The street kid who became an artist
- Oct 18
- 20 mins
Anyone who is close to her will tell you that watching her create is a work of art in itself, whether it is a floral installation, a large canvas or a performance for her video art experiments. Her studio is the scene of thousands of creative battles, where paint flows like water and scaffolding is as indispensable as brushes or cameras. This swarthy woman, with her long, unruly hair, dressed almost always in black and barefoot, is Lita Cabellut, a mercurial artist who has used transgression and the overstepping of bounds to create her own unique style that blends fresco with photography to reveal interior worlds that transcend express reality, along with the contradictions of our times and the scars left by life, because Lita Cabellut’s biography runs the gamut of extreme emotions, from pain and humiliation to ecstasy.
“We need leaders who are spiritual, intelligent and wise, to remind us how important it is to be good people”
She was born in 1961 and lived on the street until she was twelve. She never knew her father. Her mother was a gypsy who lived on the fringes of the world of prostitution and abandoned her very quickly. The closest she had to a household was with her grandmother, who was barely able to scrape by, and so Lita’s home was on the streets of the Raval, and her family were the scurrilous denizens of the underworld that was the most rundown neighbourhood of the port city that was Barcelona. When she was ten, her grandmother died and she was sent to an orphanage. However, her luck changed drastically two years later when she was adopted by a well-off family. The clouds parted for her then and she began to bloom as an artist. Her adopted family supported her with the art studies and training that she needed. She had her first show before she turned seventeen, that the Mataró Town Hall, but the real turning point came when she enrolled at the age of nineteen at the Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, the city where she continues to live and create at the age of fifty-seven.
Both on your web page and in the heading of your Twitter account, where you define yourself for others, you say “I am more than a painter, I am a storyteller”. What do you mean by that?
I have always wondered what an artist’s duty is and I have always thought, or at least this the burden that I have always placed on myself, that artists must show what is going on around us. We are the loudspeakers for what is happening and we are fed by our surroundings. Artists don’t go off on tangents, they aren’t out of the box, artists are in the box, otherwise we would lose touch with the universal matrix of the collective, what is real.
But you paint mostly portraits and characters, many of them women. In the retrospective show that we have just seen at Fundació Vila Casas in Barcelona, those visages challenge us with an intensity that is sometimes overwhelming. Do you use other people’s faces to show your own emotions?
I paint women, because it they are the subject that I know best, that I resemble most closely. And I paint people because that helps me to understand myself, and I can see myself in all the aspects of human beings.
Definitely. Because, in a way, when you paint a portrait, you are painting humanity through a person, but you are also painting it through yourself. I am not a portraitist, I try to identify with all the sentiments that there are in this world, that have to do with you and with me, with everything around us. What happens to you matters to me, and I hope that what happens to me matters to you. Today, in fact, at an event, a girl asked me why I paint women. Well, I paint women because that is what I know best, what I resemble most. And I paint human beings because that helps me to understand myself, and I can recognise myself in every aspect of human beings. When I painted The Trilogy of Doubt, which, for me, was dictatorship, victim and ignorance, I was saying to myself “I am all three”.
The intense red lines, the heavy black brushstrokes overlying the image, do they represent women’s pain?
I don’t think of pain, or happiness, or comfort or discomfort. I try not to judge the state of mind. I just reflect it. What I am showing there is something that we can no longer change. It would be fantasy to think that this suffering woman will be freed, that this overbearing man will have a change of heart. Life is a powerful dictator. Within that dictatorship, we need to find a way to bear the burdens and setbacks in a positive way. Sometimes we have to accept things so that we can change them from deep, very deep inside.
Are you talking about your own life? How much of your life have you poured into your work?
Yes, all of it, I have poured all of it. My own experience has been to suffer and win, victory and defeat, pride and humiliation. I know all that and I need all that for my work, and I can say that I like it all, because without one, you can’t have the other. I couldn’t feel so proud now of the things that I create, that I believe, as a person, that I have achieved, without having first understood or felt the pain of humiliation. I’m not saying that you can only learn through punishment, the punishment and humiliation aren’t necessary, the pain isn’t necessary, but thinking that we can do without it is a fantasy, because life doesn’t just give us a palette with a single range of colours. It gives us a highly varied palette.
