Leandro Soto: Interview

Date: 12/2005
Interviewed by Andrea O. Herrera
Filmed by Andrea O. Herrera
Transcribed by Paul Symington

Edited by Andrea O. Herrera

The interview took place in the artist's studio and home in Phoenix.

An Afternoon with Leandro Soto

[O'Reilly Herrera]: "I'd like to begin by asking Leandro to tell us a little bit about himself. For example, tell us where you were born?"

[Soto]: "I was born in Cienfuegos, Cuba in 1956, and I resided on the island until I was 28 years old. My first extended stay outside the country was when I went to Spain, then later to Mexico."

[O'Reilly Herrera]: "When did you go into exile and where did you go?"

[Soto]: "My exile started in 1988 when I decided that I should stay in Mexico and reveal myself as an artist, educator, and a human being in a totally new culture and context. I remained there for five years. Eventually I moved to Miami, then to Buffalo, Massachusetts, and now I live in Phoenix"

[O'Reilly Herrera]: "Many times we've spoken about the idea that in some sense your art can be approached as an exploration into both your own cultural roots as well as the eclectic nature of Cuban culture itself. Could you tell me more about this?"

[Soto]: "I am a mix of races and cultures. One of my great-grandmothers was French. Cienfuegos was a town built by French immigrants; they moved to Cuba during the second half of the 19th century. I also have Yoruba blood from my father's side as well as Castilian blood from my mother's side, so I am a combination of many things. Actually, I think that I have some Chinese blood as well. According to Cuban tradition, each Cuban has seven spirits that protect his aura; some are Native American, African, Arabic, and European. So, it's like a conjunction. I did a performance piece called 'Emotions' when I was a resident artist at the University at Buffalo based on this idea."

[O'Reilly Herrera]: "Could you discuss Cuban culture more generally? You often talk about the idea that Cuban culture is super-syncretic-an idea that Antonio Benítez-Rojo developed in his work."

[Soto]: "Absolutely, I agree totally with that idea. And it's not only syncretic, it's multi-dimensional and multi-leveled. If you are Cuban, you can reference many cultures inside yourself. That creates a certain kind of confusion. For example, in Cienfuegos any person who is considered to be an intellectual speaks French fluently. But in addition to speaking French, you should also be able to dance, and to dance well in order to be connected to the African rhythms within you. In 1979, one of my first works was a piece named 'Ancestors,' which I constructed in front of a Ceiba tree-a sacred tree for Cubans. The installation included a guitar, which represented the Spanish element in Cuban culture, and corn, which was an offering, among other things. The Ceiba is sacred because when there is bad weather and thunder Cubans go under the tree for protection. But Iroco, the equivalent tree in Africa, has the same mythology attached to it. So this first installation exploring my cultural roots was a performance piece included in the exhibit Volumen Uno, which was presented in Cienfuegos first (1979) and later in Havana (1980)."

[O'Reilly Herrera]: "Do you believe that Cubans have more mechanisms or strategies with which to adapt to cultural change in exile? If so, is this ability a result of the inherently syncretic or (as I prefer to say) eclectic nature of Cuban culture?"

[Soto]: "Well, being that I am a descendant of immigrants, I already have memories that I have inherited from my family. For example, I remember my paternal grandfather. His family was Castilian, and he was very proud of his heritage. But his surname had Jewish Sephardic roots: 'Soto del Camino.' In this sense, I have many connections. Once you begin exploring your roots, it's like opening a door-a Pandora's box-and you soon discover that you are connected with everything. Do you realize that we eat rice in Cuba because the Chinese influence is extremely strong in Cuban culture?"

[O'Reilly Herrera]: "We have often spoken about the idea that once Cubans go into exile, they are forced to define themselves in a way that they never defined themselves when they were in Cuba. Could you expand on this?"

[Soto]: "In Cuba we took for granted the fact that we have so many influences. Just from Africa alone we have received many languages, and different kinds of music, dance, and rituals. Then there is the Spanish influence from different areas of Spain. So when I found myself in Spain, I felt very connected to both the south and also to the north in part because the owner of the shop where we bought produce in my neighborhood in Cienfuegos was from Galicia. However, I feel at home in many places. Somehow I always find certain kinds of connections. Being inside Cuba made it more difficult to define who I was. But when you are outside Cuba and are living in a different culture you start to notice both certain differences as well as similarities."

