The artist talks about his new series of large-scale paintings, Requiem, and how his work is influenced by timeless themes such as migration, death and the sea.
Yoan Capote (b. 1977, Pinar del Río, Cuba) makes work that addresses social and political issues of a timeless nature. Coming from and working in Cuba, he is haunted by a history of migration, and this is something he frequently refers to in his work. He makes paintings, sculptures and photographs in which representations of landscape and the sea become metaphorical illustrations of psychological or emotional experiences. He received the Unesco prize during the 7th Havana Biennial, with the artists’ collective DUPP, and he represented Cuba at the 54th Venice Biennale.
For his third solo exhibition at Ben Brown Fine Arts, London, entitled Requiem, he has made a series of large-scale painted seascapes – some stretching up to three and a half metres across. These comprise multiple panels, like the altarpieces in medieval churches. Again referencing migration and death, they have also, unsurprisingly, been affected by the experience of the pandemic.
Capote spoke to Studio International by email in the run-up to the exhibition.
Anna McNay: Give me a bit of background to the paintings in Requiem. When you paint, do you always paint the sea, or was that just your subject for this exhibition? What made you want to paint it, and are you seeking to capture something literal, or is there a more metaphorical reading to your work?
Yoan Capote: I started working on this new series, entitled Requiem, after my visit to Italy in 2019, where I had the opportunity to take a closer look at works of art from the middle ages and early Renaissance. When I was looking at many of the dramatic scenes depicted in these paintings – the martyrdom of the saints, the final judgment, the expulsion from Paradise – I found many analogies with the suffering, death and anguish of people today. In fact, during that visit, I was very moved by the news about the migrants drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, the heartbreaking images of which bore a sad similarity to what has also happened in the Caribbean Sea. Especially in Cuba, the tragedy of migrants continues to be a visceral issue.
AMc: What does the sea mean to you?
YC: I have a very emotional relationship with the sea, not only because I live on an island, but also because of all the history and spirituality that it evokes. In Cuba, the sea is related to various Catholic and Afro-Cuban deities. But, above all, when a Cuban looks at the sea, he remembers the isolation and pain of thousands of families, as well as feelings of anxiety, or experiences the psychological frustration of inhabiting a divided country, for which the sea is like a wall or a barbed-wire fence delimiting your destiny.
AMc: What makes you work at such a large scale?
YC: I work at various scales. But it is true that I like to do large-scale works, trying to make the viewer feel embraced by the work and the extension of the horizon. When the public is closer to the piece, they can focus on the aggressiveness and risk of the surface and perceive the real object in dialogue with the representation.
AMc: You frequently incorporate nails and fishhooks into your works. What made you begin to do this? Clearly, they add texture and, clearly, the fishhooks are related to the sea, but tell me more.
YC: Fishhooks are one of the first tools invented by man, an object that has not changed its design for thousands of years. They are universally understood as a symbol of a trap, risk, pain and death. In addition, I am interested in their tactile quality for these works, because, when they are all linked up, they create a metallic surface like an iron curtain or a lacerating wire barrier, which suggests the idea of a border and a political limit, represented by the sea as well.