Latin American and global clay

Nelson Herrera Ysla

Clay was one of the first materials used by man and has been his constant companion ever since he felt the need for everyday objects, ornaments for the body, offerings to his gods and from when he started to experience pleasure from the beauty created with his own hands. Nature was generous, providing him with an abundance of this material that can be found around the world. Today, almost all cultures and populations can create works in ceramics: its reserves are infinite and global, just like its uses and creative potentials.
Latin America and the Caribbean maintain an intimate and sacred relationship with this material. The groups, ethnic communities and societies of the region have created ceramic works of all sizes, from minuscule necklace beads to buildings and cities. Ceramics is like a second skin and an extension of our life thanks to its warmth and nobility, its capacity to be modelled and adapted to new technological advances and, above all, to its ability to be combined with other natural or artificial materials. Thus, this is a democratic and globalized material that we have worked with for hundred and thousands of years.
This is why contemporary ceramists are the bearers of one of the most cherished traditions of Latin American and Caribbean artistic history. All this without it being considered a repetition of the symbolic repertoire inherited from the great pre-Hispanic civilizations or the unimaginative copying of forms consolidated in popular culture and that today flourish on the streets and in the markets and squares of all cities on the islands and on the continental mainland. Latin American and Caribbean ceramists have discovered that nothing is extraneous to this material, that any idea, concept or artistic trend can be expressed through ceramics and that tradition goes through processes of breaking away that renew and revitalize it in a contemporary vision that takes into account local and universal tensions. On the other hand, numerous artists who are experts in other disciplines — photographers, painters, creators of installations, engravers, and designers — utilize ceramics as a support for new conceptual-styling experiences. This is because they are fully aware that ceramics encompasses the eternal power of the earth and the immeasurable work of nature that has never stopped providing each sensitive spirit with creative potential.
That is what happened with Alfredo Sosabravo the most famous Cuban ceramist on and off the island nation, with Rogelio Oliva who belongs to an intermediate generation that achieved success in the figurative realm, with Henry Eric Hernández, the youngest of this group and a representative of the new trends in Cuba and with Domenica Aglialoro a Venezuelan artist who works within the avant-garde movement of her country with a focus on a conceptual and formal renewal. 
In Sosabravo’s work we find an imaginative interplay of forms and representations of pop culture associated with a recreational bent and the desire for pleasure that the artist manifests through “cases” designed to create wonder and surprise. They are reminiscent of those treasure chests so cherished by children and today transformed into dream-like and surreal sculptures, consistent with his intense and varied creative output starting in the Sixties. Sosabravo uses aesthetic paradigms as a pretext for stimulating new associations in the spectator’s personal and familiar memories.
Rogelio Oliva evokes the divided man who lives in contemporary societies, in a never-ending battle with moral duplicity, with the ambivalence between public and private to which we are subjected from an ethical viewpoint. His work involves the ideological conditioning of the modern world and its undeniable consequences on the human body, the main focus of his latest creations.
Beyond any representation and any possible analogy, Henry Eric’s work is based on important interactions with other branches of human knowledge and understanding, like history, sociology and archaeology. His interest for recording facts and events that occurred in the past demonstrates the need to ensure that memory always remain active as a dynamic subject of culture and societies and, at the same time, that emphasises the inevitable presence of death in life.
Domenica Aglialoro is involved in a new aesthetic method that, on one hand, proclaims the fusion of materials, genres and supports and, on the other, the de-territorialization of contents. Her work openly declares the delicateness and the sensitivity of the artistic forms to express everyday humanity in a world increasingly dominated by domestic and social violence, by economic crises and by local conflicts. She goes beyond the borders of Latin American tradition to enter new currents that make clay an expressive medium on the same level as painting, drawing and sculpture.
These four artists represent the plurality of views, within the wide spectrum of art produced in Latin America and the Caribbean, distinguished by the legacy of the region that continues to be a model for artists of all origins and trends. For this reason, many prefer to talk about clay, rather than ceramics, as the original and universal material that best expresses the cultural contexts in which it has continued to be an inexhaustible source of aesthetic richness. Clay in its natural state is our constant companion from the highest peaks of the Andes, volcanoes and forests to its artistic expression on urban streets and in city squares, through imaginative forms and everyday objects that are much closer than plastic, cement, glass or aluminium.
It’s difficult to imagine an urban or rural universe in our region without the constant presence of clay: it’s like imagining a world suddenly without gods, religions or the sounds of music.
In general, works made with clay denote the poetic aura of manual dexterity, of the innate handwork in man’s creative action: in a certain sense it’s like feeling the touch and the pressure of the artist’s fingers, the force and fatigue, the old and modern tools utilised with passion and experience.
The artists of Latin American and the Caribbean make clay and ceramics an extension of their senses, for which it is attributed with both a practical and a magical meaning. They act on the material with the utmost freedom, like other artists do with cotton fabrics, bamboo fibres or rice paper. That’s because they feel they have to extract the telluric energy contained within and its light in the same manner as the first indigenous inhabitants of this geographic-cultural area did. If we talk about authenticity and identity in art, the ceramic paradigm might contribute to the dialogue like any other artistic expression. Its language has gradually incorporated new elements born at this same level and in others farther away, proving its capacity for assimilation and appropriation.
The work by these artists, and events like this one, symbolise the strong desire to keep such a dialogue open.

Text published in the catalogue of the 2nd Biennial of Ceramics in Contemporary Art, Attese, Albisola (Italy), 2003.