed in the question, meditation is key to my work. Not only because it is a specific topic in my painting, but the foundation of my life and my work.
Meditation gives us back that expansive feeling of being something more than the body we inhabit
Many of my paintings’ visions and reflections arise from the meditation experience. The meditator’s presence in several of my works is related to “the consciousness of the witness,” a concept in Eastern philosophy that comes from India and from the line of meditation that I practice: Kashmir Shaivism. This concept is the optimal way to introduce perception beyond contemplation related to the senses. It is a state of meditation that makes us feel connected to everything that exists. When we approach nature from this perspective, we do not need to assume it as something worth protecting external to us. Meditation gives us back that expansive feeling of being something more than the body we inhabit, that we are part of a whole, and that whole is worth protecting.
Like the Romantics, your work deals with the relationship between humankind, nature and spirituality. How important is their influence on your work?
Tomás Sánchez: There is no doubt that Romantic artists have a great influence on my work, but if I had to mention the most influential I would say that it is Caspar David Friedrich: his work’s philosophy, how symbolism appears in his contemplation of nature and the mystical character that translates into this relationship of man’s admiration for nature. I was already doing landscapes when I got to know Friedrich’s work through a friend, so more than an influence, it was a revelation. The value system emanating from his work is connected with the idea of devotion to nature in my painting, with that spirituality crucial to Romanticism.
The almost-otherworldly perfectionism of the landscapes you paint provides a soothing place for viewers to escape to. Where do you find the peace that exudes from your paintings?
Tomás Sánchez: It is an ‘almost’ common agreement among viewers of my work that it provides them with a kind of spiritual peace, perhaps because those spaces reflect the peace I receive from the experience of meditation; that feeling of calm and connection with everything that we have already talked about. When I say that it is an ‘almost’ shared experience, it is because the calmness present in many of my landscapes can also cause concern for some people. It is a legitimate sensation like any other. I find peace in nature and in meditation, and my landscape paintings of nature contemplation are the translation of my peace into that particular language.
What’s your take on paradise?
Tomás Sánchez: Without pretending to be a radical, nature without the intervention of man is paradise. That search for Heaven — or the place it occupies in the humankind imaginary — should be inward. Paradise should not only exist as something external to ourselves.
Do you think the art world’s accessibility has changed over the course of your career, and has the internet played a part in this?
Tomás Sánchez: Accessibility to art has changed a lot throughout my career, even more so because I am an artist from Cuba, whose geopolitical conditions are unique. For artists like me, it was extraordinary to think of another communication and distribution scenario after the end of the 80s, when I began to see my work in an international context.
However the internet is another dimension, and within it the opening of social networks — how close we are to everything we want to know. Undoubtedly its impact in the context of distribution and knowledge is positive, but on the other hand there is a saturation of images, and to face it we should cultivate our criteria more to be discerning and learn to choose well. There are no longer such clear limits to understand when we are talking about art or any other human graphic expression; the images are confusing and we overlook many details.
The exercise of contemplation has been lost to some extent. Everything has its pros and cons, but if we make fair use of the internet we open a whole universe of infinite possibilities for our future.
Artists never stop evolving or working; it is not a scheduled work, it is a way of life.
Could you tell us a bit more about the inspiration behind your two most recent Avant Arte editions. They’re both based on works from the 90s, how does it feel to revisit them?
Tomás Sánchez: One of the gratifications of this second collaboration with Avant Arte has been precisely the selection of works from the 90s, which was a very prolific period for my work. Those were the years in which I was settling down outside of Cuba, which meant having better materials to work with and a more stable quality of life, allowing me to concentrate on painting and not exclusively on survival. Perhaps this didn’t impact my work’s conceptualization, but it adjusted the setting so that I could care more about things inherent to the work itself.
Starting in the 90s, a qualitative leap was perceived in my production and enthusiasm that culminated in my contract with Marlborough Gallery in New York, which brought a lot of stability to my market and a lot more attention to my work. The two works that I have reproduced with Avant Arte today remind me of that process and allow me to revisit that time with new eyes. Artists never stop evolving or working; it is not a scheduled work, it is a way of life. I am satisfied that those years’ work continues to be appreciated, and I notice how, on a technical level and even some topics are still present in my work today.
Works from Tomás Sánchez
To see more of Tomás’ work, find him on Instagram @tomassanchezstudio or follow the links below to read more about our two most recent collaborations, Contemplar al Otro en Tarde Rosa and Encontrar el Meditador.