Yours wasn’t a very fortunate palette. You were born poor, in a drab city, during times of misery. How do you recall your childhood in Barcelona?
I always say that a street kid suffers much less than the people who observe them. Much less. Because street kids are not concerned about what they should have but don’t, about the rights that are denied them, about what they haven’t got or can’t have. They are concerned about surviving, about enjoying themselves, about finding some way to get through the day without too many disasters or beatings, and if possible, with a full belly. Those runny noses that shock us, or those bare feet, they don’t bother us street kids. They are part of our natural state. I still prefer to go without shoes. I like to walk barefoot, it is much more comfortable. But when we look at those kids, our conditioned empathy keeps us from accepting that really bad times also have their soft, positive side …
That way of looking at it shows that having been a street kid also gave you a lot of resilience.
Yes, and street kids are also really mutually supportive and we learn to win. If we achieve something one day, we are heroes and that sense of being a hero is a huge gift that helps to have a more daring, assured and lively character.
When and how did your luck change?
At the moment when someone else’s ethics turned their glance on me. It was thanks to a Catalan family who adopted me, a brave woman who, at the age of fifty-six, decided to help turn my future in a different direction. I owe her and I am grateful to her for all the chances for development that I have had in my life, and to my two (adoptive) sisters, who made room for a very rebellious and restless girl.
How was the meeting with your new family?
There was a great deal of tenderness and goodwill. But I won’t go into detail because this family is a very private thing for me. I don’t want to share it with the world. There are things that we have to wrap up in gold foil, and this is one.
How did you discover your potential as an artist?
My (adoptive) mother took to the Prado Museum, and holding her hand I came face to face with the greatest thing, the thing that has had the hugest impact on my life: the spirit of art. She took my reaction very seriously, I told her that I wanted to learn to paint, and that was how I started.
Your work makes it immediately clear that the person wielding the palette is a strong, passionate woman, with an inner life that is seething with experiences to be expressed on the canvas …
When you accept that you are not the only victim, that there are thousands and thousands of people who are suffering the same cold and going barefoot, you enter a state of collective consciousness that makes you strong.
Yes, but I don’t trust my memory. I rely most of all on my feelings and my intuition. They are a guide for me to live my life with a very positive attitude and to understand things that I couldn’t when I was a child. What I do know is that I accept everything that I have had to experience, all of it. I don’t mean accepting it submissively. Accepting something out of defeat is terribly sad, and whoever does so is on their way to the grave. But when you accept that things happen because they have to, that you are not the only victim of a given circumstance, but that there are thousands and thousands of people who live like you do, that drink from the same well, that suffer the same cold and that go barefoot like you, then you attain a state of collective consciousness, and that is what makes you strong.
There are still a great many people in the Raval like your grandmother, who have very difficult lives. Do you remember her?
Everyone who has moved me or who has had some sort of positive impact on me, I don’t just remember them, I make an effort to go on remembering them. On the other hand, with anyone who has hurt me and everything that I have disliked, I also make an effort, but to forget them. Because they are of no worth to me.
And because if you want to go on remembering what hurts you, you are hurting yourself, wouldn’t you say?
Yes, that’s true, but it is an attitude that you have to work at, don’t you think? In order to heal yourself, to take care of yourself, to be respected and loved, you have to work at it, you have to make an effort to forget, to forgive, to understand, and even if you don’t understand, you still have to try to forget.
So what do we do then about injustice?
When people make use of knowledge and ethics, which are subjects that you have to study and put into practice, there is less injustice. That is why it is so important to study philosophy at school.
