Carlos Luna: Keep Your Eyes On Me

By Enrique Garcia Gutierrez ©

Viewers standing before Carlos Luna’s El Gran Mambo (2006, oil on canvas, 144″ X 192″) will confront a very clear order telling them what they must do. In Spanish, the text reads “MIRAME SIEMPRE”; in English, that command might be rendered literally as “LOOK AT ME ALWAYS,” but more colloquially one would say “KEEP YOUR EYES ON ME.” This command is written at the center of six contiguous sections of extremely diverse images that make up a painting on the scale of a large mural. Indeed, El Gran Mambo is the summa of Luna’s work so far. Technically, imagistically, and conceptually, the painting fuses autobiography and artistic “stand,” and it renders the artist’s particular aesthetic in a single monumental ideogram. The figures and graphic characters that appear in this work are found in Luna’s entire oeuvre, and so this painting-mural might be seen as the great curtain that opens to reveal the multifaceted stage on which each of the artist’s individual paintings is played out.

But why “gran mambo” — Big Mambo — and not, for example, “gran salsa”? Why one musical genre instead of another? For those of us who read the titles of many of Luna’s paintings and the texts that appear within them, it’s no secret that Carlos Luna is more than a mere fan of Cuban and Antillean music of the people. He is a connoisseur and a scholar of African-origin music, and has been a practitioner of that art — a bongo-player, to be precise — since the age of nine, when he would sneak out of his house in the tobacco town of San Luis, Cuba, in the state of Pinar del Río, where he was born in 1969, and go join the group that would be livening up the festivities at a scruffy, noisy pick-up bar nearby.

The “mambo” that the unforgettable Pérez Prado introduced to the world in 1951, after a decade of musical experimentation — in his likewise unforgettable recording of Qué rico el mambo — has a longer tradition, and a nobler musical and folkloric ancestry, than the salsa. “Mambo” is a word in the Bantu language of Africa that means “conversation with the gods,” and it points to the drums used in religious rituals. Thus, in its references to music, history, and the worship of the African gods, “mambo” is profoundly linked to Carlos Luna’s Afro-Cuban aesthetic and world-view.

Formally, in terms of composition, El Gran Mambo has two horizontal bands, one above the other, corresponding to the “Mírame” and the “Siempre,” respectively, of the central inscription. The double triptych’s scenes and motifs are arranged around a vertical axis created by the central character in all of Luna’s dramas — the Guajiro-Man (in a hat).[1] This figure appears twice, and is on a larger scale than all the other figures in the painting.

Luna, who has admitted that the Guajiro is one of two main characters in his work (“He’s the true hero of Cuban life”), recognizes thereby that there is another figure of equal importance, the “Rooster-Man [or Cock-Man], the magical, mythical-animal side of the Guajiro.”[2] In El Gran Mambo, the Rooster-Man appears upside down in the lower half of the painting, apparently on the losing side of the telephone call to the beautiful young Picasso-esque woman who seems to emerge from the other end of the receiver. Painted uniformly in blue, the GuajiroMan in his several versions and the Rooster-Man, in the one, stand out as figures of mutable iconic identity: here, blue underscores the figure’s figurative and literal centrality as that color contrasts with the ochres and black of the rest of the composition.

But only one icon, one sign, one motif, infinitely repeated throughout the artist’s oeuvre, occupies the most exalted hierarchical distinction. This figure appears as a half-moon with nose and eyes, and it is the mark of the sacred, the essential, upon Luna’s work. In it, we recognize the figure of the orisha Elegguá, a god in the Yoruba pantheon. Wifredo Lam, the artist best known internationally in the first generation of Cuban artists, said that he tended not to use a “precise symbology,” although this sign for Elegguá often appears in his paintings.

