EDUCULT Talks: with Reynier Diaz
EDUCULT talked to Reynier Diaz, a Cuban artist, conservator and restorer who lives and works in Vienna. He told us about the time he spent in the Netherlands before he came to Austria, about cultural differences between Cuba, the Netherlands and Austria, his experiences working as a restorer and conservator as a foreigner in Vienna, and about his future plans.
Reynier Diaz: My name is Reynier Diaz. I am a Cuban artist, but also a conservator and a restorer. I come from Havana, Cuba. I have been living here for a couple of years.
EDUCULT: My main question would be, why are you here?
Just by coincidence. I used to work at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana, Cuba. I’ve been a specialist in conservation and restoration for more than ten years. I’ve gotten in contact with someone from Austria who was very interested in Cuban Art. He was collecting paintings, sculptures, drawings, everything that was related to our culture. He came to a few specialists of the Museum to ask for help and advice. The Museum of Finest Cuban Arts in Vienna was opened a few years ago and is located in the 13 th district.
We will talk about your artistic work, but first I would like to learn more about your motivations. Why did you come to Vienna? Was it a personal decision or was it an obligation?
No, it was a choice. I also studied in the Netherlands for more than six months, by making an internship in conservation and restoration at the Maastricht Institute. For me, it was always important to get to know new languages, to open my mind, and so on.
You got out of the country because of your studies, because you wanted to learn but were you also suffering from the political situation?
No, that was not the case. Also, I am not a very political person. I prefer to see myself as a free spirit. I did not leave Cuba because I was against the institution, the system, or the government. It was just a personal issue that I felt in myself, to encourage myself as an artist.
Are you part of a brain drain of the country, especially when highly qualified people are leaving the country? We have seen that also in the Eastern parts of Europe, f.i. in Bulgaria. I think, they now have 27% less population as youth gets out and tries to find better professional circumstances.
It is not my case.
Is there any estimation? There might have been reasons therefor, that after your studies you didn’t go back.
Regarding conservation and restoration, for example, I wanted to get also to a new level of knowledge. Cuba is a small country. It is isolated by geographical borders but also political borders. I always wanted to get as much information as possible, and unfortunately sometimes in Cuba, it is difficult. I said to myself that it will be a good thing to get in touch with different kind of sources, where I might be able to learn more.
Could you imagine to go back one day?
It is always in my mind. I love Cuba, I love the Cuban food and music, the atmosphere. But at the moment, I guess there’s still more I could learn here.
You started your international career in the Netherlands. Could you give us some impression, how it was for you to be there for a longer time, working and studying?
At the beginning, when I just got there, it was a cultural shock for me, because I was not used to a different life style. I came from an island. But once I went to the Netherlands, I discovered that borders had no meaning anymore. I wanted to experience this kind of freedom and opportunities of getting to know new people, new languages, new cultures, and to open my mind as a human being. This was my goal since I was a child.
The Netherlands have a long colonial past. They are used to be with people from abroad in different relations. Have you been immediately part of the Dutch society?
Somehow yes, I felt accepted from the first moment on. Sometimes, they thought I was also Dutch. Somehow I looked like someone, who was from the Dutch colonies. Of course, after two minutes they would realize that I am not from there, but I felt very welcome from the first moment.
I was so astonished – this is a side step –, many years ago I had the chance to make an evaluation of the Amsterdam cultural policy, and the Alderman for culture at that time was of Guinean origin. I found that so extraordinary so that this mixed culture really found a representation also on the political level.
The Netherlands are very open-minded in many ways. They are pro mixed people, cultures, sexual self-determination. This is something that I admired from the beginning.
There are two options I would say, when I now see migrants that come to Austria for example from the Middle East. They are shocked because this kind of liberalism is problematic.
Because there are not used to that.
And they have to fight that. And you come from the other part of the world, and you say, it is great.
