Cuban Artist Flora Fong

Along more than half a century of artistic experience – starting from the years of academic learning in the sixties up to the present – the coherence in the search and construction of an identity in her style has been the alpha and omega of Flora Fong’s vital career.

A first glance suffices to note her distinctive mark. In a group exhibition, in the midst of the most diverse repertoire of images, Flora is herself, unique and unyielding. It is not necessary to be an expert on her work, not even an expert on currents, styles and trends to state, or at least sense, in the face of any of her works, be it from one period or another, that that painting, that drawing, that engraving, that stained-glass work… is Flora’s.

In the end, artists of her kind do not create for groups of initiates, but seek to create a bi-univocal, reciprocally enriching relation between what they have to offer and the sensitivity of those who receive the work.

Her creation is accessible but not exempt from encoded keys resulting from the mystery of creation. Her images are sustained by a communicative vocation, which does not turn them into primary equations.

Interesting in her case is the fact that she has succeeded without concessions or moulds. There are artists who find a kind of gold mine and freeze their expression; others soon exhaust thematic sources and technical procedures. Flora places herself on the extremes of both phases. Today she is obviously not the one she was initially; she has developed, her language has evolved, she has even explored unsuspected meanders in daily challenges, but at the same time she has remained faithful to her origin, loyal to her glance, consubstantial with her lineage. Although it may seem commonplace to say, Flora has never ceased to be Flora, she has evolved without losing her best creative and human conditions.

About this quality, the outstanding essayist and art critic Graziella Pogolotti declared: “Her proposal transcends the form of doing, implies having defined a perspective and the self-acknowledgment of a personal identity, having assumed a heritage that is not only esthetic but cultural in the broadest sense of the word”.

An approach to Flora’s work must take into consideration both the context in which she was educated and began to develop her work and the saga of her individual growth.

The Camagüey where she was born in 1949 – one of the first villages founded by the Spanish colonizers in the vast plain that precedes the eastern region of Cuba – had not ceased to be the “region of shepherds and hats” sung by Nicolás Guillén, major poet of the city and the country. The traces of the colonial past coexisted with the stagnation existing during the republic set up in 1902; this did not prevent the emergence of certain cultural impulses that, with the political and social transformations that began to take place in the island in 1959, received institutional support.

Land of poets and troubadours more than of painters at the time – even though Fidelio Ponce de León, migrating, tormented and transgressor creator belonging to the vanguard is recognized today as one of its icons – the existence of the Provincial School of Plastic Arts in the early sixties channeled the artist’s original vocation.

She arrived at the school still as a child because of the ability shown in making a plaster mask. There were no formal artistic antecedents in the Fong family – as there weren’t either in the majority of the colleagues of her generation who throughout the island had the possibility to enter the first centers of artistic education opened as part of a new democratization process of culture – but there was indeed the trace of an exceptional sensitivity: that of her father. Francisco was the Spanish name given to her father once he had established himself in Cuba. He came from Canton, from the Taishan-Xié district, and was part of the migration from that vast Asian country that looked for work opportunities in the Caribbean island with the purpose of helping the relatives who remained in China and, if all went well, return home. In Cuba, Francisco, after a stay in Holguín, settled in Camagüey, entered the trading business and founded a Cuban family.

Flora recalls the exquisite manual ability of her father, who as a hobby fabricated kites that were true works of art, a fine display of imagination, made in a very careful way. Francisco never returned to China but kept in contact with his relatives.

In the school in Camagüey, Flora developed particularly her aptitude for drawing and her dominion of the principles of composition under the influence of a teaching staff that included Molné, Juan Vázquez Martín and Raúl Santos Serpa.

The inborn talent and education enabled the young girl to enter the National School of Art, the most important art teaching center of the 1960s. They were years of hard exercising and learning of the craft according to the personal expressive requirements and of growing in the work sessions with Espinosa Dueñas in engraving;

Fernando Luis, who transmitted to her the secrets of color, and of the notable poet and painter Fayad Jamís. Flora graduated from the ENA in 1970 and immediately started teaching at the San Alejandro Fine Arts Academy in Havana, the oldest in the country, where she remained almost twenty years, until 1989, an experience that marked her for her lifetime. It was not easy to alternate the rigors of teaching with the development of her personal work, overcoming material difficulties with ingeniousness and creativity, forming a family – in that period her children Liang and Li, both artists, were born –, organizing exhibitions and participating in salons. But the artist surmounted these challenges and in those very years began to make herself known as one of the creators with the greatest recognition and relevance in the art scene of the island and international renown.

Flora Fong’s first solo show took place in 1973 at Galería Galiano of Havana, but the second, scarcely two years later, revealed a line of great interest for her future work. In fact, it was a bi-personal exhibition: Ma- nuel Mendive and Flora, with twenty works from each one of the artists. It was presented in Bucharest and Prague and then was lost when sent to Africa because of lack of insurance.

Nevertheless, the presence of her work next to that of Manuel Mendive gained a symbolical relevance that cannot escape notice. Mendive started from the African heritage, from the Yoruba mythology trans-cultured in Cuba, from the mysteries of the woods. In painting he descended from the work of Wifredo Lam and Roberto Diago.

