WOAC embraces Afro-Cuban art in exhibit

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Arts Council opened a new exhibit of paintings by Alberto Hernandez in its gallery on Jan. 5, displaying 30 canvases by the Cuban-born and Newark-raised painter, and the space came alive with Cuban music and dancing Jan. 13 as the gallery held an opening reception for the show. Curated by Andy Fernandez and Cheryl Patterson, a member of the WOAC, Hernandez’s colorful canvases illustrate the music and culture of Cuba and are on display through through Jan. 27.

WOAC Chairwoman Patricia Mitrano said in an interview with the West Orange Chronicle at the event that the arts council wanted to bring a wider audience into the gallery and introduce the space to new groups of people; Patterson agreed.

“I really wanted to bring the Afro-Cuban influences to the gallery,” Patterson said in an interview with the Chronicle at the event. “We want to represent the people who live in this area. Our gallery should represent them, too.”

Patterson met Hernandez at an art show in Newark, where she was first introduced to his art. She also comes from a Cuban background, and was immediately attracted to the colors and images in the paintings.

“I responded to the energy of it,” she said. “I’m also from an Afro-Cuban background and I realized the deeply spiritual and historical elements are the things that I’m attracted to. The bright colors just grab you.”

Located on Valley Road, the WOAC is located in the the so-called “West Orange arts district,” two doors down from Luna Stage and a few blocks away from Valley Arts in neighboring Orange. Patterson said the surrounding residential neighborhoods are full of people from places like Peru, El Salvador and other Latino countries.

“I want to really represent West Orange,” she said. “I’m looking at this huge diverse community, but at the gallery I wasn’t always seeing it. This reception was important because we want people to come in so we can say, ‘we see you, come on in, you’re welcome here.’ We’ve always been welcoming, but I think we needed an example to draw them in.”

Hernandez, who was born in Cuba and moved to Newark with his family as a child, began painting in the 1970s. For a while it was a hobby but, upon retiring three years ago, he has been able to work on his art full time. His canvases are often the size of a wall, and the WOAC gallery features as many of his paintings as could fit inside.

“It’s who I am and where I’m from,” Hernandez, who now splits time living in Belleville and the Dominican Republic, said in an interview with the Chronicle at the event. “All of it comes from my head. It’s like a fountain that ideas pour out of that I just put on a canvas.”

The biggest paintings take him approximately three days to complete and the smaller canvases take two. Now that he has the time, he paints every free moment he has from sunup to sundown.

“I like to include music and motion and colors in everything,” Hernandez said. “I want it to jump out at you when you see them. It’s all inspired from Cuba.”

Patterson said that she likes the history Hernandez includes in his art. She is able to see the influences and context that each painting contains.

“He shows the unimaginable pain that Cuba has suffered through for hundreds of years,” Patterson said. “But he also shows the people of Cuba in them. They’re so giving and loving, so when I see the work he’s showing that love. I felt goosebumps when I first saw it; I felt like I was in Cuba.”

All the 30 pieces in the WOAC show feature people, but only some of the painted figures have faces. Hernandez likes viewers to imagine the faces he leaves out of paintings because it allows them to place anything in that empty space.

Music is also an important part of his life — he plays the guitar and piano, and includes instruments and dancing in many of his paintings.

“Showing the roots of music is important to me,” Hernandez said. “It’s such a big part of the culture, so I mix them in with the people and culture.”

Photos by Amanda Valentovic