Open Studio with Jared Bowen


Cuban Artist Juan Roberto Diago & Boston Ballet's "Artifact"

Cuban Artist Juan Roberto Diago & Boston Ballet's "Artifact"

AIRED: February 17, 2017 | 0:26:46

>> JARED BOWEN: Welcome toOpen Studio,

WGBH's weekly spotlight on arts and culture

from around the region and the nation.

I'm Jared Bowen.

Coming up onOpen Studio,

the Cuban painter confronting his country's legacy of racism.

>> Somebody like him was constantly reminded

that he was a black person.

Because blackness was a way to exclude.

>> BOWEN: Then, Boston Ballet finds a new dance partner

in one of the most acclaimed choreographers working today,

William Forsythe.

>> The work is monumental.

It's also... it's a huge step forward in our art form

of classical ballet.

>> BOWEN: Plus, a young, very young, master at work.

>> When I'm looking for inspiration,

I'm looking for something deeper, something emotional.

>> BOWEN: It's all now onOpen Studio.

First up, Juan Roberto Diago is one of the most famous

and celebrated Cuban painters working today.

Which is surprising.

As a black man growing up under a regime

that long insisted racism didn't even exist,

he has screamed out against the injustice in his homeland.

This is a picture of outrage.

As a young black man in Cuba

when the country's economy collapsed,

artist Juan Roberto Diago felt he could only scream.

And that is the title of this 1997 painting.

>> Somebody like him was constantly reminded

that he was a black person,

because blackness was a way to exclude.

>> BOWEN: Alejandro de la Fuente is the curator

of this Diago retrospective

at the Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art.

It traces more than two decades of the artist's work.

For much of that time, working from the margins,

Diago confronted Cuba's racism.

>> He's like an obstinate kind of artist who...

so if people don't get it one way,

he's going to try something else

until they get it, that there is another history out there.

>> BOWEN: With the collapse of the Soviet Union

in the early 1990s,

Cuba was launched into an economic crisis

and its black population was pushed aside and left behind.

We spoke with Diago at the Cooper Gallery via a translator.

Were you trying to change things, and perceptions,

at the beginning?

(translated): Well, at first you don't have

that kind of social consciousness when you're a kid.

You don't think about that.

It's once you mature that things start to change.

My work was charged with that social content

that affected me, that affected society.

And a body of work came from that.

>> BOWEN: Was it coming from a place of anger?

>> Well, it's a scream.

Screams aren't explained, screams are screamed.

>> BOWEN: Opportunity for Cuba's black population was scarce,

especially since Fidel Castro's regime spent years

denying that racism even existed.

Diago responded through his work,

where pointed themes began to surface like scars.


Here they recall the wounds

that slaves have been subject to throughout history.

>> It's an artistic way of saying "here I am."

>> BOWEN: In what way does it epitomize your story?

>> Well, that scar is, is still an open wound.

I mean it's a scar, but it's still open, it's not closed yet.

As long as these problems, these issues remain alive,

so does that scar.

>> BOWEN: Virtually from the time he started working,

Diago has had extremely limited access to materials.

He used cement in this landscape.

Much of his work is created with objects he collects himself,

including this installation titled "Ascending City,"

which conjures the chaos of Cuba's poorest neighborhoods.

>> Whenever I step outside, I'm looking, looking, looking,

searching, trying to find something.

I take photos, I even take down the addresses

of certain places where I found something

and then I come back later with a truck

to be able to pick it up.

>> BOWEN: But his materials are not always random.

This work is done on burlap,

recalling the sacks slaves have historically used

to transport sugar and coffee.

Is it hard, is it emotional,

knowing what the significance is?

>> Of course it is, but that's what helps me create that story.

To hold that material in my own hands

takes me from that history into the present.

>> BOWEN: Far from those margins in which he first created,

today Diago is

an internationally recognized artist

and widely celebrated within Cuba,

which no longer ignores its culture of racism.

>> He, uh, forced Cuban authorities to acknowledge

that this issue is a problem

and helped create, helped legitimize, the debate.

>> BOWEN: But the debate is ongoing,

as is the country's divide, Diago says.

With the expansion of U.S.-Cuba relations, Diago is hopeful,

but says developments are not happening quickly enough.

>> (translated): In Cuban society,

unfortunately, racism is an issue still.

You see that in jobs, you see that in jails,

which are often filled with young black people.

>> BOWEN: I've interviewed several Cuban artists

who've made the choice to leave Cuba.

Why haven't you?

>> Because if we don't stay there

to change things ourselves, then things definitely won't change.

>> BOWEN: Diago's art remains as personal

as the day he started making.

Throughout his work, there is an omnipresent figure.

Its large eyes see, and they invite.

They're at once stoic and haunting.