 Elegguá is a deity that mediates between men and nature, and in El Gran Mambo he presides, alongside the GuajiroMan, over this apotheosis of Afro-Cuban imagery. Devil or saint, Elegguá is an incorrigible peeping-tom who takes on the role of witness and embodies the critical vision of life central to the work of Carlos Luna. He is present in melodramas involving romantic affairs gone awry, in political attacks against Castro, and in the farces starred in by the Guajiro-Man — three main subjects constantly repeated, with variations, throughout Luna’s work. The Sexy Lady, the Cayman (which the outline of the island of Cuba is often said to resemble), and the Horse complete the dramatis personae of Luna’s theater. It is important to note that the use of these signs is one of many revelations of Luna’s profound and complicated positioning within the rich tradition of twentieth- and twenty-first century Cuban art; all of the signs are related to the affirmation of national identity through Afro-Cuban symbology.

To comment responsibly on El Gran Mambo alone would require more space than is available to this article in its entirety, so let me just note that Cynthia MacMullin, the curator of this exhibit, has not only used the title of this one work for the entire exhibition but also placed the work at the show’s center. The place of honor given this work recognizes its importance as a synopsis of Luna’s oeuvre thus far and underscores its incomparable intrinsic merits as the capstone of his career. The command at the center of Mírame Siempre, probably taken from one of the many romantic ballads that Luna has used in his seductions of the Sexy Lady — ballads whose protagonists are the Guajiro-Man and the Rooster-Man — is an order that can be interpreted as referring to El Gran Mambo itself — Keep Your Eyes on Me —  where we find an entire anthology of Luna’s work. Keep Your Eyes on Me, it seems to say, and I will reveal my secrets and you, viewer, will more fully enjoy the magic of Carlos Luna and his sidekick Elegguá.

 Luna had hardly reached legal age when he left Cuba for Mexico, and in Puebla de los Ángeles he found a place to sojourn for eleven years of his personal, spiritual, and artistic wanderings. He had brought with him an excellent education in the plastic arts (the Escuela de Artes Plásticas, the Academia de San Alejandro, and the Instituto Superior de Arte) and also brought along the Guajiro-Man, who appears in Arbol Grande, Guajiro Yo (Big Tree, Guajiro Me, 2001). This figure, in collaboration with lyrics written by his friend Mardonia Sintas (the nom de plume of Mexican poet Francisco Hernández), took on new life and significance first from Luna’s exile and then his new departure for Miami in 2001. The two conspirators agreed on subjects and then each worked independently. The result is wonderful in its perfect coordination of word and image: Ay Ceiba, Ceiba encendida / refugio de mi agonía / Tú me salvaste la vida / con sangre de brujería / y hoy canto mi despedida / con lágrimas de mi alegría. “Ay, Ceiba, Ceiba in flames,[3] / shelter in my agony, / my life you saved / with blood of sorcery / and today my farewell I sing / with tears of happiness and joy”: This is the last of the five strophes of the mano-a-mano between the poet and the painter. This painting, which opens the exhibition, is a moving tropos of departure in Luna’s life, a symbol of what is left behind and what awaits in a life of exile.

Es tarde ya me voy (“It’s late and I’m on my way”) is a line from a popular song — the rider is on the way to meet his lover, who is hidden in the thick undergrowth, at the extreme left of the canvas, that the horse is entering. Elegguá is there as a witness to this action, under the horse’s rear hooves. That visual “thicket” — a cornucopia of phallic symbols, scissors, knives, balloonlike breasts, eyes, and countless other graphic motifs repeated throughout Luna’s work — has a magical and ceremonial function. It expresses not just the existential chaos that lies in wait for us but also the artistic order and discipline that governs its pictorial facture. This strategy of calculated accumulation of widely diverse motifs and signs, a metaphor of multiple signifieds, is also expressive of horror vacui, that aesthetic breathless panic associated with the Latin American baroque.

 But we should shun, so far as we can, labels that explain very little and prevent us from keeping our eyes on the individual work and its unique intentions.

Covering the surface of the canvas with a swarming “beehive” of expressive, narrative, descriptive, and symbolic imagery has been one of the most prominent features of Cuban painting since the days of its first great practitioners, figures such as Amelia Peláez, Mario Carreño, René Portocarrero, and Wifredo Lam. Lam’s La Jungla (The Jungle, 1943) marked the beginning of an Afro-Cuban movement in painting that expressed an unmistakably and riotously Afro-Cuban musical sound through visual cacophony — the natural and the supernatural joined in a uniquely Cuban ritual.