This was good for me. This was the first time, I got in touch with the European culture. After this I went back to Cuba, I continued my studies, and also graduated in conservation and restoration of Fine Arts, at the University of Arts of Cuba. After the fifth year I got my degree, Bachelor of Arts in conservation and restoration, but I have always been interested in working and painting, and creating as well.
Was it of advantage or disadvantage to come back from the Netherlands and to finish your studies? Did it help you? Was it sometimes also difficult to get back into the old circumstances?
Not really, also because it was only six months. For me, it was definitely a huge advantage which I used for finishing my degree, also for studying and having more input in the things I wanted to do in my future because it opened my mind. This is the good thing about traveling.
You mentioned that it has been a new challenge coming to Vienna. Austria is not the Netherlands, what have been your first experiences here?
When I got here, I thought that Austrian people might be as open as Dutch people. I felt that they need some time to get used to new faces, let’s call it that way. Even the language is also a limitation as well. I can speak German, but my English is better and more fluent. Austrian people need some time to see which kind of person you are. Once they get to know you, they give you their heart.
Could you say a little bit more about these kinds of difficulties at the beginning, and how they change into a warm, natural understanding? Which kind of misunderstanding is there, f.i. about language?
Sometimes humans have a different kind of rhythm. In many ways. For example, we Cubans have often a different timing related to appointments and tend to be delayed. That is just one small example of a difference. At the beginning, this was a huge thing for me to get used to. Of course, also my friends here taught me that it could be considered disrespectful. In Cuba, this is something that might not be considered as a bad thing. Sometimes the public transportation is not always on time, and it can always be used as an excuse. Here you can’t use this excuse. Is it about respecting the person and to show them the value that they have for you. Sometimes it also could be about languages, because somehow English is a neutral language that you can use everywhere, but at the same time, it is here something that can be considered as a handicap if you overvalue this language and if you don’t express yourself in German with the time. As I said, now we are talking in English, because it is fluent and better for me, but most of the time I try to speak German, because it will be better for my future as well, if I want to get accepted or get to know new people, and get to a new level of relationships.
There might be at least two levels – I know, there are many of them – one is about general understanding. You talked about attitude, about language. But there might be another approach concerning your professional life, being an artist, being a restorer. What have been your first steps here in Vienna? Have you been accepted as an artist? Is there a strong competition?
I guess, the first point is, I was accepted as a professional because I was a specialist in Cuban Art. I was lucky, just to have a job, or to just find a place, where I was supposed to bring in things I was studying in Cuba. This was my advantage. This was also my open door here to Austria as a specialist in restoration and conservation. Although I am not only able to restore Cuban arts, but also fine arts. The Cuban museum, where I was working in Cuba, has a huge collection of different kinds of artists from around the world, from the Netherlands, a Spanish collection, or even a German collection.
What would you say, is your personal relationship between being a Cuban artist or restorer, in relation to being part of the art’s world, of an international business which doesn’t rely just on one nation?
As an artist, I am always trying to come up with ideas that might not only be attached to my roots as Cuban but also might allow me to express feelings, and situations that somehow will be interesting or someone might identify with, like deep feelings, gratefulness, happiness, etc. I am not only Cuban I am also an inhabitant of this magnificent world that we might also express in many ways.
You have a cosmopolitan attitude. Is it important for your work?
I guess, it could be due also to my zodiac sign, Aquarius, so I am an open, free spirit that goes with the wind, and wants to make life a beautiful experience. Even if you are from one country, it doesn’t mean you only have to represent this and not something else, because first of all we are humans. That is why we need to express ourselves in many ways. I believe that we all come to this life to express, or to make this world better for the next generations.
Could you give me some more ideas of this Cuban museum. What are the actors around this museum?
This is a museum that opened with a collaboration of the Austrian Culture Institute and also the Cuban Ministry of Culture in Cuba. It can be visited after a telephone call because it is a private institution. But it is open to the public, for sure.
Who is the main audience?
Not only Cubans but also Austrians or anyone interested in the Cuban Culture.
