Interview with Harold Coego

Date: 05/31/2006
Interviewed by Jorge J. E. Gracia
Filmed by Norma Gracia
Transcribed by Paul Symington
Edited by Jorge J. E. Gracia

Theinterview took place in the home/studio of Harold Coego in Vancouver

[Gracia]: "Harold, you are one of the few Cuban artists that lives in Canada – in Vancouver of all places, with plenty of water and lots of cold weather, so my first question is: what is a Cuban doing in Vancouver? How did you get here?"

[Coego]: "I got here with my wife, she is Canadian. I was working in a movie school in Cuba and she was doing a research in independent film-makers in Cuba. We met in the school, and the situation in Cuba was very fluid, so we decided to move here. It's been good; it's a bit rainy, but I got the freedom to do what I want to do."

[Gracia]: "You are about 33 now, so how long ago did you come?"

[Coego]: "In November, 2002, it's going to be four years in November."

[Gracia]: "And how long was your wife in Cuba?"

[Coego]: "A year plus, before we moved to Canada."

[Gracia]: "So you were around 28 when this whole thing started. Here you are doing art on the side, as it were. You have a job which is related to some of the things that you did in Cuba. What were you doing in Cuba?"

[Coego]: "I always did art since I was a kid. Now I realize that all the drawings that I would throw away were pieces of art that I was trying to do. When I went to school I got lucky and got a job with a famous historian in Cuba. My job was as archaeological assistant, so we worked in excavations and we got all these ceramic plates and other artifacts that we had to draw on paper. So I was doing a lot of drawing and excavating, drawing pictographs from caves, from the first natives in Cuba. Then I met a very important theater director in Cuba, in the 80's and 90's, and after seeing my drawings, he asked me whether I wanted to work for him. Just like that. So I went to the museum and I thought, ‘Hey, I gotta go, this is what I like, this is art.' I learned a lot with him about the theater, but the work took me a little bit away from the normal way to do art in Cuba. I did all sorts of things, I wrote scripts, while I continued to paint and draw all along."

[Gracia]: "And you did also designs and lights designs, with colors. Is there a record of all that work?"

[Coego]: "Yes, oh yeah."

[Gracia]: "And you have pictures …"

[Coego]: ". . . and all that, everything "

[Gracia]: "So it has been saved for posterity. But the interesting thing is that this art was in the context of the theater – well, first in archaeology, and then in the theater. Now that you mention archaeology and artifacts, I see in your art some connection with that. Is that right?"

[Coego]: "Yeah, it's very right. I like drawing with ink because it reminds me of the first instincts of human beings to express themselves, how they thought we look. I try to capture this very primitive way to draw and then modernize it, turning it around, but always thinking that was the first impulse of a man to represent himself visually."

[Gracia]: "To represent themselves visually to the others. There are two interesting things here. One is the theater. By the way, there is another Cuban artist that is very much into theater; I don't know whether you know him, Leandro Soto."

[Coego]: "Hmm."

[Gracia]: "No? Soto teaches in Arizona and he's made a career of performing art and mixing artistic performance with design and sets and so on. This is another Cuban artist who has that connection. Another one that occurs to me on the other side is Bedia, who tries to emulate some of the Afro-Cuban themes and Native American work on hides with very simple drawings. So in a sense you are part of a tradition, although your work is very unique. You were doing that kind of thing in Cuba and when you got to Canada, what happened?"

[Coego]: "I got a shock from the culture. It doesn't matter how many films you see about capitalism or the first world, you never realize how it is until you live here. It was pretty shocking the first year. I missed Cuba for the first time, lots. Just talking to someone in a normal idiom. But I guess I have something common with Canada in the way that I am, a loner. That helped me a little. If people don't want to talk to me, then I don't really want to talk to them, so it's totally cool. Now I'm pretty adapted to things."

[Gracia]: "And the language, was it a great barrier to you? Was it difficult?"

[Coego]: "Yeah, it was difficult because I would think that I was saying something right, but people wouldn't understand, and it would just drive me nuts."

[Gracia]: "It's very embarrassing too, isn't it, humiliating even?"

[Coego]: "It's embarrassing, yeah, especially when you don't look like a normal Cuban and people expect that you are going to speak perfect English and then you got to say, well I'm Cuban and they go, ‘Oh, I see.' Those little things get to you, but it's part of the…"

[Gracia]: ". . . experience. Now, with respect to the art, at first you didn't do any art or anything like that here, or did you?"