[O'Reilly Herrera]: "So, how do you self-identify? Do you identify yourself primarily as an artist? Do you identify yourself as a Cuban exile? Do you identify yourself as a Cuban artist? You've lived in many places. Are you an Arizona artist now? Who are you?"

[Soto]: "I am all that and more. I think that your question is connected to what my identity could be. My latest thoughts about that are that identity is a response to a particular moment at a particular time in the present. From the present, you organize the past. So, I am what connects me with Arizona right now, as well as what I can bring from whatever I know to make me be present here. The past that is an obstacle to making the present is put aside, and whatever I can collect from the past to make me be present in the here and now is what is important."

[O'Reilly Herrera]: "I understand-you are fully inhabiting the present. Nevertheless I wonder if you could talk a bit about how the past-how memory-informs the present in your work."

[Soto]: "It's a constant conversation. I have had many experiences. Here in Arizona I think I found what I was looking for in Mexico and in Peru: native cultures. I could not find too many influences in Cuba because we have only artifacts. In Cuba I was researching and looking for native or indigenous roots, but I couldn't find them there. Mexico was the first place where I was able to make contact with these indigenous roots, then later in Peru. Now I have found them once again here in Arizona. My work right now consists of reshaping and using my Cuban heritage. I'm working with elements and components of Abacua culture and using the figure of the Ireme, the dancer sent by the ancestors to give you guidance. So, in the last performance I did in the New Contemporary Mesa Center for the Arts I created an installation, in collaboration with the Cuban-American artist Dora Hernandez, dedicated to my father, Dora's father and to my mother-in-law, who passed away last year. And we had Cuban drummers (living in exile in Arizona) playing music and singing. I was dancing and paying homage to their spirits in front of a palm tree just in front of the installation. Afterwards, a number of people from Arizona came up to me and said, 'we love the Kachina [Hopi god] but the music sounded a little Caribbean to us.' After I told them that it was not a Kachina but, rather, an African spirit, we laughed. This is an example of how cultural elements intermix. Cuba is geographically opposite to what we have here in Arizona-it's surrounded by water and green. Being on the island is the opposite of being in the desert; and yet suddenly I am absolutely connected here in Arizona."

[O'Reilly Herrera]: "Tell me something about your perception of the role of the artist. What role does the artist play in society, and what function does art serve?"

[Soto]: "As an educator, an artist plays a social role; at the same time an artist is someone who creates culture. I create art in order to survive. Doing art is an action, a commitment that gives me presence in time-with my materials, with the elements, with the place where I am located. Art connects me with what and who I am. I have been participating in many exhibitions and performances that involve a total connection between the piece that I am creating or performing at a particular moment and the area in which I'm living at the time. And many people say to me, 'what you are recreating is Cuban culture.' But regardless of where I am working at any particular moment, people from the audience always say that they can see parallels between their own cultures and my art-that it somehow belongs to them. Both responses are correct. So for me, another important component in art is alignment. I think art is a way of knowing and a way of connecting and integrating knowledge. Art is a was of seeing reality as poetic, as a tapestry that connects you to other cultures and gives you knowledge and a sense of understanding, which opens up new possibilities."

[O'Reilly Herrera]: "Is your role as an artist to teach? …to enlighten?"

[Soto]: "To enlighten myself first. I see art first as a response, as a mirror, as a way of saying I'm here now. Being an educator is actually another form of art and creativity because you are helping others, but you are also helping yourself; and you are learning from your students; and your students are giving something back to you. I teach my culture. It doesn't matter where I am, I teach Cuban culture. But at the same time, because Cuban culture is so open, I can teach any European theme. I can integrate elements from India, from Japan. Actually one of my main expressions is Sumi-e from Japan. In my performance pieces I draw from German expressionism as well as Japanese art forms such as Kabuki. And in my mask work I use a lot of what I learned from the native peoples in southern Mexico where I lived for a while."

[O'Reilly Herrera]: "So what are you learning about Cuba and what are you learning about yourself through your art?"