I also raised this question, because I want to understand a little bit better if there is something like a Cuban community here in Austria or Vienna. We have some strong communities like the Iranian people here. Sometimes I have the impression that they are even quite segregated against the others. What are your bindings with the Cuban community and the rest of the Austrian society?
The Cuban community is quite small. I have been told that there are about 700 Cubans here in Austria. In Vienna, there might be less than that of course. Although it is a small community, it is very strong. Very often they make events, meetings and they try to keep as close as possible.
Are you an active part of the community?
I am not.
I still have contact with some of them, but sometimes I don’t really attend those events. It is not because I feel like they are not part of me; it is because I prefer to enjoy different things. Because I am Cuban it doesn’t mean, I have to be tied all the time to my roots. As I said to you, I want to get in touch with different kind of mentalities.
Are those 700 people mainly stirred by officials of the Cuban embassy, or is it just a private initiative?
Sometimes they meet through private initiatives. There is a small percentage that is related to the Cuban embassy, but it is a tiny one. Maybe I would say around 15 people, but the rest is completely private. Sometimes they are married to Austrian citizens, or because their family members came to Austria many years ago and brought them after.
You gave me the impression that your belonging to the Cuban community is less important than being part of the professional sector of restorers and artists which come from all different parts of the world.
Many times it could also be because of the mind-sets, but there are many Cubans who want to continue living in Cuba. I have nothing against that. But I would prefer to get in touch with more people who allow me to grow up as a person as well.
Is it typical for you as an artist, if you compare yourself with friends from the Cuban community to have another professional background? Is it a very personal, liberal attitude for you as an artist?
My mentality is different. I had the opportunity of traveling out of Cuba when I was very young, when I went to the Netherlands, my mind changed. Many Cubans, although they live outside of Cuba, continue believing that their country or mentality has to be the most important thing to be considered by other people. I believe it is more important to be flexible. It doesn’t mean you have to change radically, or your roots. You will always be Cuban. This is something many Cuban people are struggling with.
This brings me to the most dangerous question of this afternoon. Here in Austria, we are facing political developments which are not very much “foreign friendly”. We have this kind of migration/integration-discourse which some of us find dangerous, because it goes in the direction of polarizing and works against that, what you expressed as your philosophy. Are you in any way confronted with this kind of political approach or does it have nothing to do with your living and working situation?
Sometimes I am trying to not be involved. Unfortunately, sometimes it affects me in many ways, f.i. if I am trying to get to know professional people, they might consider that it is more difficult to accept new people or faces because of your roots. Of course, now it is more difficult than before. When I came here, it was a lot easier. This issue was not really affecting me, but now many people feel more sensitive because of this situation, it is something you feel somehow in the air. They feel or behave like if they will be threatened by foreigners.
What do you think are the reasons for this kind of development, the ideas?
I believe because the people on this continent think or might feel, that they are losing their own space. They have to share their resources, which are quite tiny or less, and someone is coming from the outside.
To put it into practice, had there been any case that an Austrian artist or restorer said: “you are taking my place, I have to defend my place against you”?
No, but I am studying now at the Universität für Angewandte Kunst because I am also trying to have a new diploma. I am already in my third year, so I will graduate in a couple of years, also in conservation and restoration. Over there you sometimes feel, not by the colleagues but by customers, you might be considered as the last option because you are a foreigner. They might prefer to bring the work they want to be preserved to a native, an Austrian restorer or conservator.
An Austrian would better understand how to restore Klimt, for example?
They believe that an Austrian will understand better how to restore it than a foreigner, for example. Although talent has nothing to do with origin.
Are there any arguments to encounter these stereotypes? What would you say to these clients?
I would say, please give me the opportunity to show my experience and practice, to show you how bad or good I can make the work, you are asking me for. Don’t prejudge me because I am a foreigner.
I am not a specialist, but I would also ask for our readers if there is something like an Austrian school of restoration that is different from the Cuban, Swedish, and so on.