[Coego]: "I tried to start with the shorter films I had made in Cuba, but making a movie here takes a combination of many factors. And then with those, I had the scripts already done. I was doing something else to open up a window, working in the movies, trying to meet people."

[Gracia]: "Are these scripts that you have in English or Spanish?"

[Coego]: "I write in English."

[Gracia]: "Do you, in English?"

[Coego]: "Yeah, I try to do it. I want to do it, I don't want being Cuban to be a factor. I want to make a film about human beings in the world, period. Cubans are human beings."

[Gracia]: "The human predicament whatever that is, anywhere. The Cuban thing is just an incidental matter."

[Coego]: "It's incidental and it's going to go away at some point in history, it's not going to be around forever. There's things that have been forever that are more interesting."

[Gracia]: "You are a complete universalist."

[Coego]: "I think that is my point, biggest is best."

[Gracia]: "But in your art, you do have some things that have to do with Cuban symbols, so this is interesting, how do you manage that?"

[Coego]: "I grew up in Cuba and I lived 29 years of my life there and there's no way that a person could live in Cuba for so long and not have any scars, particularly with such a political a system. You can't escape. I just try to make fun of them. I'm a bit of an anarchist."

[Gracia]: "A little bit of a satire in there?"

[Coego]: "Yeah, always. Making fun of it because it's not serious."

[Gracia]: "A lot of your art seems to have that quality of making fun of something or other, some weird idea or whatever. Now, going back to the movie business, are you also interested in acting?"

[Coego]: "No, I'm more interested in directing."

[Gracia]: "Well you need to divorce your present wife and marry someone who has several million dollars and then…"

[Coego]: "Okay!"

[Gracia]: "We won't tell that to your wife."

[Coego]: "Oh, she would probably let me do it."

[Gracia]: "So we were talking about your art and now you are working but have continued to do art on the side. Are you increasing the amount of work that you're doing or are you just steady?"

[Coego]: "I've been working at least three months, very intensely. My wife tells me, ‘stop drawing, stop drawing.' But I just can't stop. I work four days a week in the movies, and the rest of the week I draw. In a period of three months I remember doing two and three drawings in a day. Or sometimes working on three at the same time. I work on one and then on another, and so on."

[Gracia]: "Are you working toward some kind of a show?"

[Coego]: "I want to do a show. I'm trying to get all of the work I can and then do the business part of things, which is the part I don't like. I would just rather stay here and draw forever. Send the work to whoever from here."

[Gracia]: "What has been the trajectory in what you have been doing, in terms of how things have been going. Has there been a change in what you started to do, let's say, at the beginning of your stay here and what you are doing now? Or is it similar, in terms of the medium, the themes and so forth?"

[Coego]: "I'm just getting better. But the theme is pretty much anything that I want to talk about. I don't say, ‘I'm going to work on this style or I'm going to do this or I'm going to do that.' I just sit down and say, ‘I'm going to go a far as I can go.' I don't care if it's going to be abstract or not."

[Gracia]: "Let yourself go, wherever way it takes you. But do you begin with an idea? For example, I'm looking at that piece that you have there on your left, which is an airplane isn't it, taking off or about to take off."

[Coego]: "Yeah, about to take off."

[Gracia]: "And there is a staircase, and people are climbing up and so on. Now, how did that start? What's the name of the piece?"

[Coego]: "It's called, ‘1000 kilometers on a plane and two days on a horse.' Remember when you used to have those long trips before, and you used to have to take a ship and then you had to ride a horse. This plane is going to this place where all those characters from bills from history, such as Bolívar, are just going; it's going to take off to somewhere where all those characters go and get out from their historical circumstances. And I'm letting them go out of the scene and have a different thing to do."

[Gracia]: "How did you come up with that idea? How did you start? Did you began with the idea of an airplane, or the idea of the trip?"

[Coego]: "One time I read a Salvador Dalí book and the first thing that he said in it was, ‘Whenever an artist tells you that he knows already what he's going to paint before he starts, he is being a liar.' Sometimes I know what I'm going to do, sort of. I can see the shape of a plane. I painted the back first and then I looked at it and I thought I could do something like a plane. But I just did the shape and then things just started coming out. At first I thought it was a rocket like thing. I just start moving around, just playing with the art, playing with the people. It's like doing a film, I start and then just have fun."

