Ricardo Brey transforms old into contemporary art

In the exhibition ‘Gap in the clouds’ at the Hof van Busleyden Museum in Mechelen, the Cuban artist Ricardo Brey shows how inventively he fuses past and present into contemporary art.

It is almost already blue what you see in the basement of the Museum Hof ​​van Busleyden. On the wall, in the showcases. In different shapes and shades, but the valuable lapis lazuli stands out the most. Blue is blue in English. “But in my work here, it does not mean sad or melancholy,” says Cuban artist Ricardo Brey (67). “It’s the blue of the sky, the blue of the planet,” he says.

The link to the title ‘Gap in the clouds’ is quickly made. For the exhibition, curated by Koen Leemans, Brey has created new works in various shapes and sizes over the past two years, trapped by the closures of his studio. Brey is a painter and collector of large and small objects, attracted to history and science. In the catalog he writes poetry.

Brey grew up in Cuba. The late Jan Hoet brought him to Belgium in the early 1990s, where he still lives and works. “I have no nostalgia for Cuba, not at all.”

Hoet brought Brey to the five-year art festival Documenta in Kassel in 1992, where many artist careers are launched. It was no different for Brey. After SMAK (2006) and M HKA (2015) he now exhibits in Mechelen. At first glance, it seems strange. Museum Hof ​​van Busleyden is fully committed to the connection between Mechelen and the Burgundian era. Mostly ancient art. But there are also connections to contemporary art. This is called transhistorical perspectives.

‘Red Glider’, old but at the same time modern.

The essence

  • ‘Gap in the clouds’ is a new solo exhibition by Cuban artist Ricardo Brey.
  • He has lived in Ghent since the 1990s and was discovered by Jan Hoet.
  • Brey has created new works of art for the new exhibition during the lockdown over the past two years.
  • He makes installations and paintings.
  • In Mechelen, he transforms some old works of art into 2022.

Brey has a bit of a problem with the term transhistoric. It seems as if he is adding elements to the ancient art. In Mechelen, these are three centuries-old pieces from the collection he began working on. »I do not want to enter into a dialogue with those works. I turn them into new, contemporary works of art. That’s a significant difference. ‘

One of them is ‘Red Glider’. In a cavity near the heart of a 15th-century wooden relic bust of Saint Barbara, Brey placed a red African butterfly, the cymothoe sangaris (red glider). ‘The people at the museum were a little hesitant at first. So what do you do with our image ?, they asked. They do not have to worry. After the exhibition I remove the butterfly and the sculpture is back as it was. Just as ice turns to water again when you thaw it. ‘

There is great symbolism in ‘Red Glider’. According to African tradition, the butterfly provides energy for the wooden bust. She also symbolizes transformation. That’s exactly what happened to Saint Barbara in Cuba. The Conquistadors brought her to America. Barbara, depicted in red robes, protected them from sudden death. The imported slaves from Africa made their own version of Barbara. Their deity Shango dressed as a woman in red clothes to escape from her enemies. To this day, Barbara and Shango are celebrated together on December 4 in Cuba.



There seems to be an old master at work. Or an alchemist that Brey is sometimes compared to.

Much of the exhibited art is in display cases. To that end, Brey collected several items – ‘I go to many flea markets’ – and collected them in an artful way, often in unfolded, painted collection boxes. You have to look long before you really see all the details. There seems to be an old master at work. Or an alchemist that Brey is sometimes compared to. It is fascinating how he also transforms banal objects into art. On the wall, abstract paintings – in addition to blue also in fiery red – usually correspond to the display cases. “I paint very intuitively, it does not require long thought,” he says.

The open garden door, two botanical books pushed together.

At the end of the exhibition, the installation ‘The open garden door’ has been set up. It consists of two botanical books pushed together. The first is a facsimile of ‘Cruydt-Boeck’ by the Mechelen doctor Rembert Dodoens. It appeared in 1554. The other is ‘El Monte’ by the Cuban botanist Lydia Cabrera. She wrote her encyclopedia on Afro-Cuban culture, plants and medicine in 1954. After the revolution, it was promptly banned because it did not fit with Fidel Castro’s idea.

‘Years ago, when it was back in stores in Cuba, 2,000 people stood in line. It’s so important, ‘says Brey. Between the pages of the old book he placed torn pages of the Spanish reference book. Once again, the cross-pollination between European and African-American culture has been merged into a contemporary work of art.

‘Gap in the clouds’ runs until 28 August at the Museum Hof ​​van Busleyden in Mechelen.

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