Cuban Artist Yoan Capote Channels Hemingway’s Allegory, The Old Man and the Sea

Cuban Artist Yoan Capote Channels Hemingway’s Allegory, The Old Man and the Sea

In Cuba, artist Yoan Capote says, “the sea is a symbol for hope, but it’s also a symbol for a trap, for tragedy.”

Applying thousands of nails to plywood to create a series of seascapes, Capote’s hands were bloodied, yet there is a benthic quality to the works that conveys both beauty and treachery to the viewer. “It’s symbolic of myself as an artist,” he says, “but also a condition of the whole of [Cuban] society.”

The artist’s Isla and Palangre series, two related, ongoing bodies of work of seascapes are on display at Jack Shainman Gallery.

Bounded by the Atlantic Ocean in the North and the Caribbean Sea in the South, the sea has been tightly linked to identity for the island nation’s inhabitants since Christopher Columbus landed there in 1493 and stated, “The goodliest land that eye ever saw, the sweetest thing in the world.”

In Hemingway’s book, Old Man and the Sea, an allegorical novella about an aging Cuban fisherman named Santiago, apparently contradictory elements in the writing are often depicted as aspects of one unified whole. For example, the sea is kind and cruel, feminine and masculine, the Portuguese man of war is beautiful but deadly, the mako shark is noble but cruel, etc.

Hemingway, a U.S. citizen, was a resident of Cuba for most of his adult life.

by Joan Capote. Isla (see-escape). 2010. Oil, fish-hooks and nails on panel of jute and plywood.

The fact that Santiago’s fishing requires both calm detachment and violent engagement further illustrates the unity of Hemingway’s world which both oppresses man and out of which emerges the seed of strength to resist that oppression.

Yoan Capote, Isla (Tierra Prometida), 2016, oil, nails, and fish hooks on linen mounted on panel.

As the title of the book suggests, the sea is central character in Hemingway’s novella. Most of the story takes place on the sea, and Santiago is identified with it and its creatures – or juxtaposed against it. His sea-colored eyes are a reflection of both the sea’s tranquillity and its fierce, capricious power.

The same personification is at work with Capote’s art. It’s an invitation to turn inward – to frame a worldview that is temporal, psychological and social. Like Hemingway’s novella, Capote’s art functions as it own world.

The sea is a metaphor for Hemingway’s interiority and psyche, his capacity as an artist to explore the nature of humanity. From the sea springs Hemingway’s core belief, “Man is not made for defeat….A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”

Yoan Capote, Isla (El Alba), 2010/2011, oil, nails, and fish hooks on jute on panel, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Hemingway draws a distinction between two different types of success: outer, material success and inner, spiritual success. A heroic and manly life is not just one of inner peace and self-sufficiency; it requires constant demonstration of one’s worthiness through noble action.

Yoan Capote cuban artist

Yoan Capote, Isla (After Bocklin), Detail, 2016. Oil, nails and fish hooks on linen mounted on panel. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Here is where Capote’s construction technique represents an outward manifestation of Hemingway’s credo about actions defining interior character traits. Using hooks to construct the art penetrates at a visceral level and contrasts with the softer visual qualities of the seascapes, a liquefaction of hope against the steely permanence of the metal hooks. Fear of death and pain are powerful common binders between human beings, and viewers are invited in to see Capote’s Cuban vision.

I wanted to use thousands of fishhooks to create a surface that would be almost tangible to the viewer upon their approach; this would become the tactile experience of standing in front of a metal fence. The fishhook itself is an ancient tool that has kept its design for centuries and which is also symbolic of seduction and entrapment.

“These paintings are the interior sea of every human being, the psychological seascape that every person in Cuba has,” Capote says.

Hemingway sitting in the Pilar

Ernest Hemingway sitting in his fishing boat, the Pilar. Photo credit: JFK Library, Boston.

In 1953, The Old Man and the Sea was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and it was cited by the Nobel Committee as contributing to their awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Hemingway in 1954.


Capote has been the recipient of numerous awards including International Fellowship Grant from the Guggenheim Foundation (2006), a UNESCO Prize (2000), a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant (2006), a Vermont Studio Center Fellowship (2002), and a residency at the Brownstone Foundation in Paris (2003). A monograph of Capote’s work, with contributions by Hans-Michael Herzog, Danielle Knafo, Nelson Herrera Ysla, Alex Rosenberg, Magda González-Mora, and Charmaine Picard was recently published by Skira.

Cuban Artist Yoan Capote Channels Hemingway’s Allegory, The Old Man and the Sea was last modified: February 14th, 2017 by Simons Chase

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