[Soto]: " 'You need to knock on many doors before you knock on your own door,' wrote R. Tagore. I discovered that knocking on many doors helps me to find my own Self. I see culture not as an empty artifact that belongs to the past, but something that belongs to the present. Many art historians, curators, and people only love to see work that you did maybe ten years ago, twenty years ago, because sometimes they do not have the vision to recognize the importance of the things you are doing now. Art is a way of collecting knowledge, putting knowledge together and creating new knowledge."

[O'Reilly Herrera]: "Is Cuba always present in your work? Is every place that you've traveled and lived present at the same time?"

[Soto]: "One night I was looking at a mountain behind my first home in Phoenix. There was another mountain in the distance, and a hill with rocks and more mountains. Suddenly the rocks started to flash. It was a dark night and they were flashing in the shape of Cuba. And I was saying, oh, I am crazy. I called to my wife, Grisel, and said, I need you to tell me what I'm looking at here. Do you see the same thing that I'm seeing? And she said, yes, I see the shape of Cuba formed with lights on the mountain. I don't know what this all means, but for me it was a welcome to the desert. Another experience was a dream I had. I use many dreams for inspiration because dreams are also a way to connect, condense, and create metaphors. I was walking into the desert and the desert was like a petrified ocean. This said to me, you are welcome here. I participated in a ceremony with native peoples from this area; there were many things that connected me with the ceremony such as the water drum making a whump, whump, whump sound. At the end of the ceremony, as they were cleaning all of their instruments, they told me that the water had to be from the ocean, and inside the water there were sea shells. So, immediately I saw my connection with these people and this tradition. And I said, oh Yemaya, so this ceremony was also my ceremony. So, I'm always looking for these incredible coincidences that life offers to me at different moments."

[O'Reilly Herrera]: "I have a question related to this comment and to what you were talking about earlier. You mentioned that you have to 'knock on many different doors before you knock on your own door.' So I'm wondering, is there anything original? Is anything original?"

[Soto]: "Everything is original, absolutely original. We have been suffering from the industrial era culture, where everything is reproduced and made with machines, and we are now in post-industrial times. But your work, your art, is connected with your present moment, with your own time. You have to be original. The avant-garde movement in Europe, which fought against industrial production, was looking for that originality. But what is originality? I define it as your response at this present moment. It doesn't matter if you have to use some resources that belong to another culture or to another moment, because you are adapting them in the here and now. It's not the medium. I use all media in my performances, but that's not what makes the piece original. What makes it original is what you are saying and how you are saying it and to whom you are talking."

[O'Reilly Herrera]: "So who are you talking to? Who is your audience?"

[Soto]: "My friends, my students, my neighbors. Actually, in the last show that I did I was responding to the desert and to the impression that I received here, and I was using a lot of recycled materials. And everybody that was at the show said, we can see that this is a new approach to desert culture. So, to whom does that work belong? To this area? To myself? Art is a dialogue, an interaction, it's a tapestry that you weave constantly with your particular moment, and your work is a result of that moment. But it's still Cuban culture."

[O'Reilly Herrera]: "So, again, are you a Cuban artist? Are you a Cuban artist in Arizona? Or are you an Arizona artist?"

[Soto]: "I am all of that. And it depends, it depends on the question; it depends on who is asking me the question; it depends on when someone is asking me the question; and on the reason s/he is asking me the question. Whatever is convenient, that's my answer. You are touching on a very important point. Identity doesn't belong to the past. Identity belongs to the instant, and it depends on whether I'm talking to a particular student or with a friend or my neighbor. My neighbor is an American, he's a magnificent person. He had never seen anything like my work, but he was my first audience because he was visiting me when I was alone and he saw my work; and soon I knew that he was my first spectator. So, we established a dialogue. Art is always a dialogue. Now, going back to the question of identity….Who am I? It is in the instant that I define who I am. Cuban culture gave me enough toys, knowledge, and instructions to have a flexible, mutable identity. While I was growing up in Cuba, I had professors from Poland, Russia and Germany. And we grow up with Marxist theory in the classroom and all this other ritual in the street. It was so complex that you had to integrate this confusion and decide how to put all of this in some kind of order so that you could use it. And going back to the center, you are the consciousness that is ordering, so you are free to select whatever is convenient. It's like switching languages. If I know the language of the person I have to, or need to communicate with I will use it. If I don't' know their language, what language do I have to communicate with? Okay, I can use body language, I can dance, I can mimic, I can jump, I can make a drawing. So, you create communication, you create spaces where things can happen."

