Ricardo Brey is a pioneer of New Cuban Art and an iconic figure in Cuban art history. He is also a vital international contemporary artist who has chosen to make Ghent the center of his work and life since 1991. Brey participated in the now-legendary exhibition Volumen 1, initiated by a group of eleven artists of the same name. Although these artists shared no common aesthetic or programmatic agenda, they were unanimous in their discontent with the dominant Cuban cultural politics—particularly an art education system that emphasized craftsmanship and favored socialist realism—and a desire to engage in international conversations about the art of their contemporaries, namely conceptual art and the focus on ideas. Brey’s works during this period were deeply engaged with the structuralist concepts of anthropologist and ethnologist Claude Levi-Strauss, and followed the accounts of explorers and natural scientists in meticulously written, illustrated, and paginated manuscripts.
It was only after a residency in New York and a monthlong stay in a Lakota Indian community in South Dakota in 1985 that Brey became conscious of the importance of his Afro-Cuban roots. Shocked by the miserable living conditions on the American Indian reservation and inspired by the community’s totemic belief systems, Brey started incorporating references to Yoruba religion into his work, assigning meanings to materials like stone, iron, or other natural elements.
Brey’s hybrid cultural formation—wrought in part by Cuban syncretistic religious practices that merge European thought with African belief systems—are brought to bear in a conceptual, yet organic, visual language accessible to the contemporary art world. Brey has accomplished what the Nigerian playwright and poet Wole Soyinka has summarized: “the tiger does not proclaim his tigritude, he pounces.” During the past forty years, Brey has developed a personal mythology. Disparate, recycled, or ready-made everyday objects and basic materials take on new life and meaning after he assembles them in dynamic, suspenseful installations. Although this strategy also relates to Arte Povera and conceptual art, it is important to note that Brey’s use of humble materials in his early career stemmed partly from necessity and is today a conscious statement against consumer culture.
Universe (2002–2006) is one of Brey’s largest projects, comprising 1,004 drawings presented in ninety-nine vitrines that bring together his imaginary cosmos as well as the various techniques and materials he has used over the years. Its gesture is distinct from Every life is a fire, an ongoing project he began in 2009 and will present at the 56th Biennale di Venezia, in which archival boxes, bare from the outside, reveal their inner life only upon their unfolding. At first sight recalling Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise (1935–1941), Brey’s miniature worlds cradled in layers of cardboard seem more akin to an alchemist’s tool case. Brey himself describes the boxes and “reliquaries” as Lagerstätten, a term used by paleontologists to designate geological strata that provide information on the biodiversity of a given period.