Misa Negra (Black Mass, 2005), Bruca Manigua (2004),[4] and War Hero (2003), despite their notable historical distance and their subjects and styles so far from the artists mentioned above, have in common with them the use of the pictorial method of accumulation. In El Gran Mambo, several patterns of geometrical abstraction — the rectangle, the oval, the triangle — articulate the underlying structure and both group and differentiate the picture’s hundreds of motifs, signs, objects, and vegetable and human forms. The integration of the surface of the canvas into a coherent whole results from a symbiotic relationship between abstraction and figuration.

In Misa Negra, the cock portrayed on the table-altar is highlighted against this thronging mass, which is executed in an exquisite tracery of yellow lines drawn on a black background. Intertwined with the signs, and in the margins of the painting, we see two skeletons, of a man and a woman — he with erect member flowering into a spur; her, at the left, expectantly awaiting his arrival.

Death, present so often in Luna’s paintings, is portrayed as a skeleton, like those created and immortalized in drawings and prints by the great Mexican master José Guadalupe Posada (1852–1931). Posada is one of several Mexican masters who were the object of Luna’s painstaking study during his long residence in Mexico. (While there, Luna also met his wife, and his children were born there. Claudia, his wife, is his muse, and a figure that appears often in his works; she is also sometimes identified as “Catalina.”)

In Misa Negra, the cock is standing on a red tablecloth, allusive of blood, and Elegguá serves as the foundation of the entire work, floating on a sea of blue and white waves. The cock is a national icon, pointing back to the cocks painted by Marinao Rodríguez (1912–199), another of the great pioneers of Cuban painting, who used the figure to symbolize Cuba’s self-affirmation, identity, and independence. The cock is a central figure in many of Luna’s works, too, and it is not hard to identify it as a metaphor for the “big boss,” the man that gives orders, or would like to.

We should remember, however, that the cock has a long history as a symbol for male sexuality, and as such, its significations are broad; they range from the metaphor of seduction to an analogy with the rooster’s virility and combativeness. Carlos Luna’s roosters play a number of roles, and they allude to signifieds as varied as symbols of national identity in the extremely ironic portrayal in Misa Negra and references to the author’s own younger days when he raised fighting-cocks and took part in cockfights in his home town. Bum Bata a Trancazo Limpio (Wham Bam, It’s Over, Man, 2006) is a painting of great playfulness and jocular irony in which the Guajiro-Man and his cock run into a Rooster-Man and his cock in the jungle. The onomatopoetic “bum bata” and the rest of the title included in the painting tell us just what sort of encounter is about to result from this chance meeting.

The Rooster-Man goes in disguise when necessary: in Aquel Incontrolable Deseo (That Uncontrollable Desire), he wears a mask so no one will know that he was the one who beheaded Fidel Castro with the knife, dripping blood, that he’s carrying. In a diametrically opposed humor we recognize the cock-figure in El Rapto de Catalina (The Kidnapping of Catalina, 2001). Here, the Rooster-Man, the macho, Carlos Luna, is literally carrying off (under his arm) his Sexy Lady, his “sweetheart,” his wife — lovingly kidnapping her and taking her out of the city into a flowery meadow. In the allegory Las Flores del Regreso (The Flowers of Returning), the female character Catalina reappears, this time lying on top of the cayman-island-Cuba, another example of the metamorphoses that the characters in Luna’s theater constantly undergo. Just as in Greek theater a single actor might take on several roles by simply changing his mask, so in Luna’s works the figures take on several incarnations, both comic and tragic.