[Gracia]: "So the film idea also has a lot to do with the art."

[Coego]: "Yeah, lots, because I create a little story. Every drawing I do is a little story so I can justify to myself what it's about. This is how I do it: ‘This is a man and his arm is broken, and he has two personalities or his arm is this or that.'"

[Gracia]: "Do you actually verbalize this to yourself?"

[Coego]: "Yeah, in my head: I'm going to do this because in this situation this is happening. His face is not normal because I'm just bringing him to life and he doesn't know really what shape to take. I create all these stories in my head."

[Gracia]: "This is actually very different from what happens with many other artists. I've talked with many artists and most of them do not verbalize anything. They are just moving plastically, as it were, with the object. Which brings to the fore the fact that you do have that background which is verbal, which is the film, which is also something plastic, with images and so on, visual, but has a dialogue and you have written scripts for films…"

[Coego]: "Sometimes I think that when I do a drawing, my real desire is to make a film, but I can't, so I just do this story and it's going to stay right here where I can do it in the way that I want."

[Gracia]: "Do you talk to people about this – when you're doing a piece for example – say to your wife?"

[Coego]: "I always respect what my wife thinks about my art. And it's important for me when she likes it, but so many other times I just can't explain very well what it is, particularly when it's about Cuban themes. She wouldn't understand."

[Gracia]: "We were talking about the universal and the particular and although you aim for the universal, you do use a lot of cut-outs that have historically particular topics. When did you introduce collage in your work?"

[Coego]: "In one of my trips back from Cuba, I found these Cuban bills in my wallet that I had forgotten in my wallet. I was drawing something and I looked in the wallet and saw the bills, and I thought, ‘Hm, I can take this guy's head and put it on the paper.' And I started doing it and then I asked friends to send me more money, making fun too about using paper money to make art. It's like trying to sell the art to get the money. This is getting the money and doing some art with it."

[Gracia]: "Yes, cut it up or bring it up."

[Coego]: "Yeah, do something with it besides fighting for it."

[Gracia]: "That certainly sounds like going against the grain, as it were."

[Coego]: "That's right."

[Gracia]: "So this cutting up little pieces and so forth started about when? Two years ago or later?"

[Coego]: "Really recently."

[Gracia]: "Before, you were just drawing. But when I saw images of, for example, the drawing of the cat that you have and of the shark, I thought they were actually little pieces of paper that you had pasted on the paper, but they are painted. So the collage is something very new but somehow related to previous work. Now you haven't yet incorporated anything that has to do with your present day life into your art, or have you? No cut up Canadian bills or…"

[Coego]: "Actually, I have. I didn't show them to you before because they are pretty hardcore, and some people might not like them – I use the Queen figure to make fun. I make fun of the power, which is what I don't like. Anyone who has something to do with power is pretty much the same for me."

[Gracia]: "A social criticism of power, and there is another thing that I see in your work, although not in every piece. It's present in a number of works that you have, a kind of whimsical caricature."

[Coego]: "I love the idea that I can make a caricature of something serious."

[Gracia]: "This is a tradition in Cuba art."

[Coego]: "Yeah, that's it."

[Gracia]: "How did that go with the Revolution? I didn't live long enough in the Revolution – I came out in '61 – so I really don't know what happened afterwards."

[Coego]: "I was lucky in a way because I was born in a town but I grew up on the beach, so my media stations were all from Miami. So in the morning before I went to school, I would get up very early and I would turn on the TV to see. I didn't understand the language but I watched all the cartoons and visuals. I think that influenced me."

[Gracia]: "And how do you feel? You left Cuba voluntarily. You tell me that you go back to Cuba to see your family almost every year, or every year. But you are in the process of becoming Canadian, or maybe not? So, how do you feel?"

[Coego]: "I feel Cuban one hundred percent. I don't feel a victim of the system at all. I'm just a Cuban or – I like to say that I'm a citizen of the world that was born in Cuba. I feel like a Cuban that lives outside of Cuba and goes back to Cuba. I like Cuba. I really do, I really understand the history and there are many good things that came from there."

[Gracia]: "How about the music?"

