When he escaped from Cuba, he smuggled several oil paintings with him. José Antonio Pantoja Hernández, called "Pantoja" by many, has dedicated his life's work to depicting the hardship of life in Cuba.
"I need to do this for my people," Pantoja said. People ask him why his paintings are so sad. He fills his canvases, which he's handcrafted from burlap in some cases, with the austere and starving faces of Cubans suffering under the weight of dictatorship.
"I was angry," he said. "I wanted to pull out those feelings, that bad energy."
On Friday, June 1, Pantoja will show the paintings he smuggled from Cuba alongside new works and installations in his North American debut. The art show, called "The Deterioration of Nostalgia," will be held at Theatre Tulsa, 207 N. Main St., from 6-9pm.
Pantoja has been in the US for a little more than a year. He left Cuba and sought political asylum in Tulsa. Recently, he celebrated his first birthday in the US, surrounded by new friends. He left his entire family, his girlfriend, everyone behind in Cuba. He misses his people, but is happy to have found freedom.
"For 15 years, I was planning my escape," Pantoja said. "I'm happy that I'm here. These paintings were waiting for a long time to be shown to the world."
He described the moment the plane took off, the plane that flew him from the island of Cuba, finally, last year. For Cubans, Pantoja said, the airport is more like a "portrait," nothing more. The government of Cuba, he explained, doesn't let its citizens come and go. "For Cubans, to see the airport is to see frustration," he said. "You see the airplane flying and you think, 'One day I will be able to take that.'"
He said there aren't words to describe the taste of freedom he experienced as an airplane flew him away from Cuba on June 6, 2011. "I wish the people here could feel [the same sensation] to understand. ... It's like being in jail and one day you get your freedom. That was my whole life. Forty years in jail."
Eight of the paintings Pantoja will show on June 1 were completed in Cuba and smuggled, curled into careful tubes, into the US. The rest of his work is kept by Pantoja's family in Cuba. "I couldn't carry any more with me," he said.
As a classically trained woodworker, Pantoja doesn't know how to use power tools. Instead, he also smuggled a set of 1930s-era chisels that allowed him to make a living as a woodcarver in Cuba. "An old master in Cuba died and gave them to me," Pantoja said. "These chisel sets, they are the best. You can't find it here."
Pantoja picked up painting to express the frustrations and sadness of his fellow Cubans. "I paint not for me," he said. "I paint for my people. I do this for the freedom of my people.
"Not just for fun, not for nothing. For the freedom of my people," he said. "I was lucky to escape from there. They are still there in jail.
"All my friends, even my girl is there. I need to do this for them, not only for me," Pantoja said.
He describes his work as surrealistic, heavy on symbolism, dripping with meaning. His paintings are filled with protruding rib cages, starving skeletons, wrinkled brows, people wasting away, trapped, sad.
He bought paintbrushes on the black market to portray the life he saw in Cuba. Pantoja also makes his own canvases out of burlap and plaster he mixes himself. "My father is a farmer, and he uses a lot of burlap," he said.
With artistic materials scarce or too expensive, Pantoja began to use leftover burlap to stretch across frames, which he then covers with his homemade plaster mixture. Even though art supplies are readily available in Tulsa, Pantoja still mixes his own plaster, uses his 80-year-old chisel set, stretches burlap across wooden frames. But he's also learning to enjoy the pleasures of American life, and of Tulsa.
Pantoja's favorite store is the eclectic Golden Pawn, 1319 S. Peoria Ave., which is filled with the reasonably priced accoutrements of American life. Chainsaws and wrenches sit alongside rows of car parts and tools; a motorcycle is parked near the guitars and CDs and vintage jewelry.
He also likes to frequent Fassler Hall for live music. "I used to hear, my whole life, rock music and country music," he said. "It made me feel free when I hear that.
"I wish, when I hear that music, I wish to be in that place. So look at me here," he laughed.
He likes to go down to Lambruzco's on Saturday nights to listen to country music. Pantoja's passion is motorcycles. He said his last dream come true would be to own a Harley Davidson. "I wish to get one. It is my last thing," he said. "A shiny motorcycle. Harley Davidson."
Pantoja always wanted a motorcycle when he lived in Cuba because transporting his paintings from his little village to Havana (the capital of Cuba) was difficult and time-consuming. "I was trying to find something always to carry my paintings," he said. But he said the Cuban government refused to allow Cuban citizens to buy good motorcycles. The ones on the island were to be sold only to tourists, he said. Once, Pantoja sold a painting to a German tourist. He asked the man to pay him for his artwork by finding him a motorcycle to take his paintings back and forth from Havana to his village. But the government discovered the man's plot and blocked the purchase.
Motorcycles "are not allowed for Cubans. Hate, hate, hate inside me," Pantoja said.
He said the government is now loosening its rules on Cuban citizens, but not enough. "They give you opportunity for business, to buy a car. But most important is the freedom, and they don't do that," Pantoja said. "This is most important point -- When? They always make promises. 'We promise, we promise, we promise,' but the most important promise is freedom. And they don't do it."
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