>> It's sort of like a self-portrait.

And it has eyes, even though it doesn't speak,

or it can't speak.

But it feels.

It's a head, it's a symbol, and that's what it is.

It's me.

>> BOWEN: Next, Boston Ballet has just entered

into a partnership with famed choreographer William Forsythe.

It launches with the North American premiere

of his full-length ballet, "Artifact."

(piano music playing)

>> BOWEN: Mikko Nissinen,

artistic director of Boston Ballet, welcome.

William Forsythe, legendary choreographer of "Artifact,"

welcome, it's a pleasure to have you.

>> Thanks very much.

>> BOWEN: Tell me about "Artifact,"

which I think I've read that you've described

as, it's a ballet about ballet.

Other people have described it

as an ode or an homage to ballet.

>> Hmm.

Um, "Artifact" is sort of like a series of chapters

about, let's say, impressions of epochs.

Stylistically, um....

Let's say it evokes certain things.

In some cases it actually reconstructs

certain kinds of what we call enchaînements,

which are sequences.

There's a character that's sort of like the Academy.

He's very precise, dry, is a bit like the 18th century,

and he's almost like a diagrammatic person.

And there's someone who's more like a choreographer,

who's slightly more florid and baroque.

And then there's this other person in there

who's just pure motion.

And between the characters and the performers,

everyone tries to find a narrative balance.

>> BOWEN: And you, what I've read is you created this

in about three weeks, but you continue to...

And this was earlier on.

>> And it looked like three weeks, too.

30 years later, it looks fine.

>> BOWEN: And that's because you continue to work on it.

>> Yeah, I do, actually.

Are things you wanted to do,

back then you couldn't, you can do now.

Same thing.

Just you acquire skills as you practice.

Choreography's autodidactic.

There are no schools for it, yeah?

>> BOWEN: And so, Mikko,

you have to have a very strong company to do this piece.

It's also a very large piece.

How ambitious do you feel it is to take it on?

>> Well, the work is monumental.

It's also... it's a huge step forward

in our art form of classical ballet.

(violin music playing)

(piano music playing)

With... in such a contemporary, modern context.

It's not what you do, but how you do it.

And now, hopefully, the company has graduated to the place

where we can take the ultimate masterpieces in the world

and tackle them-- not well, but really superbly.

>> BOWEN: Now, you have... we'll talk a little bit more

about the partnership in a moment,

but you have danced Bill's--

I've asked permission to call you Bill...

>> Go right ahead.

>> BOWEN: You've danced his work.

You said it changed you when you danced it in San Francisco.

>> Yeah, it's uh...

You know, when I first started learning

his work, "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated," you know,

boy, did I try.

I probably tried too hard.

And one day, there's a rehearsal and Bill shows up.

And in one hour working on the solo,

he made all that super-hard stuff click.

And I was a different dancer.

I danced his work totally different,

loved it, and it was sort of a eureka moment for me

as a dancer and, of course,

now as an artistic director of the company,

you know, I want to share with all my dancers.

It's a dream come true.

>> BOWEN: And you've described, your dance really is

about the dancer... well, of course it's about the dancers,

but to some degree does it live and breathe with the dancers?

Does it change with them?

>> Absolutely, yeah.

You change things

because of the dancers you have in front of you.

I've changed things here.

For example, I changed the entire main section

of the last big dance in the fourth part, yeah.

Because of the dancers I have now.

And so my job is to just simply help people get

where I think they want to go.

>> BOWEN: Tell me what this partnership is.

You've now formed a five-year partnership with...

Sorry to be so fawning, but really,

somebody who's considered

one of the preeminent choreographers of our time.

So we're lucky to have him here.

What will happen?

>> Bill's work is something that I absolutely admire

as much as I admire him,

and it's an extension of classical ballet,

so what does a long-term partnership allow you to do

is to allow you to get deeper and deeper and deeper.

It's not just a one-off and we do a production,

then we focus somewhere else.

Uh, there's a thread through all these productions

that are going to come,

and by getting up to the level of opening the "Artifact,"

the experience through that, that's the expectation.

>> So people have to contemplate speaking otherwise,

yeah, with what they already know.

So I'm taking their knowledge and saying,

"Actually, it contains more than you thought."

(piano music playing)

And I try to unpack that, so they can see themselves...

not that they acquire something new from me,

but they discover something that they didn't know they knew.

>> BOWEN: Hmm.

How do you do that?

We sometimes have these images that are portrayed

of choreographers and directors who drive hard,

who are taskmasters,

almost the vision of them with the whip there.

>> Right.

They all live in Hollywood, actually.

And they've been banned to a certain part of L.A.

And they live there on a studio.

On location.

And it's, it is just such a bogus thing.

