The workshop where Zaida del Rio works is located on top of the La Mina bar-restaurant, in Old Havana. It is a medium-sized apartment with colonial windows that faces the former City Hall, now the Museum of the City. On the walls there are some pictures hanging. Others, still fresh, rest on the easels. A photo of the Buddha Karmapa and various Indian souvenirs brought from the ancient kingdoms of Jaipur, Ashmer, and Phuskar; a banner of the Virgin of Charity of Cobre and several family pictures live along her drawings and ceramics.
The author of the colorful women-birds, angels, of enthralled or afflicted females burst into the national scene with her unique artistic personality. She has been willing to create, above all kinds of deficiencies, motivated by the surprises of life, more faithful to the present than the past and in constant communion with nature.
Cuban writer Leonardo Padura said once that you have woven a career in which "awards, accolades, success and economic prosperity have not changed one iota her essential spirit of a Cuban peasant." How do you value simplicity, humility and roots?
More than to my roots, I always try to go to my inner self through meditation. During one or two hours a day I stop to contact my inner essence. I wonder who I am, what my purpose in life is … I also love nature and it is important to maintain a free spirit and essentially focused on the intrinsic potential. This exercise makes me value myself as the same person that I was when I first saw a river or felt that I wanted to create. It’s something simple and profound that I have been working on over the years, of concentration, of experiences in different places with many people.
How do you remember your native Guadalupe, between the towns of Villa Clara Remedios, Zulueta and Camajuaní?
The farm was a very special place. When I speak about, it seems even unreal. It had so much vegetation and exotic animals! There I had a very happy childhood and youth. The town doesn’t any longer resemble the place that it was before because forest have taken over the roads, but from time to time I go back and enjoy it very much.
Why did you used to eat flowers?
I used to and I do it now. As a girl I used to say that if I ate flowers I would become beautiful inside, as if the flower came inside of me, and that would make me a better person. One gets really cute because nature is healthy and health is beauty. In the Cubanacán School of Art (current ISA) I used to eat herbs and bread when I did not like the food. Inside I must be very pretty, and that’s what I convey with my art.
You said on Havana that there is “so little healthy stuff, enough two-faced people, of appearances." Why?
I always say different things. I’m always in constant change with everything around me. Maybe I said that for some situation I was in at the time, but I have nothing against the city. Havana is the place that welcomed me, where I have nice friends, where I feel good, there are beautiful parks, a great seawall, beaches…
In your opinion, what factors led to the fact that in your beginnings as an artist you were not recognized in Cuba?
Many. First, being poor. I had no money to pay someone to help me while I created and I had few opportunities to travel to other countries to expand my knowledge, my perception on life and other cultures. Second, having my family away and the absence of a husband to support me. Third, being a woman, not because we did not have the same rights as men, but because I had to raise my child alone in adverse conditions while doing my work, and helped my parents who lived in the countryside. And fourth, the arrival in Cuba in the 1980s of new trends in art such as installations and performances broke with what artists of my generation had been doing and I could not access these resources easily.
But now you are one of the most renowned Cuban painters in the world…
It’s been a long time. But many people still do not recognize me because I am so beautiful that frighten (laughs). Most humans want to kill other people’s beauty. That’s why they killed Lorca. Beauty makes people think that everything falls from the sky. My purpose is to make physical and spiritual beauty emerge at any time and place.
What is strong suit in painting?
I think that right now I am strong in everything.
What is your favourite subject?
All. Next year I shall exhibit, for example, some marine themed pieces that are almost abstract. I will try to show them in the galleries of the Cuban Fund of Cultural Assets. And then I will exhibit them abroad.
How do you define your style?
Mixed (laughs). Styles do not exist, we are in a postmodern world and I’ve fought hard for my individual freedom.
What do you like most about Cuba?
Men… and gays, because they are more friendly than in the rest of the world (laughs). From this island I like everything: the scenery, the music, the great personalities, its people. I’ve always been willing to enjoy my country even if I have to go through the worst times. Sometimes I have postponed trips abroad because I have more fun in my country than in any other.