Lázaro Saavedra 
Visual artist

Lázaro Saavedra, one of Cuba's foremost conceptual artists and painters, has created a number of important works, notably Detector de ideologías (Ideology Detector, 1988) —a machine that purports to measure a person's degree of ideological acceptability. Rendering verdicts such as No Problem, Problematic, Counter-revolutionary or Heretical, Saavedra's piece was a daring breakthrough in Cuban art and political commentary. The Detector de ideologías is in the permanent collection of Cuba's Museum of Fine Arts.

Saavedra's work spans a wide range. A conceptual artist who began working with installations in the 1990s, Saavedra has added videos and digital animation to his palette, along with his comic-book-style Art Naïf paintings and graceful pen and ink drawings.

Saavedra's approach is highly theoretical: "I usually construct my works from the inside to the outside. What does that mean? I try to work on the idea, to think about that, and then to find what would be the right way to express the idea that I'm working on. Usually I'm not bothered whether it ends up as a drawing, an installation or a painting, which means that my work in a morphological sense is quite diverse."

Saavedra is a powerful man in his late 40s with a mass of black curly hair and thick eyebrows. He has been trained to become a professional artist to a degree that would be highly unusual, and even impossible, in any other contemporary Western society. His primary school, Ciudad Escolar Libertad, featured several "centers of artistic interest" that boys who tested positive for talent in dance, theater, music or art could attend every Friday. He went to a special middle school for art (this form of early art education no longer exists in Cuba). "Unfortunately," Saavedra recalls, "the teaching focused on representing things that were outside your head, still-lifes, landscapes etc, rather than on the ability to represent what was inside your head."When, after four years, he graduated, he passed an exam to attend the San Alejandro art school - a further four years - and then the Higher School of Art, a five-year degree. The final, fifth year, Saavedra submitted a thesis and received a diploma as a plastic artist.

"I think my generation, artists who were trained in the 1980s, grew up with a deformed idea of what a gallery is," Saavedra observes. "At the time we thought of them as philanthropic spaces in which an artist communicated with the public.

We didn't glimpse until much later that we needed to think of them as commercial spaces. It was a time when it didn't seem that important to create a certain type of work to sell it. People had a contract with the Cuban Fund for Cultural Goods on one hand, and on the other hand they made art, which wasn't really for sale, although maybe, more or less by chance, it sold anyway. I personally didn't develop my talent of ability to create objects that would end up being hung to decorate a wall. However, I don't have a problem with the fact that an artist needs to earn money with the art he makes, and that art work has a double character. It has an esthetic character and an economic one, which in many cases is latent and in some circumstances may disperse, but both are inherent in any art work."

In the depths of the Special Period of the 1990s when money was scarce, Saavedra produced an exhibition that was wordlessly satirical and remarkably modern. He called it Sponsor. "I had been looking at a catalogue of German art and suddenly I realized that half the pages seemed to be taken up by advertisements. I asked what that was about and someone told me these were companies who had given money to finance the exhibition, the catalogue etc. And so I developed the idea of finding a number of companies to sponsor an exhibition. And what would I paint? I would paint those companies' logos, and I would do it in the paradigm of high-art: oil on canvas. So the catalogue would function as a kind of multiple artwork, because in general an exhibition disappears and the virtual exhibition that remains is the catalogue; it interested me to displace this idea. So it was signed on the back and produced in a limited edition of 500. I was displacing the logos: they weren't hidden away in the back of the catalogue, they were the protagonists of the catalogue."

The exhibition– which was sponsored by Havana Club, among other companies – clearly sprang from Pop Art, with strong roots in Warhol and Lichtenstein, in the sense of ordinary objects becoming art by the application of paint and the artist's observation. "Something trivial enters into the category of super-estheticity," says Saavedra. It was also a powerful commentary on the commercialization of conceptual art, and something that perhaps only an artist who had not come of age in capitalism could have conceived.