[O'Reilly Herrera]: "You might have already answered this question, but I'm going to ask it anyway: Who or what influences you? Not just in terms of your environment but also in terms of other artists. Are there major influences on your work?"

[Soto]: "Major influences? There are many, many influences: African art, European art, Asian art, art from Japan, German art, French art, Hispanic art, Native American art from here in Arizona. I am constantly dialoguing with everything. I grow as a result of the nourishment of very important Cuban artists who were my teachers."

[O'Reilly Herrera]: "Are there identifiable stages to your art? Do you see your work following a clear trajectory? How would you describe the trajectory of your work?"

[Soto]: "I don't know if these questions are important anymore. And I don't know if I understand the questions. Because as I mentioned to you before, my response is always located in the present and linked to a particular moment. What is the importance of some response ten years ago? What happened ten years ago was in response to the circumstances at that time. What is the connection of that with the present? Maybe if you organize history from now, I can give you some response to your questions from the present. But my art does not follow a linear trajectory, there is no trajectory. This is why I prefer quantum physics to explain my work because sometimes reality moves digitally. It's not a path, or if it is a path, there are many paths going simultaneously."

[O'Reilly Herrera]: "I realize that my questions appear to be too linear, however, the past and the present are always dialoguing with each other as well as with the future. Given all of this, has the work you did perhaps ten years ago somehow formed the basis for the work you're doing now, or are you creating digital takes, doing something new every time you begin a new project?"

[Soto]: "I did devote thirty-five years of my life to a formation process that involved doing research and learning. Now I have tools and knowledge, a box of instruments that I can use to create new work. At certain times things crystallize. Your training crystallizes in your painting, in dance, in theater as an actor or as a performance artist. For example, in the Ireme performance, there were absolutely Abacua moments, but I also incorporated a lot of movements drawn from other cultures too. I teach movement for actors. The department in which I work is interdisciplinary: arts and performance. It's a perfect department for me because one semester I teach visual arts and the other semester I teach dance and theater. I usually have the same students in all of my classes, and they are shocked when they see that the same professor is teaching all of these subjects. In order to survive as an artist you have to be interdisciplinary; and this is the spirit that we have in third-world countries. Many Cuban artists are able to write, to paint, to dance, but they are also intellectuals-they publish novels, books or they write poetry. Many of them are also musicians."

[O'Reilly Herrera]: "Has exile enhanced your creative process in any way? Has exile stunted or negatively impacted your work? I know we have talked about this many times. In my collection of testimonials ReMembering Cuba, you discuss Hemingway's concept of 'grace under pressure.' So what effect has exile had on your work? Has it been detrimental or helpful or both?"

[Soto]: "Art is not an activity that you do as something separate from the community you are living in during a particular moment. Let's say for example that you want to capture an essence in a little condensed recipe. You have to have a field of flowers. You make perfume with a little oil drawn from many flowers. It's exactly the same process for the artist, exactly the same. You need the cultural context but aren't working in the cultural context that you need in order to grow in a particular direction. What is your response? How you can gather all the information or how can you create the field that nourishes and provides what you are looking for? What I miss in exile is the context, the Cuban cultural context, because an artist needs a context. And that is emphasized in my work lately. When I'm doing a performance I'm very concerned that the piece is presented within the current cultural context so people can perceive it as real. For example, as a teacher I see that American culture has a lot of cultures inside it. I always ask my students to write an artist's statement. The artist's statement provides an entry into their work. You need a key to understand what color you are using, why, for what reason, from what material. It may be that you are using this color because you are a descendent of Irish people, or you have descended from Germans or from Chinese or you are African American. Nevertheless, what something means for you may mean something else for another person. Here is an example of something that happened to me. On my last day at Mt. Holyoke College, I wanted to give something beautiful to the assistant who sewed my costumes-she was from Bulgaria. It was winter time and I wanted to give her a present or something meaningful which said, I'm leaving so I want you to have a good memory of me. I brought her yellow flowers, thinking of the sun, thinking of light, of a tropical ocean, connected to theater, thinking of sunflowers. And she said, no, don't give me that. And I said, why? She answered, because in Bulgaria, yellow flowers mean that you are not going to see each other again. Ah, I said, but from the Cuban cultural perspective, yellow flowers signify happiness, this is the representation of the sun during wintertime. I mention this example because when you do something for someone, s/he brings her cultural context to the way s/he responds, while you bring your own. Each of us had a different reading of any given object or symbol. A symbol is always surrounded by a context. Now my focus in teaching and in art is to create a context. And I think this is connected specifically to the exile condition. It didn't happen to me in Mexico or Cuba or even in Spain because there I was in cultural contexts that were more familiar, more identifiable. But in the United States, there are people with many different cultural backgrounds. So my focus right now is on the elements I am going to use to make my current audience understand what I'm trying to say without a verbal explanation. Of course it's very easy to give a verbal explanation, but I want to give an explanation that is artistic."

