Reynier Leyva Novo is one of Cuba’s leading conceptual artists. He belongs to a generation too young to have witnessed the Revolution but exposed as children to the privations following the 1991 end of economic support from the Soviet Union. His multidisciplinary practice is grounded in his scrutiny of historical data and official documents in order to unearth content that he transforms into formally minimalist and conceptually charged work.
His 2012 series The desire to die for others cast in blocks of clear resin weapons used by various Cuban leaders in the country’s long struggles for independence. This new translucent materiality robbed these objects of any sense of historical sanctification by neutralizing the ideological construction around them. Collages from his more recent The Extension of Words series uses mundane details of grammar and language from the official newspaper of the Cuban government as the nexus of geometric compositions that challenge platitudes and hint at alternative interpretations. In this way, Novo’s work delineates an uneasy dialogue between official history and lived experience.
Trained in Cuba under Tania Bruguera’s acclaimed performance art program, Arte de Conducta, Novo’s work has been shown internationally in the Liverpool Biennial (2010), the Venice Biennale (2011 and 2017), the Sorocaba Triennial of Arts in Brazil (2017) and the Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA exhibition Deconstructing Liberty, A Destiny Manifested (2017). It is collected by the Bronx Museum of the Arts, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Walker Art Center, Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation, Perez Art Museum, Art Gallery of Ontario, Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, and Museum of Fine Arts Houston. In 2022, Novo was awarded the Pommery Prize for “What it is, what it has been” at The Armory Show.
S.O.U.P. (Survival Objects Under Pressure)
S.O.U.P. (Survival Objects Under Pressure) is made with gleaming columns of spoons engraved with the writings of international political dissidents throughout the 20th century who have participated in hunger strikes as a means of protest. Implemented in part to honor Novo’s friend and fellow artist, Luis Manuel Otero Alacantra, who nearly died while striking in Cuba, the piece is deceptively simple and poignant in its portrayal of the struggles and rewards of individuals who stand up to impersonal and often violent regimes, with statements of protest occupying the depressions in the spoons where food might have been. “Between my love for freedom and my love for my friend, I decided to make this piece,” Novo remarks.
Blank Check series
In Blank Check: About how to empty the mind – a series of “miniperformances” documented on celluloid film and set throughout the city of Havana – Novo acts out the ephemera of daydream in absurdist black and white tableau, each with a simple text description.
Manifest Destiny: The Weight of the Land
Novo recently invented a program capable of formulating the weight, volume, and area of ink used in printed documents. Manifest Destiny: The Weight of the Land depicts two stark cartographic versions of the USA: the first shows the contiguous collection of twelve states at the time of the Constitution’s signing in 1787; then, following a series of black squares depicting the amount of ink contained in the five territorial treaties signed from 1803 to 1898, a second map reveals the sprawling geography of American imperialism as it encroached westward across the continent. Between maps, in the slick lacunae of the five intervening black squares, we see the subsumption of peoples and cultures whose bodies and habitats became objects of commercial exchange for colonial powers, apportioned out through measures of ink.
The Flowers of My Exile
“The Flowers of My Exile” is a series containing color photographs of wildflowers that I’ve found since I left Cuba on July 2, 2021. The collection includes the entire route of my trip, starting with Spain, then Mexico, and finally the United States. The series is a way of telling my journey of exile through the flowers of the road. – Reynier Leyva Novo
Above: Reynier Leyva Novo, The Flowers of My Exile, 2023, photographs on Epson Metallic photo paper, mounted to Epson cotton rag paper, 40 images, 10″ x 19″ each unframed