Titanic portraits: from Barack Obama to the girl of Belfast city
Cuban-American artist Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada made a name for himself with a huge land portrait of Obama. Now he is making his mark on Belfast’s Titanic Quarter
In recent years, Rodríguez-Gerada has settled on large-scale, terrestrial images as his signature style. For his Belfast commission, called Wish, he has already picked the young girl whose face will be visible from space, depicted in grass, soil and incremental tones of hay.
As with all of his land art, it is a team effort, with the artist supervising scores of local volunteers, while the expensive stuff – diggers, cranes and the high-tech GPS poles that help transpose the image from a satellite – are sponsored by public and private funds.
Rodríguez-Gerada seems delighted to have been invited to Ireland, not least because he realises the importance of street art in a city such as Belfast, where working-class neighbourhoods routinely announce their allegiances through gable-end murals.
His politics, however, is all about the bigger picture: “It was very important for me that the viewer has no idea if this girl is Catholic, Protestant, or other,” he says. “She is simply a beautiful child, her eyes staring out at the future, full of joy.”
The Belfast girl
The artist spotted the girl walking with her mum and dad while he was researching in Belfast, earlier this summer. After explaining his idea to her parents, they were “totally on board, as long as their daughter’s anonymity will be protected”.
The Belfast gig may be Rodríguez- Gerada’s introduction to Ireland and the UK, but contested spaces are nothing new to him, given his early childhood in Cuba and his family’s struggle to flee Fidel Castro’s regime. His parents were moderately successful business people, dealing in clothes retailing and cash-register repairs.
“Then one night,” he says, “some people came to their workplace with machine guns and said, ‘This is the property of the state’ and they locked away all their stuff. It’s not even as if they sold it or used it for anything else – they just let everything rot. It was such a waste.
“My father was very disillusioned. That was the year that Che Guevara disappeared  and a lot of the other freedom fighters started dropping off like flies, and he said to himself, ‘This is not what we signed up to’.
“He applied for a visa to leave, and was told he would have to work on a sugar-cane plantation for three years. So that’s what he did. He said it was like a concentration camp, but he stuck it out. He didn’t see his family for three whole years, but in 1970, he got his paperwork and we emigrated to New Jersey and started a new life.”