Roberto Fabelo’s art mixes various levels of being with eerie precision and symbolic import as he restructures the boundaries between the real and the imagined, treasure and trash, human and animal, angel and demon. As with his graphic art, Fabelo’s sculptural and installation works create a phantasmagorical realm where the tension between the sublime and the grotesque engrosses the viewer in the experience of the uncanny. Freud’s concept of the uncanny aptly describes the position of much of Fabelo’s work. His is a haunting art that highlights the mysterious and incongruous as well as the strangely familiar, that which is found in dreams, fantasies, archaic fairy tales, hallucinations, and visions. And though this master’s art may give one wings to soar above the dross and terror, it does not permit one to forget or ignore the dark realm from which emerges insect and animal life and all that carries hunger, pain, deformity, monstrosity, madness, and death.
Fabelo told me he retains a childlike vision of the world. In most of us, this way of seeing—sometimes referred to as the golden age of creativity and what Anton Ehrenzweig called the “hidden order of art”*––disappears around age eight, with the development of abstract thinking, the growth of reason, and the solidification of objective reality. Objects, people, and the general surround lose their capacity to generate fresh profiles of being, new intersections of meaning, and imaginative insight. The world and the categories that parse it become fixed and even tiresome. In some, however, this capacity for imaginative and unrestricted perception remains. In fewer still, there is the additional capacity to communicate such visions. Fabelo is one of these. As with fairy tales––not the later ones polished into clear story arcs with neat denouements, but the primeval folk tales that spoke in the language of the unconscious––his works invite us into an imaginary world that offers aesthetic and often morbid pleasure while helping us grapple with existential dilemmas: isolation and social life, hunger and fulfillment, beauty and deformity, good and evil, sex and violence, identity and mortality. Many of his installations reveal the dark side of humanity and the suffering involved in being human with little appeal to transcendence: parasitic invasion and disease, perverse combinations and dark transgressions, madness and disfigurement, the triumph of the demonic and grotesque. It is not surprising that his influences include fantasists: Goya, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Bosch, Daumier, Ensor, and even Da Vinci.
Fabelo is a painter, illustrator, sculptor, and creator of assemblages and installations. Born in 1951, he attended the Escuela Nacional de Arte in Havana as well as the Instituto Superior de Arte. He has had solo exhibits at MOLAA, the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, California, and the Pérez Art Museum in Miami (PAMM). He has also won numerous awards including Cuba’s highest, the National Visual Art Award.
Fabelo recalls creating animals from beeswax as a young child in his hometown of Guáimaro. Since then, he has drawn on every surface imaginable. He cannot resist drawing on objects, and his characteristic hybrid creatures make their appearance everywhere. “Every day of my life I draw, on the floors, on the walls, everywhere,” he declares, making us think again of his play with boundary. He reveals that he turned to sculpture to add a third dimension to his art. He showed me small figures made out of the foil from wine bottles. His hands are never still. Using a variety of materials—bones, silverware, aluminum, stainless steel, cockroaches, bullet shells, and even a cigar box—he creates worlds.
One of his installations is entitled Worlds, and it is composed of five enormous globes that hang from the ceiling, each made from different materials: silverware, charcoal, animal bones, cockroaches, and bullet shells. These worlds make us think of our own–– teeming with insects, needing fuel and scorched by it, revealing our hunger, and reminding us of our violence and mortality.
Using pots, Fabelo has made a number of installations called Torres, which means towers or castles. One such work composed of coffee pots is called Cafedral. His pots, collected from old institutions and restaurants, suggest the time when Cubans lived with food shortages after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Food consumption was cut and people lost an average of twenty pounds. Fabelo’s pots are physical reminders of that period of scarcity. He is recycling the pots for artistic use. “All Cubans are recyclers,” he says. He also told me Cubans love their garbage, their trash. One of his oil paintings is titled Land, where the waste is still loved. That the pots refer to Cuba is made even more obvious by Isla, a piece made of pots, many bent out of shape, in the contour of Cuba. Above all, Fabelo’s pot installations demonstrate that scarcity fuels creativity.
Fabelo’s drawings on some of his pots recall nightmarish ghouls, or bizarre fairy tale hybrid creatures that both attract and repel. Some black pots are drawn on with white crayon or paint while others have the words “Insomnia del Soñador”—insomnia of the dreamer—on them. These strange pots with their even stranger drawings erode the boundary between the waking and dream state, between reality and fantasy, between the vision and the nightmare. The paradoxical combination of insomnia and the dreamer implies this when he is awake.
Fabelo’s towers of pots are very different from his drawings of pots, many which show liquid overflowing. It is as if he is reminding us that even though our physical world limits us, our imagination is endless. Fabelo reemphasizes the contrast of feast and famine, excess and scarcity.
And hunger remains a central recurring theme in his oeuvre. The Table, another series of installations, involves plates of varied sizes. Some are empty while others are filled with bones, broken figurines, pots. One even has feces on it. The food here is what death feeds to life––damaged forms, waste, bones, emptiness, oblivion. Some are enormous aluminum plates, large enough to sit on, emphasizing the towering primacy of food and hunger at the core of survival and perhaps also our own inevitable transmogrification into “food” for the earth.
Giant forks and knives are positioned alongside some of the plates, situated as both utensils and weapons. Both are used to eat as well as to stab. Many of Fabelo’s drawings and sculptures present us with female bodies pierced by forks, implying the appropriation of and violence to the female body and the reduction of the human body itself to meat and decay. One of his drawings, Brocheta, depicts a stack of naked women on a skewer, prepared to be served up. Similarly, many of his Mermaid drawings and sculptures portray them alone or in abundance, on plates or in pots—submissively positioned to be cooked and devoured. Two levels of being interplay here: the social and the existential; while the former narrates the plight of the female in a world dominated by male carnal desire and violence, the latter indicates the annihilating fate of mortality. The madness implicit in much of Fabelo’s work is deeply connected to the theme of death and the toll human awareness of it takes on sanity.
