Wounds Left in the Earth
Snite Musum of Art logo. University of Notre Dame
Never have I witnessed a palette capture more intensely the soul of Cuba. From across the gallery, the ultramarine blues, deep maroons and dense greens of Paul Sierra's immense oil painting, Harvest, cry out, bemoaning an Eden that has suddenly found itself bisected by the river Acheron. Standing beneath the nearly seven-foot tall painting, I fight to peer into the dark grove, search the forceful sky and study the mysterious figure. Soon, however, I find myself powerless against the fiery reds and radiant yellows pulling me into the glowing pit. Lost in a churning sea of colors, I discover in Sierra's painting the raw passion and pain of the Cuban refugee experience that had always escaped me in the retellings of my Cuban family lore.
When I hear my grandmother tell stories of life on the family farm outside the small agricultural town of Dolores, it is clear what she longs for most in her native Cuba: the land. For centuries, the agricultural land was everything to her family. I hear the pride in my grandmother's voice when she speaks of the Nela sugar mill that her grandfather Patricio built. I feel the passion in her words when she describes, in rich detail, the acres of guayaba, mamey, mango, lemon and avocado that surrounded her home and set the backdrop to her complex childhood. She roars with laughter as she tells me about the guayaba fights with her 13 brothers and sisters that would last entire afternoons. It is impossible, however, to miss the somber drop in tone when I ask her what emotion she feels when the new generations return to the farms for the first time since our family left and she replies "fear." Fear that a grandchild of hers could suffer the same horrors that she did when she was imprisoned at the age of 16. Fear that seeing the crumbling town of Dolores 56 years after she fled it would forever shatter the world that she has held onto in her mind to cope with a lost life.
Cuba has always been defined by its extremes: an island of extraordinary wealth, once dominating the global trade in sugar, alongside harsh inequalities; a nation of unimaginable human suffering experienced by Taino natives who were entirely decimated and over 1 million enslaved Africans who were brought to the island until 1886; a people with deep pride for their renowned artistic expression; a government with a tumultuous history of autocracy, repression and dictatorship. Cuba cannot be understood without first accepting its extremes, and these are what spoke to me in Sierra's painting. I saw the story of the island and of my family in this work of art that was unapologetically bold in every manner.
Paul Sierra (American, born in Cuba, 1944), Harvest, 1994, oil on canvas. Snite Museum of Art, University of Notre Dame: Gift of Mrs. Richard Champlin, 1997.001.
No frame surrounds Harvest. Rather, the dramatic colors of the oil paint fill the entire canvas and spill over the edges. The painted sides of the canvas serve as continuations of the work, leaving viewers with the feeling that Sierra's landscape is not a confined space, but instead an image that continues on indefinitely. The coarse, raised texture of the oil paint adds to the sense of vastness, as it reaches out to the viewer with a rough third dimension. These elements, combined with the terrific size of the painting and the powerful contrasts of dramatic colors with regions of lightness and darkness, leave viewers with no doubt that this work is proudly bold and extreme.
Sierra does not leave the viewer to interpret this scene without guidance, as he sets the entire world off balance, creating distinct lines and color shifts dictating the movements of the viewers' eyes. The orientation of the entire painting is offset by 15 degrees, causing the effect that, no matter where a viewer looks in the painting, their gaze will feel most natural following a line running from bottom left to top right. This effect, coupled with the darker shades of black and blue present in the top and right regions of the painting, creates the natural tendency for the eyes to drift from any point on the canvas down to the fiery heart of the artwork.
The red, orange and yellow mass at the center of Harvest screams for attention. It is unequivocally the main element of the painting and allows viewers to fully immerse themselves in the work, despite being unable to understand what the mass of colors represents. Whether it is a river, a pit or an entirely different object, what is significantly more valuable is the feeling that it incites in the viewer. The mass of colors is an overwhelming force of energy and heat that arouses sensations of pain and destruction. I could not escape the idea of these overwhelming colors as portraying a wound in the Earth, festering in what was once fertile land.
Finally, no longer can I avoid the figure. The man. So human, yet he blends in with the sky and his form resembles those of the trees. He is featureless, yet I am certain that I can read the solemn expression of despair in his non-existent eyes. I find myself lost in this man. I do not care who he is so much as who he can be. Could this be my grandfather, watching from across the Strait of Florida as the land that still stands at the core of his identity is scorched and abused? Could this be a Taino or an enslaved laborer, whose immense suffering my family benefited from, mourning the loss of natural beauty and purity to a corrupt system of elite dominance? Could this be me, standing beneath the smokestack of the Dolores sugar mill three years ago, unable to make sense of centuries of compounding suffering whose painful presence was inescapable amidst the paradisiacal landscape?
Sierra writes that "art is of great help to the immigrant, allowing him to transform the chaos of his life into a positive vision." The message from Harvest is clear: we cannot hide from the chaos of the past; we must confront it, boldly.