and the forms of his story
We are in Moscow, with an unusually mild weather. About two degrees and an appointment in the district of Lubynka. I remember we had a beer, maybe to remember old times on the island. In front of me, his figure, the same as usual since the last time I met him at that gallery, always smiling, a warm person with a sad look in his eyes. It was getting dark at 3 in the afternoon, with the sky without sky, as time went by, we realized that we would not be able to process so much information…, so many names, so many corners of La Habana, so much life. Trying to shoot out of ourselves what maybe be unspeakable.
From the sea to Moscow. How was that detachment?
I have always lived at the seaside. We used to go to the beach barefoot, I remember we would walk all the way through the Nautico, all along the beaches. At that time, I used to be very fond of science but also of sports. However, I started getting more involved with literature and gave up science. Leaving for Moscow was more an evasion than a detachment, or the desire to travel, to go out. Cosmovision, the Krugozor, as we say in Russian and the need to travel like a muse, to get out of myself, to look at myself from the outside. And also, life at home was a mess, a dysfunctional and violent environment.
I got to Russia because I won an award in 1979 in Cuba, while I was working as an art teacher at Matanzas. Only two or three scholarships were awarded in Cuba. I won one of them for the exhibitions I had made and for my performance as a creator.
I spent a year studying Russian at the University of Habana but it was later, when I got here, at the Zurikov Institute, that is named after the Russian painter, that I really had to learn the language. One of the most difficult challenges for me was learning Russian, since classes facilitate the process but you don’t learn the language of the street at school. It is a fantastic and vast language, with infinite possibilities.
We also used to have subjects like scientific communism and Marxist aesthetics. We had to study the works of Lenin and it seemed to me that I did not know anything, as if I had come from nowhere in spite of having learnt so much in Cuba. At that time, it was all about something else.
Who was Omar before, at the beginning of his art?
I do not know when or where my love for art started. It was strange. I come from an extremely poor family. We used to live on the street and my mother begged for food to feed her nine children. Our father abandoned us and we did not have anything. A sick childhood. I think my asthma started there. Once I got a transfusion but I can´t remember exactly why. I stayed many times at orphanages, charity homes and the like. It was during that time of my life that I started feeling inclined to art, almost like a divine gift. I used to build my toys out of match boxes and I created my installations. Children however were rather cruel and many times I lived in a hostile environment.
Besides, the situations at the orphanages were not always good. At night we did not even have water. My fantasy started in that context. I started drawing. It was like a lifesaving method, it helped me escape from hostility. Suddenly the children around me were surprised with my drawings and this made me well known and got me safe out of the storm
In general, food was bad, and we were punished. At one of the orphanages, the Jesuits (as far as I know they were Jesuits) beat me, especially one of my instructors. Once he locked me in a dark room and then I became claustrophobic. I cannot understand how people who are so cruel with children can become teachers or instructors. One of my brothers managed to escape from an orphanage. He became a poet. The orphanage was in Cojimar. It was 1961 or 1962.I think Hemingway still lived there before he supposedly committed suicide that Sunday morning of July 2. I remember my mother was always ill. So this was the context of my first steps as an artist.
You mention those years, so did you live the political transition of Cuba towards socialism?
I lived that transition right there. At the orphanage. I saw the changes on TV. But I felt the euphoria of the moment. There was a literacy campaign, people chanted slogans. Then the Girón invasion took place. Everything floated in the air and spread to other areas. You mentioned the movie of Tomás Gutiérrez, based on the book by Edmundo Desnoes. In my opinion, what is reflected in Memories of Underdevelopment is something else, a different vibe. Of course, Memories is an excellent film, but in fact, most people lived that time with euphoria, not like that role of the bourgeois, played by Sergio Corrieri. From those years I also remember the October crisis and the missiles.
I started working when I was a child. Everything that was sold at the shops was out of my reach. My mother started a relationship with a builder, also illiterate. We received a wooden shed at Los Pinos, La Habana. Conditions were very basic, my stepfather earned very little but at least we had a roof over our heads. It was better than living in the streets or at orphanages.
As I said, I started working. I helped my stepfather collecting scrap. With the money I earned I bought some stuff. I always wanted to buy music instruments.