Giant cockroach sculptures with human heads climb the walls of Havana’s National Museum of Fine Arts in Fabelo’s shocking installation, Survivors. The link between the roach and the human, its obvious connection to Franz Kafka’s story Metamorphosis notwithstanding, suggests that human beings possess the tenacious roach-like ability to cling to life and the violence of that commitment is repulsive. Roaches, after all, would persist following an atomic war. That these hideous creatures cling to the walls of an art museum suggests that the most sublime human aspirations and productions are rooted in subterranean darkness and that the bridge spanning all life––vegetation, insect, animal, and human––is unbroken. We cannot banish the animal or even the insect. What we reject and disavow––the grotesque, the monstrous, the dross, the shit—imbues even our highest undertakings; indeed it is inherent to them. Though he titled an exhibit “We are not animals,” Fabelo’s art indicates otherwise. We are highly imaginative and spirited animals, very much in need of our angels and our demons.
Fabelo’s insects––cockroaches, grasshoppers, and flies––are mostly male while his women are beautiful nymphs, mermaids, and angels. Whereas men are part human and part insect, women are part human and part fish or bird; they wear seashell helmets, have tails, wings, or fish spines. At times the males are dwarfed next to the larger imposing females. Their proximity to the sirens and the difference in how they are depicted expose man’s lust and hunger, even his sadistic impulses. Fabelo’s naked women are sometimes shown riding a rooster––the symbolic cock (Fantastic Voyage) indicating their physiological superiority and existential dominance.
Often, though, the female subject is revealed as a subdued and broken angel. One work, cast in bronze, reveals her as an exquisite beauty with voluptuous proportions, emerging from a plate ready for consumption, limbless and with only one wing, her head crowned with an ornate conch-like shell, her castrated body trussed in leather straps, her eyes downcast and subdued. She evokes multiple sexual and social associations: dominance and submission, sex and food, carnal desire and mutilation, the female body as a site of male terror masking the violence the male generates to conquer and violate.
So many of Fabelo’s female sculptures are masochistically situated: stuffed in pots, pierced with forks, appetizing yet half-dead (Sea Traveler’s Dream), or tied up with belt straps crisscrossing their torsos and shoulders recalling bondage, like Hans Bellmer’s women, such as in Fabelo’s bronze Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude). In his Oración doméstica (Domestic Prayer), a woman with wings and straps tied to her torso carries a large bundle of pots on her head. What is she praying for? To be freed from her domestic chores? To be recognized as a person rather than a servant? To have enough food to fill those pots? That so many of Fabelo’s figures carry objects or animals on their heads exposes their burdens, oppression, fears, dreams and fantasies––in brief, the darkness within their own psyche.
The darkness of the psyche/world is illustrated in a magical work he made in 1995, reminiscent of a medieval triptych, constructed out of an opened Cuban cigar box. Unlike the classical triptych, which depicts sacred figures of a world binding theophany, Fabelo’s resembles a Pandora’s box housing monsters from the id in a fragmented world: A grotesque trinity of figures crowded beneath a large monstrous head with protruding tongue crown the box. A panoply of odd carved totemic wooden grimacing characters inhabit the central area and top of the box and colorful whimsical heads, hybrid creatures, humans with bird masks, angels, people screaming or rigidly posed, are painted on the sides. A jar filled with buttons is located at the center, yet these fasteners are ironic, because every figure seems to stand alone in the box, disconnected to everything else, with no line of coherence from one figure/object to another. Both strangely sublime and clearly grotesque, the cigar box is a testament to the power of imagination that elevates the self but simultaneously reveals the human plight of inescapable madness.
Demonic madness dominates Fabelo’s Un poco de mí (A bit of me), an eight-wood panel masterpiece that combines painting and small objects to portray a collection of grotesque faces and figures that emanate a dark beauty. Containing many if not all of Fabelo’s favored motifs––hybrid and human creatures, trussed and bound bodies, figures passively positioned on plates, angels and demons, seashell hats, flesh pierced by forks––the faces in the piece are stern, grimacing, tortured, tragic, remote, and demented. Their interrogation of the viewer is quite terrifying: Do you not see yourself here as well? Are you, too, not mad by nature, capable of mayhem and evil, a creature of tragedy and sorrow? It is a stark work that exposes the monstrous and irrational “bit” of us that we fraudulently deny and on whose disavowal social and cultural life depends. A figure of a man is strapped into a corset; his head faces the viewer with his body pointing in the opposite direction, reminiscent of the eight circles of Dante’s hell reserved for varieties of fraud. Dominating the far right panel is a man with the ears of a demon. In this work, as in almost all his others, the devil certainly gets his due.
On leaving my interview with Fabelo, he mused quietly, “I don’t know if I’m mad.” Mad or not, Fabelo’s art shows us the madness of humankind, and his beautiful monsters speak to a deep place within us. His imaginative and brilliant work enchants us with truths and gives form to the irrational, the terrifying, and the repressed, while authentically and majestically accounting for what is denied and disavowed in the pursuit of the conventional.
*Anton Ehrenzweig, The Hidden Order of Art: A Study in the Psychology of Artistic Imagination (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 1971).
Danielle Knafo, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, psychoanalyst, and professor of psychology at Long Island University and New York University, with an expertise in art and the creative process. She is the author of numerous publications, including Egon Schiele: A Self in Creation; In Her Own Image: Women’s Self-Representation in Twentieth-Century Art; and Dancing with the Unconscious: The Art of Psychoanalysis and the Psychoanalysis of Art.