This vision of Luna’s memory and present life would not be complete without the smell and taste of coffee. Café caliente Juliana (Hot Coffee, Juliana; the name of Luna’s grandmother) and Café con con (a rendering of “café con [leche, azucar, etc.]” into percussive musical rhythms) are two vision-visits by the Guajiro-Man, seated ceremonially in two very different settings, and they convey cryptic messages I will leave the viewer to decipher, in the light of the comments I’ve made above. The steaming cup of coffee in the first painting appeals to our olfactory memory, and the composition — part real, part fantastic (the man floating above Juliana) — transports to a world of dreams. Café con con leche, as the lettering complementing the figuration reads, needs, I think, no explanation, especially when one considers the three marvelous coffee-pots in the painting’s left margin.

Keep your eyes on me. That is the artist’s command, and we see it mirrored in the hundreds of eyes that appear in his paintings — such as the enormous eye in El Gran Mambo that emerges from the formal composition and gives geometric coherence to the work, and that also acts as a key to the interpretation of its iconography, not to mention the hundreds, perhaps thousands, that throng the vegetable and animal metamorphoses in the backgrounds of his paintings.

To say that Carlos Luna’s work is a grand comedy in which playfulness, irony, sarcasm, and caricature — the “pop” aspect of his painting — immediately seduce viewers and draw them in, is to recognize just one side of the coin. His “gran mambo,” his grand theater, could not exist without the tragedy and pain of the political exile which is the blood that gives life to his masterful mise-en-scène. The compact image, simple or complex, familiar, political or mythical, is governed by two ordering principles of exceptional virtuosity: the line, the drawing, which produces outlines of absolute descriptive and expressive clarity; and a pictorial color-sense that is present both in his use of brownish hues — yellowish, reddish, black-tinged — and in his kaleidoscopic array of intense tones.

Last — but far from least, for it is of capital importance in his art, his iconographic and imaginative thinking — sexuality is always present in all its rich range of generative force, ethnic characterization, and Afro-Antillean tradition, and as an instrument of conquest in love and — the other side — the machismo that is endemic to Latin cultures. The “kingdom of the phallus” is very much a part of Luna’s visual stage-machinery. Penises and balloon-breasts are a constant motif, like a musical leit-motif repeated over and over, and their iconographic force characterizes the personages in an infinite variety of forms and techniques. It goes without saying that sexual organs have been icons of Cuban art since Lam gave them the synoptic powers of passion and ethnicity, and they have come to be used in the work of a veritable Pleiades of contemporary Cuban artists. But the sexuality that identifies the loving conquest of a woman may also become the negative feature of the abusive, cynical macho. Both commentaries are eloquently articulated by Luna in his flying penises, sometimes embodied in the rooster, or cock, in the Guajiro-Man and the Rooster-Man, with the help, naturally, of the woman, the Sexy Lady.

El Gran Mambo is an expression of profound emotions and ideas, emotions and ideas that were also an essential part of the musical ritual of the original Bantu mambo. Communication with the primordial gods, the search for individual and collective identity, was the goal of that ceremony. Luna, too, aspires to communicate with the gods.

 San Juan, PR September 3, 2007

Translated by Andrew Hurley

[1] The guajiro is the Cuban peasant, the “hick” or “hillbilly,” though in this case entirely without pejorative connotations; rather, he stands for the simplicity and dignity of the native Cuban, close to the earth and honest labor. 

[2] Associated, that is, with the theophanies of santería, in which the religion’s deities, the orishas, are linked to animals, plants, stones, etc., of the natural world. 

[3] The ceiba tree is the home to the deities, or orishas, of the santería religion, and thus a powerful symbol of the presence of the powers of the universe in this world. 


[4] “Bruca Maniguá” is the title of a very popular song written by black Cuban composer-musician Arsenio Rodríguez in the 1930s and recently repopularized by Ibrahim Ferrer of the Buena Vista Social Club. The song’s lyrics, which include this phrase, are in a mixture of the Yoruban language (of the slaves of that ethnicity that were predominant in Cuba) and Spanish, but mostly Yoruban, and express the yearning of a slave to escape “to the mountains”: Yenyere bruca maniguá: in the mountains lies the answer. Thus, “bruca maniguá” is “the mountains” or “the wilderness,” where the slaveholders can’t get at you.