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Flora Fong From Cuba to China and Back Again

Belonging to the first generation of Cuban plastic artists to emerge on the island after the 1959 Revolution, Flora Fong’s work evolved during one of the most interesting periods for art in the Greater Antilles. Her work reconciles the intense energy of the tropical environment in which she was born with philosophical concepts inherited from her Chinese ancestors.

By Juan Abelardo Carles Rosas
Photos: Cristian Pinzón

To get to Flora Fong’s studio in the Havana neighborhood of Playa, you have to walk along a path of red bricks that runs through a courtyard full of voluptuous and colorful plants, presided over by two giant trees: a mango and an avocado tree. The sea, although you can’t see it, can be felt in the aftertaste of salt carried by the breeze. Just ten minutes here is enough time to understand that the muse that inspires Flora is omnipresent and that, more than insinuated, it is imposed upon her with the force of the hurricanes that lash the island; it is a force that is often revealed in her paintings in the form of agitated palm trees.

Canvases half-conquered by color surround us as we begin our conversation, lubricated by pitchers of juice from mangoes harvested from the very tree we can see from our seats. “It’s still not the season to pick the avocados,” she explains as we talk about recent events in her life: she has been given a copy of the machete that Generalissimo Máximo Gómez was gifted by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba, and a complete multimedia disc about her has been published that contains a biography, reviews, a catalog of her works, and multiple references to her life and work.

Are we contemplating the honors of someone concluding her career and finalizing her contributions to painting? Nothing is further from the truth, according to the artist. “This does not scare me. In art, as long as I am healthy and can continue painting, I will continue to create my works because I believe in myself and in my possibilities. There are moments of recognition, which are important and which one needs, because we work for an audience, for art lovers. It’s nice to know that people really identify with you.”

Flora belongs to the first generations of artists trained in Cuba following the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Other notable Cuban plastic artists in this generation included Nelson Domínguez (father of her children, Li and Liang), Ernesto García Peña, Pedro Pablo Oliva, Eduardo Roca, and Roberto Fabelo, among others. Together, they have forged a path and earned the island a world-wide reputation in the arts. Fong, born in Camagüey a decade before the revolution, began her training at the Provincial School of Plastic Arts and continued her studies at the National School of Art in Cubanacán, Havana, from which she graduated in 1970.

She does not paint alone. Among the canvases and easels, several sculptures made of bronze and other materials stand like silent guardians of their creator. The artist began this phase of her work in 2008, drawing on a series of models of Chinese kites made between 1980 and 1990. She was inspired by the recollections of her father, a native of Canton, and other patriarchs of the Chinese community on the island. The kites looked like boxes, a form she echoed in her sculptural work. “I made the models with shoe boxes and I incorporated all the elements that had always been part of my creative imaginary within them.”

The Cuban art critic Yolanda Wood warned, at the time, that Fong’s sculptures had a peculiarity: they lacked the traditional volumetry of other sculptors. But as it turned out, this volumetry insinuated itself into the empty space contained within the bronze kites. Flora’s creative pursuits have overflowed not only from painting to sculpture, but also to other fields, such as pottery, stained glass, tapestry, and traditional Chinese kite-making.

At the beginning of her creative pursuits, Flora explored philosophical and aesthetic elements from her Chinese ancestors. “There are concepts of spirituality in the Chinese culture that I have used to enrich my work. For example, the fish symbolizes a lot of energy. That’s why I created the series “Peceras tropicales” (Tropical Fish Bowls). And numerology is very important in China: the number eight signifies prosperity and nine, longevity. If I place eight red fish in a work and add a ninth fish in another color, swimming in the opposite direction, this begins to give the painting new meanings and balances. I like that my paintings integrate several sub-readings.”

The multiple levels of reading also represent a constant exercise of integration. Flora is nourished by the rich and vibrant nature of the island, and she takes that to the canvas where her island inspiration meets eastern philosophical precepts. “The sunflower, for example, is a flower that I like to include in my works for its color, beauty, and the symbolism hidden in its search for sunlight. From a technical point of view, it allows me to move between European and Asian painting styles, since I can insinuate Chinese pictograms into the shapes of the flower’s stem.”

Something eminently Cuban in her work are the constant allusions to the insular character of Cuban culture. “I have always painted in Cuba; being on a Caribbean island means I am naturally sensitized to scenes and events like the sea’s endless horizon, the fury of tropical cyclones, the radiant sun, and the speed with which we can move between each of these conditions. In this way, I have always been very Cuban, even when incorporating Chinese elements into my work.”

The result is a graphic discourse charged with color and energy and punctuated by the most characteristic elements of the Cuban being: the infinite horizons of the sea, palm trees waving in the wind or whipped by a cyclone, the voluptuous leaves of the plantain tree, and the sun, so intense and golden, like the feathers of roosters and the sunflowers that frequently populate her paintings. They are an exuberant celebration of life, in which the Chinese concepts of balance contribute a kind of syncretic codification unheard of before Flora’s arrival.

Currently, the Cuban artist can be found in a phase of introspection, reviewing the elements she has incorporated into her work throughout all these years. “You have to look back and see what’s left to do, what other terrain for exploration you can follow. One of the motivations for me is spiritual experience. For example, when Fidel became ill for the first time, I created a painting where he is sitting, Martí comes to meet him, and between them is a kite. I titled it “Encuentro spiritual” (Spiritual Encounter), and it reflected my approach to the complex historical moment in which we were living. That’s what I do as an artist: confront the situation and protect myself with my spirituality. It’s the only thing that allows me to continue painting and keep my feet on the ground. I stay in contact with so many people who think like I do. I’m happy this way.”

And while the painter ventures, happily, in search of pictorial lands to conquer, a new generation of Cuban artists are making this their stellar moment. The island is opening, after years of geopolitical tensions, and Cuban artists are envisioning new horizons to explore. Many of them, however, will be traveling the path opened by artists such as Flora Fong, whose art goes from Cuba to China and back again.