[Coego]: "I'm more a jazz guy, instead of salsa. But we have great jazz players in Cuba. Yeah, I love Cuban history. Compared with Canada. . . here history is so short, not cool; it's more flat. They have nothing really, no revolutions or…"

[Gracia]: ". . . these conflicts and empire and wars…"

[Coego]: ". . . that make things move. It's a high price to pay for a lot of people to have these contradictions. But. . .."

[Gracia]: ". . . maybe it works for the art?"

[Coego]: "Totally. In Cuba, I remember working and being very intense because of the stress."

[Gracia]: "So, about whether you are going to become a Canadian citizen or not, how do you feel about that?"

[Coego]: "I'll probably do it, but I'll still keep my Cuban citizenship."

[Gracia]: "You can't lose it you know, or can you?"

[Coego]: "No, I can have two."

[Gracia]: "I understand that Cuba has a law of the land (jus solis). If you were born there, you are Cuban forever. Cubans will consider you to be Cuban, no matter where you live."

[Coego]: "Canada is the one that has to know if I renounce my Cuban citizenship."

[Gracia]: "We are talking about something that is particularly important for Cubans outside Cuba. For example, I have several citizenships and actually this is allowed now, by Canada and the US."

[Coego]: "Diego, one of the Cuban artists that I know, just became a Canadian citizen and he keeps two passports. He just came back from Cuba and he wanted to go to Cuba and show his Cuban passport."

[Gracia]: "To show that he is still in good terms with things there."

[Coego]: "Yeah, so they don't say, ‘Oh, you aren't Cuban anymore, are you?' I don't like that."

[Gracia]: "Let me ask you about the situation of the artists in Cuba, and the situation of artists here. What are the obstacles, advantages, pros and cons of the situation in Cuba?"

[Coego]: "In Cuba, people are more passionate with art and theater and painting and movies than here, but being an artist in Cuba is really, really difficult. If you express everything you want, you're going to have trouble. Being there creates pressure and obstacles, and is very stressful. Here, you have everything, but people do not have passion for the more interesting things – they watch a lot of TV. For instance, when there is an international movie festival here, no one lines up to go. I can't believe it!"

[Gracia]: "Maybe this is a Vancouver phenomenon, because we have an international film festival in Toronto and that is mobbed."

[Coego]: "Toronto is pretty big. I thought there would be at least a hundred people lining up because the films are very good. And sometimes the directors of the films come and talk…"

[Gracia]: "Maybe you have to move to Toronto, Harold."

[Coego]: "Maybe, but I like the quiet too here."

[Gracia]: "This is a very touristic area, but is there an active artistic community here?"

[Coego]: "They have many little galleries but it's hard to keep track of all of those and then there is a lot of first-nations art."

[Gracia]: "In Toronto it's different."

[Coego]: "It's closer to New York…"

[Gracia]: "In Montreal also, you have a different thing."

[Coego]: "This is more a business place. The port is the biggest in all the West. So, it's more a trade city than an art city."

[Gracia]: "What about the Asian influence in art? Is there something like that here because of the city's location?"

[Coego]: "Asians have a pretty big presence here. They own many art galleries and theaters."

[Gracia]: "Chinese and Japanese?"

[Coego]: "Yeah."

[Gracia]: "That's another connection which is somewhat different from the East."

[Coego]: "The second largest Chinese community in America is supposed to be here, after San Francisco."

[Gracia]: "I think we have covered the interesting bases concerning your art and your life and what you're trying to do. But is there something else that you'd like to say? Something that you'd like to tell?"

[Coego]: "I'd just like to say that I like to do things that are not necessarily Cuban, but still are Cuban. Behind everything there is a bit of Cuba, so the art doesn't look quite usual here. That's my goal. Even though I work with these bills – that's like the dirty part of me that's still having fun with these things. But my goal is going in the other direction."

[Gracia]: "You are not interested in palm trees."

[Coego]: "No."

[Gracia]: "One last thing. Harold, how you got your name, because it is not a Cuban name."

[Coego]: "My mom said that everybody in my family had a Cuban name, like Carlos or Alberto, and she didn't want her kids to have those old names. My older brother is named Eric, and three years later she had me. She put names in a box, different names, and pulled one out. And it was Harold. But here is a coincidence, Eric and Harold are Viking names, although she didn't mean it."

[Gracia]: "Let's finish the interview on that note. Thank you very much."

[Coego]: "Thank you."


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