[O'Reilly Herrera]: "Would you briefly explain what Café: The Journeys of Cuban Artists is? I'm particularly interested in hearing you talk about your role as curator."

[Soto]: "Café started as a response to the fact that many people think that if you are not living in Cuba, you are not a Cuban artist. The first show was at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. We live in a country in which everything opens up for you when you become a citizen or a resident. I was a described as a Buffalo artist my second year living in Western New York. And the day I moved from Massachusetts to Arizona, I was a selected as one of the more active and important Massachusetts artists from the area, and I was actually doing installations in both of regions. What I mean to say is that in the United States you move anywhere and you are immediately part of that reality. But at the same time people think-and this is the downside of all of this-that you are no longer living in Cuba, you are not Cuban; rather, you are an American. According to this view you cannot have a voice for the people who still live on the island. And you can't really express Cuban culture. Sometimes when I say that I am a Cuban artist, the first question I get is, when did you come to United States? When did you move here? I moved here fourteen years ago, I answer. Oh no, they say, you are not a Cuban artist because in order to be a Cuban artist, you have to live in Cuba. This is a crazy idea. José Martí lived in exile in the United States for 25 years, and the whole idea of Cuban independence from Spain was settled outside of Cuba. Still, many academics think like that. In reality there are many Cuban artists living here in the United States; being in exile has helped them to define who they are. In this sense, being outside your context gives you more definition. Exile makes you more aware of your differences, your training.

[O'Reilly Herrera]: "You conceived the idea for Café, which is an ongoing, itinerant art exhibition, with Yovani Bauta and Israel León. You have been curating the show since the very first presentation. Could you talk about how you see your role as curator? What is your function?"

[Soto]: "First of all, it is an educational show; this is the reason I prefer to present it at educational institutions. My intention is to explain that Cuban artists living in exile are as Cuban as those who are still living on the island. So, the division between artists in exile and artists inside the island is faulty. We are all Cuban artists. It doesn't matter where you are. I have received artists from Cuba at my university here in Arizona, and I we can clearly see our connections. Nevertheless many of my colleagues insist that I am no longer Cuban since I do not reside on the island. In certain ways this division is similar to what happened in Germany with the wall-but they were all Germans! Café is saying to people that those Cuban artists in exile are Cubans; and in certain cases they are more Cuban because they are more conscious of their Cubanness than many Cubans who are still on the island. Many of the artists represented in Café have exhibited in national galleries and in institutional galleries at universities. Café opens a space in which the audience can gain insight into the condition of exile. For example, in cities like Phoenix, where there are images from many areas of the world, Café is not only an example of how displacement and the exile condition change, modify, transform, elaborate, or redefine your cultural identity, it's also an example of what could happen to other communities and their cultures."

[O'Reilly Herrera]: "Let me ask you another related question. You allowed me to participate both as an artist and a creative writer in Café and I'm Cuban American. In fact, not only was I born in the U.S., but I have never been to Cuba. I'm a Cubanita pasada por agua as my mother would say (even though I just found out that I was actually conceived in Cuba!). So, why did you include me?"

[Soto]: "I have invited other Cuban artists born in the United States to exhibit in the show. The only question that concerns me is whether they consider themselves to be Cuban artists. If they say, yes, because of my heritage and my father and my family, then I include them. Cubans tend to transmit their culture to their kids, so why not explore your cultural identity. It doesn't matter that you are not inside the geographical context of Cuba. It's an exploration in cultural identity. How far can you go with your Cubanness?"