I mean, I will say that years ago,

say 30 years ago, 40 years ago,

it was that way.

And in the worst case, there are a few people

who don't have enough communicative skills

to get what they want,

and I think that's the result of...

Or actually the good thing now is that we all talk differently.

People communicate much more differently now.

And I think that the change in our society in general

has also demanded it.

>> BOWEN: And you, of course, see these dancers coming up.

Have you noticed a change in, again,

because of what they're exposed to

or just culturally, how people are taught now?

>> Well, um, yes, and it's interesting,

because everything is so available,

sometimes I feel like people don't have to seek it,

and they don't see it as much,

and therefore don't appreciate it as much.

But I... what I like

is that the music is a big part of people's lives.

It was for me.

I mean, all my dancing years-- I left my family super-early--

music was my friend.

Music was with me.

It was, like, huge part of my life.

>> I also grew up in the '50s-'60s in America,

and I did have, you know, Motown in my ear,

and that was super-important.

And I, you know, I had a fake ID and got into clubs

and tried to get up on the podium,

and, uh, even, you know, did things like that,

so I have a lot of that popular music in my background.

>> BOWEN: And you have worked...

Aretha Franklin has been...

>> My friend.

>> BOWEN: Your friend.

James Blake...

>> James Blake is my friend.

>> BOWEN: More recently.

Is... is there the same facility for choreographing

to more pop music than as you would with classical music?

And I come from a place where, you know, growing up,

I feel like that's all I ever heard.

I only ever saw dance that was to classical music and...

>> Really? >> BOWEN: Yes.

>> It was the opposite for me.

>> BOWEN: Really? >> Yeah.

I didn't even know what ballet was.

I could, you know, sing a Mahler symphony,

but ballet, I had no idea whatsoever.

I didn't start till I was 17.

But I won a lot of dance competitions, you know,

popular stuff.

The twist.

(all laughing)

>> BOWEN: Is the twist ballet?

>> Is the twist ballet?

Uh... actually, in "Artifact,"

one section, we...

one of the characters screams, "Twist, ladies!"

And, um... I think that's out of this version.

It was a bit too mean.

>> BOWEN: And speaking of music, for "Artifact,"

it was improvised... it was from your pianist?

>> It was improvised, yeah.

Eva was a concert pianist and a composer

and could basically take any theme--

in this case it was from a chaconne of Bach--

and, um, just rip.

(piano playing Bach improvisation)

We had to eventually transcribe old performances,

because, unfortunately, Eva died.

So... but we could take those and actually get them down.

But her musical nuance-- her rhythmical nuance, rather--

was extraordinary, yeah.

>> BOWEN: Before we close, I have to ask you

about the times we're in right now.

And there's a lot of conversation

about how artists are responding to these times--

what's happening around the world,

what's happening politically,

what's happening moment by moment in this country.

Will that inform how you both work going forward?

Mikko, I'll start with you.

>> Art forward.

Art has always been throughout the times, um, incredible place

to reflect on, uh, human growth,

our celebrating being human.

And, you know, like "Artifact,"

this work has changed people's lives.

It is more, more needed and more relevant than ever.

I feel that the work that we do

has become even more important for the balance.

>> BOWEN: And in terms of your work and what inspires you?

>> In these particularly turbulent times--

I hope it's not so much "time" as more "moment"--

um, I think my... or the thing I can contribute,

or that will be the most valuable,

is to model the best...

human behavioral interaction possible

in the studio.

I have to be the best person possible.

>> BOWEN: Wonderful.

Well, William Forsythe, Mikko Nissinen,

thank you both for joining us.

We appreciate it.

>> Thank you very much. >> It's been a pleasure.

>> BOWEN: Now we head to Detroit,

where we find sculptor Austen Brantley at work.

He has packed a lifetime of feeling and emotion

into his pieces, and he's only 21.

>> When Laura came in, I wanted to capture

a certain depth that I think that she has, as an actress.

I picked a pose that was sort of sad and sort of depressed,

even though my model isn't.

I picked that pose

because I wanted to convey, just in my mind I wanted to convey,

like in my series, that all these pieces have in common

is that they're sort of sad and isolated

and they're trying to understand why this is happening, why.

And they're confused, these characters are confused

because they're trying to know who they are,

trying to get out of bad situations

and live, explore what they can.

I think of, like, um, with the isolation and breaking out,

I think a lot about Detroit

because, just in general, that's where we are.

We're breaking out, we are coming out of our shells,

our cocoons,

and we are becoming culturally aware and very much expressive.

And not just arts, but everything.

>> There's something about the figure

that just we all can relate to and it's so appealing.

And to do it well is really, and with expression,

is really admirable and it's a challenge.

He's just such a young... he's so young.


I think that's the thing that flabbergasts me,

he's so young to be pulling this out and doing this.

