Artists

Fishhook Seascape: What Yoan Capote Speaks through his Isla series

Jane Lee | July 9, 2019

The 105 miles of waters from Havana to the Florida Keys have beguiled a myriad of suffering souls. Overloaded boats and shabby rafts carried exiles and refugees fleeing from the adversities under the Castros to the Land of the Free. However, the seemingly serene waters amidst the two worlds turned out to be an unforgiving beast in disguise, drowning eighty thousand Cubans since the 1960s. Despite the tragedies in the migrant history, Cubans still embark on the dangerous journey, believing the risk is worth for an exchange with freer life.

Yoan Capote, Muro de Mar (Seawall), 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Galleria Continua (photo by Nestor Kim).

The sea is the ultimate boundary that separates lands, ideologies, generations and families for Cubans. Enclosed by the sea, one would imagine the world beyond the horizon and soon be frustrated by his or her immobility. Yoan Capote, a Cuban artist, recalls the same experience. For Capote, the sea without doubt “represents the seductiveness of these dreams, but at the same time danger and isolation.”(i) His experience and contemplation on this duality have been visualized through his Isla series (‘Island’ in Spanish) since 2007. Each Isla painting seems like an ordinary seascape from a distance, but up close the sea is a violent cluster of fishhooks, reminding of the Iron Curtain. It may not be a complete coincidence that Capote believes his art should ultimately draw a connection with his viewers. In fact, his childhood frustration perhaps has been compensated through his growth into an international artist, presenting his works worldwide. A question then arises: with his oeuvre rooted in the history of the isolated island, how does this Cuban artist connect with his viewers who have grown more international than ever?

To better understand, we need to trace the sources of inspiration in Capote’s artistic journey. One notable source is Carl Jung’s collective unconscious - the shared unconscious mind of humankind that has been inherited over the course of history. According to Jung, how individuals feel, think, and behave is influenced by the collective past of mankind, as opposed to what is acquired from one’s own past. With this understanding of universality in human psyche, Capote draws a connection to his viewers from the isolated Cuban history through the use of human sensibility:

“I want to expand my daily concerns through a human sensibility because the human sensibility itself is an international language.”(ii)

Capote simultaneously is cautious towards identity exoticism. It is his conscious effort to speak for human condition by balancing between personal and collective experiences. He starts with writing down a title that encapsulates a particular emotional or psychological state drawn from the two sets of experiences. The formulated title, or the idea within, then determines every other element such as the medium of the work. Working in this reverse order helps him better translate his idea into a form that resonates with the viewers.

Yoan Capote, Isla (Rojo), 2014, Oil, nails and fishhooks on linen panel on plywood, 96 x 125 x 7 cm. Courtesy of the artist
Yoan Capote, Isla (Nada), 2015, Oil, nails and fishhooks on linen panel on plywood, 102 x 128 x 11 cm. Courtesy of the artist

Capote constitutes the language of human sensibility with archetypal images. The sea of fishhooks is a combination of those “symbolic of seduction and entrapment”(iii), in which the artist refers back to the ancient hunting practices, traditional Cuban fishing tools, and the history of Cuban migration. Also for the self-proclaimed conceptual artist, it may not be peculiar that his work process carries similar significance. A group of assistants repetitively and arduously piercing a hard surface with fishhooks is a microcosm of the Cuban obsession the artist has observed: “It’s a social piece, talking about a social situation.”(iv)

Let’s take a look at the Isla series again. All the seascapes are meant to be aligned in a single horizon when displayed. However, each swell in varying dynamics and the sky changes its color reflecting the subtitles of each work. Isla(Nada) (2015) has waters swelling placidly and the sky in pitch-black, whereas the sea in Isla(Rojo) (2014) agitates under the strikingly red sky. The sentiments differ, but all the horizons are pushed up to create infinite depth in the pictorial spaces. Then there is Muro de Mar(Seawall) (2018), which precisely showcased at the 12th Gwawngju Biennale last year (Imagined Borders (September 7 - November 11, 2018)), that adds an overwhelming monumentality from seven concrete panels. Whatever emotions these seascapes evoke, the viewers eventually realize that they have become an isolated island on their own, trapped by the threatening fishhooks they notice up close.

Yoan Capote, Muro de Mar (Seawall), 2018, 7 concrete panels, wood, metal structure, nails and fishhooks, each panel dimension 272 x 150 x 30 cm. Installation view at the 12th Gwangju Biennale, Imagined Borders Ⓒ Yoan Capote / Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, and Ben Brown Fine Arts / Image courtesy of Gwangju Biennale Foundation.

Like the fish that rose to the bait, like the souls beguiled by the land across, we are reminded how we all are lured into many things - goods, people, and dreams. Some are dangerous, some are hardly attainable, but those are the most attractive ones. Knowing the risk and the impossibility, we suppress our desires, but they ironically bounce back to hold our minds captive. We all once have had, or at least have encountered potentially destructive obsessions in our own spheres. These lure, entrapment and the following emotional experience are where Capote draws a connection between us and his art.

On that account, Capote is probably right. The human sensibility itself is an international language. Borders, political ideologies and historical pathways may separate us from one another. Nonetheless, we still discover commonalities within that isolation, and Capote’s sea of fishhooks knock on our reservoir of shared memories.


Yoan Capote was born in 1977 in Pinar del Río, Cuba. He graduated and served as a professor at the Higher Institute of Art (ISA), Havana from 2001 to 2003. He currently lives and works in Havana, Cuba.

Yoan Capote's selected solo exhibitions include Territorial Waters (2019), Ben Brown Fine Arts, Hong Kong, China; Palangre (2017), Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, USA; Isla (2015), Ben Brown Fine Arts, London, UK; Yoan Capote: Collective Unconscious (2015), Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, USA; Fonemas y Morfemas II (2012), with Iván Capote, Galería Habana, Havana, Cuba. He participated in various group exhibitions and international biennales, including Baggage Claims (2019), Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, USA; Imagined Borders (2018), Gwangju Biennale, Gwangju, South Korea; Cuba Ficción y fantasia (2015), Casa Daros, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His works are also in the permanent collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA; Beelden aan Zee Museum, The Hague, The Netherlands; and many more.

(i) Yoan Capote: Territorial Waters, 2019, Ben Brown Fine Arts, Hong Kong. (exhibition catalogue)
(ii) Hoban, Phoebe, “Yoan Capote: Beauty and the Bite.” http://yoan-capote.com/en/texts/reviews/yoan-capote-beauty-and-bite
(iii) Yoan Capote: Territorial Waters, 2019, Ben Brown Fine Arts, Hong Kong. (exhibition catalogue)
(iv) Sheets, H., “Forging a Sea of Iron: Yoan Capote Explores the Cuban Obsession with America,” Artnews, June, 2015. http://www.artnews.com/2015/06/03/yoan-capote-explores-the-cuban-obsession-with-america

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