[O'Reilly Herrera]: "Why do you think Cubans are so concerned about perpetuating their culture?"

[Soto]: "I don't know if 'perpetuate' is the right word-I will use re-create. There is a very distinct Cuban way of being. It's a certain rhythm, it's certain a way of living (I am quoting Benítez-Rojo). This is what I want people to know-the variety of the show explains how, in spite of the many paths we have taken and our various creative processes, we are still working with the same issues."

[O'Reilly Herrera]: "What else would you like to say about Café per se? I have other questions for you but is there anything else you'd like to say about Café and your role as curator?"

[Soto]: "I have curated many shows. More than anything else I consider myself an artist and an educator. For example, Café III was inside a gallery at the Arizona State University West campus. The music played during the exhibition was composed by an American composer, who was my colleague at the time: Daniel Lentz. And the gallery itself was an installation. It was like being inside an old Cuban house. All my students helped me paint the setting. The entire exhibition, including the set up, was an educational process. By allowing my students to participate, I let them know that there are other non-traditional ways of organizing an exhibition that can be an aesthetic process. It is something more than just the industrial aesthetic that everything has to be equal, the same size, at the same level. There are other aesthetics that play an important role in how you exhibit art."

[O'Reilly Herrera]: "Could you talk about the synergy between your role as a teacher and your role as an artist, for there's obviously a connection between those two things."

[Soto]: "I am preparing a show right now. I did all the paintings inside my classroom with my students. We were painting from the same studio. It's something like the Renaissance workshop with the maestro painting with his assistants. It's more like a democratic experience in which your creativity is being shared with other people. I think the stimulus that I have from working with my students has been very important to my art."

[O'Reilly Herrera]: "But, what exactly are you teaching people about Cuba? And what are you teaching people about art?"

[Soto]: "Let's go back to Antonio Benítez-Rojo. We were very good friends, we were neighbors in Massachusetts and we were living five minutes from each other. We used to share a great deal of time together. Once he was reading a poem to me while I was painting and he said, Cuban culture is so big, so open, that you can keep everything inside Cuban culture and everything is inclusive. It's a Caribbean way of organizing things. So I think what I really teach through my art or through my painting is Cuban culture because everything can be included."

[O'Reilly Herrera]: "This is my last formal question and then I'd like to give you time to add anything you think that we haven't discussed or you'd like to say: Could you see yourself in any other role other than that of an artist? Could you be anything other than an artist?"

[Soto]: "Hmm…wow! Well, like a priest you mean, like a shaman? Yes, I could be a shaman! Yeah, I could be a shaman."

[O'Reilly Herrera]: "Couldn't you be a shaman and an artist at the same time?"

[Soto]: "Yeah, why not? The artist can fill many roles. I decided that I was-and I started being-an artist when I was five years old. I was trying to clean my house of bad energy by painting the walls. This goes back to the question of doing whatever I need to in order to become or to be present in the moment-to understand my surrounding and myself and look simultaneously inside and outside myself. And in certain moments I have to create a response. So, this is what my art is about."

[O'Reilly Herrera]: "Is there anything I have not asked you to talk about that you think you need to say? Is there anything you'd like to add?"

[Soto]: "Add?"

[O'Reilly Herrera]: "Yes, is there anything else you want to say?"

[Soto]: "Well, I'm also a cook. I love to be very creative in the kitchen. And this is part of the Cuban tradition too."

[O'Reilly Herrera]: "You know, that's why I visit you so often…because of your cooking."

[Soto]: "Yes, painters are very good cooks in Cuba. This is part of the interdisciplinary dimension of Cuban culture. Cuban culture has a lot to share with other cultures. Actually I agree again with Benítez-Rojo. He saw Caribbean culture as a model for twenty-first century cultures. We need to be open; we need to always be concentrated in the process of making, doing, and modeling integrations. He used the idea of rhythm as a paradigm. If everything is part of the rhythm, it will also be part of the music. Recently Ravi Shankar and other musicians were trying to make a musical piece using instruments from India and Asia and other western instruments. And you know what instrument they found that blended everything together? The Cuban claves. Da-da, da, da, da [claps rhythm]."

[O'Reilly Herrera]: "This is a perfect way to end this interview!"