The ABC is pretty much the same. It is pretty much the same all over the world. The materials here are different; we are not in contact with the new materials in Cuba. And also the talent itself, I would say, is even greater in those places, where you may not have all the possibilities because you are supposed to be more creative about the way of restoring or approaching a different kind of project.
When you talked about this new spirit in these prejudices mainly against foreigners – is there any job to do? What can you do, what can I do to minimize that? Is there anything, or do you just have to face it and be confronted with that?
I guess, my suggestion to this kind of people who have those prejudices will be to just give the people the chance, the opportunity to show their qualities and professionalism. This is my only advice, equal chances for everybody.
Are you in any way frightened about this actual political course which we can see all over Europe during these days, or do you think this will go away as it has come sooner or later?
I mean, I don’t feel any kind of fear because of this, but I do believe that it might stay for some time, for some years, because the waves of immigration continue, and it is something we have already seen for about four years more or less. I guess, to have a choice or the alternatives for the people in their countries, the possibilities of a better life, will be the solution. But there are many things, many political and social issues, their governments don’t want to face. Borders will become more and more important because people might want to keep their space from somebody else.
In the end, I would like to come back to your artistic work. What are your artistic plans? Where do you want to stand in the next five years?
I love to create, to give people alternatives through my work as an artist, to give them ideas, or just confronting things with a positive approach. This is what I want to do. Maybe being part of different projects with Austrians or people around the world as an artist, and also using different kind of media, not only bi-dimensional issues but also three-dimensional like sculptures. Right now I have one personal exhibition at the Design Gallery. The exhibition will be open until the 28th of August.
As far as I understood, you tried to put your professional life at least on two feet, one is about restoration and one is about creative artistic work. Can you balance that?
Yes, I do can balance this, because creating is my passion, my hobby. Restoring is something that I also love because I believe that restoration allows you as a human being to share and preserve the things that are already done for the future generations.
Do you have a plan, or are you also open-minded in this respect that you will find your way, and that there will always be opportunities for you to learn, to work, and to practice?
I want to be able to balance these two worlds, conservation and restoration, and also my creative and personal work as an artist. I guess I will be able to do both at the same time.
We are working in the fields of art education, and therefore the position of arts and culture in school and education. Could you give us some insights of what is happening in this respect in Cuba? Is there a good arts education provision there? Would you play a role in Cuba, working together with young people?
I would love to. In fact, that is something else I always kept in my mind. I want to be involved in the future generation; I would love to help them to create a new philosophy. Sometimes they need new insights; they are surrounded by the water, by political issues, and sometimes by the very narrow-minded ways of thinking.
But in your school career, did culture play any role in your school curriculum? Did that also influence your professional plans?
I think so. Just studying fine arts in Cuba opened my mind and developed my character in many ways as well. Of course, my education played a huge role in my way of seeing life.
Is there anything we missed, and that you want to bring in to our conversation? Is there something you want to mention?
I guess, we talked about so many things, but I want to say: just invite people to get in touch more with foreigners as well, get them the chance to collaborate, to interface as well, to act, and don’t be afraid of getting in touch with new cultures. This might bring a lot of evolution and also progress.
You embody this in a certain way when you had this kind of experiences yourself. So you are not just talking theoretically, but this is the representation of your own experience.
I guess, I am a human representation of my thoughts and also this kind of arguments and manifestations. Just be free, open-minded, and believe that new people, philosophies, and also new cultures are not something to be afraid of, but something to embrace. Change is not a bad thing, it is something positive.
Now I am provoked to ask you, is there also a danger in this kind of thinking and acting?
The danger will be if you don’t know yourself enough. But if you are aware of whom you are, you might not be afraid of this, because in your core you know exactly that your mind doesn’t change.
Thank you so much. I enjoyed very much your positive attitude and your thoughts. I think this will also be important for our colleagues.
Thank you for the invitation and the opportunity to share with you my thoughts, plans, and approaches in life.