Flora represented the face that complemented the island’s identity, but she never did it in a topical manner. Hers is not a superficial Cuban-ness, but one from her roots. If in Mendive one hears drums, claves and chekerés, in Flora it is background music that flows in the complex harmony of the tunes accompanied by lutes and guitars. She is related somehow, rather obliquely, to Carlos Enríquez and Amelia Peláez, although at certain moments the contacts with abstractionism and the expressionistic stamp of Antonia Eiriz are filtered.

Art critic and teacher Adelaida de Juan summarized the artist’s career, from her initiation up to maturity, as follows: “Flora has worked untiringly creating worlds that evoke her immediate surroundings. Unlike Amelia, who found plenitude in her family world, Flora looks outside from her interior: from the near and daily figures she moves to the landscape, first to the one inhabited by palms and malanga plants that portray the happiness existing in the gardens still surrounding her, and later to the woods and mountains, the forces of nature shaken by cyclones and darkened by storm clouds, until reaching the sea that surrounds the island”.

But it would also be necessary to say that, unlike not only Amelia but certain esthetic approaches that are common to the Cuban vanguards of the 20th century who sought to validate identity with modern discourses, Flora has gradually stripped herself of gestures and references associated with the essential evolutionary line of Cuban painting.

With his customary sharpness, in the eighties, critic Alejandro G. Alonso already defined that characteristic of Flora’s: “Since she does not copy or describe, but neither is she on the sidelines of the roads marked by international trends, so she freely takes advantage of the resources that find an echo deep in her way of understanding painting. Hence, she does not leap into the void; rather we witness the logical development that connects with previous whirl- pools and cyclones, to give definitive steps toward her affirmation as a creator”. An affirmation that overflows the borders of painting, drawing and engraving and shows also in murals, stained-glass works, volumetric constructions and sculptures, like the ones set up at the University of Computer Sciences in the outskirts of Havana and in the courtyard of the National Museum of Fine Arts.

In her work it is impossible to establish dividing lines between lyrical content and dramatic reason, nor between iconic and narrative. This does not mean that conflicts are absent, but these are solved by means of an amazing power of synthesis, an ability that distinguishes her among contemporary Cuban creators.

That long and consciously cultivated virtue is what accounts for the unrepeatable wealth of her thematic variations; gardens and coffee sieves, tobacco leaves and landscapes, sunflowers and storms, seashores and banana plantations. All of it conceived under the prism of a very precise spatial distribution, a strict chromatic display and an admirable dynamic balance, which remit us to two dominant elements in her iconography: the hurricane and the palm tree.

A portrait of Flora is not complete if one ignores the creative line that remits her to her fatherly ancestors. The influence of her Chinese origins was present, as we have already mentioned, since the initiation times, but were definitely substantiated in the mid eighties, when she researched on the art of her father’s country, and much more when the artist traveled to China for the first time in 1989 and met her relatives.

The universe of calligraphy and ideogram construction nourished her esthetic experience. This last ele- ment becomes perceivable in the conception of the landscape, the use of color and the projection of the structure in the composition. Something that powerfully drew her attention was the way in which in China the study of painting goes from the parts to the whole, whereas in the West it goes from the whole to the parts. In her work presented at the 1st Havana Biennial one appreciated the calligraphic gesture, which reappeared in many other later works and which are part of private and institutional collections and of environmental decorations of public places. During the 2nd Havana Biennial she conducted a workshop on kite construction together with two Chinese specialists.

But more than calligraphy, the Chinese heritage reflects on the spirituality that emerges from Flora’s work. A spirituality, however, that is not deprived of passions or tensions.

Poet Miguel Barnet noticed it when he wrote: “In the face of a work by Flora Fong one may perceive multiple sensations: the intricate nature of a woodland scene, the presence of ancestral elves trapped by the green of gigantic leaves, the white that balances the strong shades and grants a perspective of infiniteness, so familiar in her lineage. The truth as personal experience appears in this painting in the fashion of Eastern tradition. It is an ineffably suggested truth. The keys lie in nature and not in the philosophical language of signs. The Tao without words and the good offices of Eleggua mix in this succession of images to form a whole that reveals the poetic grace”. East and West in Flora’s work are not a dichotomy. Nor are they a complementary couple. It is an organic fusion, intrinsically articulated, in its creative individuality and live transit. Because before and after everything, in the crossing of realities and dreams that amalgamate in her visions, this Flora of universal scope is substantially Cuban.

VIRGINIA ALBERDI, Art Specialist, Havana, February 2015

Virginia Alberdi Benítez (Havana, 1947) Graduated from the Higher Pedagogic Institute Enrique José Varona, 1970. Art critic, editor of Artecubano ediciones. During more than twenty years she was a Specialist in Promotion at the National Council for Plastic Arts (CNAP). During five years she was a senior specialist at the gallery Pequeño Espacio, at CNAP. She has curated numerous solo and group exhibitions. Her texts appear as collaborations in La Jiribilla, Granma newspaper, the tabloid Noticias de Arte Cubano, the magazines Artecubano, On Cuba, Acuarela. She has written texts for catalogues of different artists.
Cuban Artist Flora Fong

Flora Fong