I mean he's only 18, for Pete's sake.

And he's got, already, he's got such skills.

I mean he's not perfect yet, none of us are,

but still, what he's pulling out of the clay--

different personalities,

different emotions and expressions,

it can only get better, it's only going to get better.

>> Before sculpting, I was into athletics.

I also played the alto sax in band and stuff like that.

I was musical.

I tried everything, I just wanted

to find what I wanted to do, really.

I just played with clay a lot

when I was probably about 15 years old,

and I got in a ceramics class

and I just liked playing with the clay.

I didn't get the same satisfaction as making a pot

as I did just making a face.

There was like a... this is so new,

like a... this type of satisfaction was so rare to me,

because I've never, like... I've always been a perfectionist

but I didn't know, like, I could really sculpt.

I never knew I could sculpt.

It was, like... I looked at sculptures before

and I was, like, how are those even made?

And then I started doing it

and it's a completely weird experience, really.

>> I first met Austen

when he stepped into my ceramics class one day.

He popped his head in,

kind of waited around till there was a break,

and he came up to me and introduced himself.

And he said he was working on some sculpture

and he was wondering if I could give him some feedback

on his sculpture.

And he had three sculptures set up and it really surprised me,

it knocked me over actually,

because he is so young and his sculptures were so developed.

This was his first sculpture class, basically,

as I understood it, and I was just in awe.

>> I think at first,

I even thought it was sort of like a hobby,

and then other people did, but I sort of really thought

that it could really mean something, something different.

>> I feel that Austen has a really important role to play.

And this was made clear to me

when I went to the NCECA conference this year,

which is the conference for ceramic education in the arts.

And there's thousands of people there

and the keynote speaker is Theaster Gates,

who is a well-known sculptor, and he had an inspiring talk

where he spoke about how important the diversity is

and how we all have this calling.

I was just like... "Austen!

I know, I should bring Austen here!"

You know, we all have choices in life and he has chosen

the human figure and working with the human emotions,

and I admire him for that and it's a real gift,

and, yes, I think he has a role to play

to all young people in this.

>> When I'm looking for inspiration,

I'm looking for something deeper, something emotional.

I try and do the classic tradition,

but also mix up my own sort of style into it.

Just... I look online for source material,

or if I see a face that I think is interesting,

I'll grab that model, or I'll just draw that face,

or I'll just imagine that face when I'm sculpting,

and then I sort of put that into the clay.

Not just making a sculpture or doing a portrait,

but making a statement is one of the most important things to me.

Just as people we can find something that we really love,

it's just the satisfaction of being able

to display your thoughts in a three-dimensional form.

It's just... it's really great

that I can just sort of talk through the clay.

I get to just put everything that's in my mind

into that piece of clay.

I completed this sculpture, it's called "I Exist."

It represents American slavery

and just a human being feeling the need

to display that he exists, that... he's shouting out.

He's reaching out to show that he is here,

that he is a being, too.

Just the overall expression of it is refreshing to me.

Because it didn't even take me that long to sculpt it,

I just... the idea was so inspiring in my mind

that it was so easy.

>> That, to me, exhibits this hunger that he has

and his passion for his art and craft.

He has visited any number of well-known artists locally,

and you know, he just recently got back from Toledo

visiting an artist.

>> I met a master sculptor, his name is Woodrow Nash,

and the most memorable thing that he told me is

that the clay will reveal itself to me,

that I have to discover myself in the clay,

I have to discover my own voice in the clay,

and that I'm only limited by my own ability to create,

and when I heard that, I just, like,

it was, like, this is what I want to do,

this is where I belong.

>> I love his pieces actually in the raw state.

That's probably my favorite point

is as they are emerging out,

there's something in that that leaves, that's a mystery to it

that you also wonder about,

and I like that part of his work

where he is putting expression in, but then at the same time

he's letting the clay show,

the natural physical properties of the clay.

>> I really believe in conquering your fears

and also getting through obstacles.

Just for every person, I think-- every person has it different,

but I think every person is trying to get

where they want to in life.

And to be able to actually sculpt it out,

like when I'm actually sculpting something,

I'm sculpting my life, I'm making it.

>> BOWEN: And that is all for this edition ofOpen Studio.

Next week, it's the leading ladies

of the A.R.T.'s "The Night of the Iguana."

Amanda Plummer and Elizabeth Ashley join us.

>> What I love about this play, and all his plays demand this,

you know, you really have to listen--

listen, listen, listen, listen to each other.

>> BOWEN: Plus, to celebrate

Henry David Thoreau's bicentennial,

a photographer finds the wonder in Walden.

Until then, I'm Jared Bowen.

Thanks for joining us.

As always, you can visit us online at

And you can follow us on Twitter,



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