José Garcia (“Pepe”) Montebravo was one of Cuba’s truly great self-taught artists, populating his canvases with his famous “Infanta” women, with Afro-Cuban deities, and with winged creatures both human and animal. In many of his paintings turtles, lizards, roosters, blackbirds, fish, dogs, suns and moons intersect with other-wordly characters in human form. The titles of his works are as mysterious and multi-layered as the pieces themselves: Stew of Fantasies, Confused Situation, Time Trapped, Hazards of Memory….
My husband and I met Montebravo in 2005 when we first came to Cienfuegos, his home city. He lived in a comfortable house with his mother, Teresa, right on the city’s charming central park, Parque José Martí. There he would paint in his bedroom, laying canvas or paper on the floor or across his bed. That was his atelier.
By then Montebravo was a well-known painter. Foreign buyers flocked to his house, and his works were in collections all over the world. We loved his vibrant canvases and his delicate watercolors. We went to see him once or twice a year until 2009, the year he fell seriously ill. The last time I saw him was in a hospital in Havana in December of that year. He was in good spirits and confident that his health was on the mend. He could not wait to get back to work. While I was there, Teresa called, and we ended up chatting for quite some time. I never saw Montebravo again. He died of cancer a few months later, in the summer of 2010.
Years later we visited Cienfuegos again and looked up several of Montebravo’s artist friends. I asked about Teresa and I was told she was doing fine. Over strong cups of coffee she told us all about her son’s funeral which was a public event in Cienfuegos, and about the outpouring of support from friends, neighbors and fellow artists. She even had a video of the funeral which we all watched together. When we said our good-byes she insisted we go to the cemetery to visit “Pepe’s” grave. You must see his headstone, she said with motherly pride. His friends made it for him!
After a forty-minute walk we reached the outskirts of Cienfuegos, and the cemetery. The guard on duty led us directly to the grave. It was at the edge of the cemetery, in the back, facing the open fields. The big family vault has a traditional cross on top, and a very unusual one in front of the tomb: A big cement sculpture of two fat lizards and two turtles intersecting at the center of a cross, as if to form the cardinal points of a spirit world. Yet the most interesting piece is behind the massive tomb. Montebravo’s headstone is a huge slab of cement that is the crowded canvas where all of his avatars mingle, like at a family reunion. There is an “Infanta” figure surrounded by a rooster, a blackbird, fish, lizards and turtles, a half-moon and, of course, a winged human figure. All this action plays out in this otherwise empty, sun-baked graveyard beyond the edge of town.
Here is a video about the making of Montebravo's tombstone.
I haven’t been back to Cienfuegos since then but I like the idea that when the painter was put in his resting place, all his creatures came with him to keep him company and to play on his grave.
Please see works by this artist on this website.