What do you miss?
Once I wrote a poem: “I am the boy I never was”. I have always wanted to go back to the past. To reshape it. That past that is a present. If I could, I would go back to my puberty age. I had a huge artistic potential that could not be developed then due to lack of resources. I had to work at laundries. I also have a degree as operator of steam boilers. Life can be horrible. I miss what was never there but could have been mine.
I understand you have a very poetic vision of your pictures. Where does your relationship with poetry come from, Omar?
From home, when we had a proper house in downtown Habana and not a shed.
My brother who was a poet, but also bohemian, met at a funeral house with other intellectuals. I don´t know why there, because the coffee shop was open all day and all night. But well, afterwards they met at home. Among his friends was Reinaldo Arenas. He used to stay at home too.
He went to jail together with my brother. In that house I used to make installations so that poets could write their poems on the walls. Those were endless and pleasant nights.
Part of the film Océano, directed by Mikhail Kosyrev-Nesterov was filmed at that house. You see, the sea appears again!
It was a Russian movie with Cuban actors that touches topics such as homosexuality, poetry and intellectuality. I think I appear in the credits too, but I did not act, I just helped with the translations. There was never a detachmentnreally, neither from the poetry nor from the sea.
How was your academic training in painting?
I joined San Alejandro in 1969 to study painting. Francisco Goya recommended the creation of this school. I also studied sculpture and engraving. As from second year you had to choose one of these disciplines. I was awarded prizes in engraving and my teachers recommended me to take sculpture, but I chose painting. I had a track record in painting before I joined the school. I also knew a lot about art criticism, contemporary art, I was a self-taught. I was very interested in Picasso, I was attracted to his vibe, I don´t know exactly why. I painted a series of deformed horses that had a lot to do with one part of his creation.
What are the referents of the works of art of Godinez?
I have always been absolutely modern. I was modern before joining San Alejandro. I went to the National Library, to the House of Americas and I looked for books about Modern Art criticims. I gained a lot of information from different referents: Formalism, Materism, all of them abstract expressionists, Pop art. I started organizing symposiums about art criticism, but I also studied the works of Kant, Hegel, Phenomenology of the Spirit, Dostoievski, I contacted the avant garde of Cinema, Tarkovskiy, Agnes Barda, the Polish cinema, the Czech avant garde, Fellini. All the movies I watched in neighborhood theaters.
My family had friends at the Colon neighborhood, one of guapos, previously with a history of prostitution. A red district. There they asked me to paint Afrocuban saints, yorubas, and I learnt a lot from them. However, I reflected all that syncretism of Cuban religions much later in my paintings. I made a series called “Offer” with conceptual repertoires of the Afro-Cuban mythology.
Santería definitely marked me, of course, it was something very latent in my neighborhood. I did not show it in my work then, but it was later, when I left Cuba, that I started to use this kind of elements, that have always lived inside me.
How does Omar Godinez see freedom?
I have always been very sociable. I have met all kinds of people, from all levels. As I told you, many people came home, for example Jorge Bacallado, a lawyer in criminal matters, that I am almost sure had his own conception of freedom. I also met Gabriel Calaforra in Habana and people who were consistent with the times we were living.
I studied criminal anthropology, I got into some stuff with witches, topics like sacrifice, conceptual books of the 20-30s and always the phenomenon of colored people, races were always present. I then got in touch with Levis Strauß and other German philosophers.
Besides art, what saved me was my sense of humor. The local humor saved my family and myself. The criollo humor saved us. The ironic and humomristic graphics have always been beside me in part of my creation. I have even won prizes with this in Russia. The Russians have a fantastic sense of humor. Here there is a movement of cartoonists who are well known around the world. Among them, a friend of mine, who I usually share exhibitions with, Igor Smirnof. I also like naif art, the good primitive art.
Art for me is a window, a small door that is always open. I have always felt free. This is above everything, above politics, above my own self. Freedom is truth. Freedom is commitment, because it says many truths.
Art is like a seismograph. There is nothing truer than art. Art is not a repetition of formulae. Art creates. And in turn a purgative. Art does not need to be political. I am free of patterns. True art is free.
Interview by Paul Glavinski©2019. Moscú