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


When CNN failed to broadcast footage of Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada’s massive land portrait of Barack Obama – planned to coincide with the 2008 US presidential election – the artist figured he must be doing something right.

“The piece never made it to air. Some senator said something incredibly important that had to be reported on instead. Coincidence? I don’t know. I always thought it was a little fishy.”

Rodríguez-Gerada admits he “got it in all directions” for the image of Obama’s face, which evokes a pop-art style and was made with 650 tons of sand and gravel over 2½ acres. “Politicians on the right came at me because I hadn’t chosen one of them. Those on the left came at me – well, because they hate everything American,” he says with a wry laugh.

The Cuban-American artist chose Barcelona for his Obama extravaganza not only because the city had become his adopted home, but to “show that this election would have an impact all over the world”.

Like the sand mandalas of the Buddhist tradition, it has since faded with the wind and the weather. That’s part of the point, according to its creator. “It was a response to the huge outpouring of hope and expectation that Obama stirred up,” he explains. “The world was in such a bad place; people really wanted a hero.

“To me that was the interesting thing about the election that the news channels should have been discussing. Instead, they were talking like it was all about this one man, saying he was ‘more famous than Britney Spears’.

“By making his face into an icon I was questioning that tendency. By using sand, I was deliberately making the image impermanent – a premonition, I suppose, that all that hope and euphoria would disappear like sand being blown around a beach.”

New York movement
Since his early days as a pioneer of the “culture-jamming” movement in New York City, Rodríguez-Gerada has been a socially aware, political artist, which is perhaps part of the reason he has been chosen as the first artist-in-residence at the Belfast Festival at Queen’s, a post that has seen him transform five acres in the city’s Titanic Quarter into one of the largest slices of land art ever made.

His Identity series featured anonymous, charcoaled faces staring out from unprepossessing gable ends in cities as diverse as Ljubljana, Buenos Aires and Amsterdam. These ordinary faces – although they invariably looked soulful and beautiful, as rendered by the artist – were meant to question our media culture, our definitions of beauty, and how much an individual’s life is worth in terms of the global marketplace.

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 [1965] 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.”

Rodríguez-Gerada doesn’t believe his social conscience has got much to do with his Cuban heritage. He says it is more closely related to how he got caught up, as a young man, in the counter-culture of 1980s Manhattan.

“It was an incredibly vibrant time,” he remembers. “When I was a student in Manhattan, it was this intense melting pot; everyone was from somewhere else. All that creative energy had to go somewhere.”

Guerilla street art
As a leading member of the Artfux collective, Rodríguez-Gerada spearheaded a guerrilla style of street art whereby billboard advertisements were altered in witty and thought-provoking ways. He was particularly drawn to the hoardings that hawked cheap cigarettes and “get drunk quick” booze in underprivileged areas.

One such ad for cigarettes shows a leather-clad dude winking over his shoulder at the camera, his arm around two young lovelies. It’s a nostalgic, 1950s-style image, but after Artfux got to it, the dude had a new slogan on his biker jacket: “Rebel without a lung.”

Despite the relative success of culture-jamming – the NYC media lapped it up and Naomi Klein devoted a chapter of her book No Logo to it – Rodríguez-Gerada could see its limitations, and he graduated on to a more artistic and poetic way of making social statements, of which Wish is the latest example.

Now, he also has more everyday concerns. As a father, Rodríguez-Gerada found himself faced with a stark choice, when his eldest son, who is now 13, was diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder as a young child. He was on a cocktail of drugs in New York and the prognosis was bleak. “He was basically dying on us,” he recalls. “For us to have taken him off his meds to try some alternative treatment would probably have meant the authorities taking him away from us. So we moved to Barcelona, where there were pioneering therapies available. Within a very short space of time he was much better.”

Work on Wish is ongoing. The piece will be officially unveiled on October 17th and available for viewing from specified vantage points for the duration of the Belfast Festival. The artist is hoping as many people as possible will get involved in its creation, including those with special needs. “You don’t need to have any artistic ability,” he insists. “Can you do a bit of physical work? Do you like meeting new people? Just come and join the party.”

Volunteer through belfastfestival.com or track the project through Twitter #BelFest. belfastfestival.com