Injustice is a terrible thing. It’s the fruit of ignorance, it’s absurd, stupid, simple-minded, macabre, dark. And it is weak. All this gets in the way. When you make use of knowledge and ethics, which are things you have to study and put into practice, there is less injustice. That’s why it is so important to study philosophy in school. Without philosophy, without ethics, injustice will have more opportunities to fill dark pages with stories of disasters, when what we need are bright pages full of poetry, ideas, thought. Injustice is on the rise now and this is terribly dangerous. Ignorance and patriotic populism, which want to bind the world with borders, is a perfect combination for a blaze. And it is catching fire.
Are you worried about the course of politics in Europe?
What worries me is that every fifty years we repeat the same story, the same mistakes. Our mentality is slow to evolve, and the solutions to our problems are also slow in arriving.
It is frightening to hear Italy’s Minister of the Interior, Matteo Salvini, speak with such disdain for immigrants or gypsies. In 2011, you received the Gypsy Culture Prize for your efforts to benefit that community. Are you offended by Salvini?
Terribly, terribly so. But, with his comments, he is not just offending, mistreating and discriminating against gypsies, he is offending and mistreating everyone. When someone speaks that away about a human group, I see it as an act of violence against humanity in general. If he were to make such remarks about Swedes or Finns, it would hurt me just as much. It is unacceptable for a minister to spread racism and radicalism that way. He should be thrown in jail for doing so.
Why do you think such ideas are so successful in elections?
Because our foundation, the thing that should be guiding us, namely ethics, is faltering. We need leaders who are spiritual, intelligent and wise, to remind us how important it is to be good people. But that is hard to achieve, because capitalism has devoured so many of the values that we thought were sacred, that would always be there. Values are like a tree, that if it doesn’t receive any light or sustenance, it will die. Now it is ethics that are dying.
In your “Blind Mirror” series, capitalism appears as a cold, arrogant deified character. Why did you paint it like that?
Because capitalism is the same as the old feudal lords, those warlords who led the way, dragging the people along with them, ready to fight to the death for causes that were in fact nothing more than personal or family interests. A position, a title, a county that had to be defended. That is what capitalism is today, and it can be so arrogant, so cold and so pitiless as to wipe out everything that matters to us. But this has nothing to do with people who have money. There are many people with a lot of money who don’t behave like capitalists.
How do you see yourself in terms of ideology?
As a humanist. The people who I like to be with, the people who move me, the people who I understand and who understand me are people I consider humanists: thinkers, poets, artists …
In passing on your values to your children, what landmarks do you point out to them?
Landmarks? That’s difficult … I wanted them to be varied, but I do recall that I really insisted that they read Jiddu Krishnamurti. He was an Indian philosopher who grew up in England and wrote many books on spirituality. He was called the philosopher of the soul. There was nothing religious in his writing, he spoke only of human values. I remember that when my children reached the age of thirteen or fourteen and were starting to break out, I said to them: please, please read this, you won’t understand it, or maybe you won’t find it interesting, but do it for me … And it is strange, because now that they are twenty-four, twenty-nine, thirty years old, when we are together, they still remember it. One of my sons, who has studied anthropology and political science at Oxford, told me the other day “All those things you made me read have been so useful to me …”
Do you think we need to seek out that more spiritual side?
It’s not just what I believe, it’s what I see. I’m surrounded by young people and I see more and more that our standards are of no use to them. Everything in our culture that has some value, financial success, for example, is now of no use to them. And I see in them the seed of hope. The seed is that youth that is realising that everything that we have built, everything that we have stored up with such avidity and that is now strangling us and leaving us with no room to manoeuvre, none of this is of any use to them. This new generation is now shaking up our living space. And this is a very good thing.
In the “Disturbance” series, you show that outer existence and inner existence do not always coincide. In others, such as the “Black Tulip”, time appears as extraneous element, because past and future mingle in a disturbing way …
It’s strange that you should ask that, because right now I’m working on a subject that has to do with time passing. In fact today I was writing a text explaining that I am breaking up the past with my own hands. I’m going back to paintings that I did ten years ago to transform them, and I’m transforming them by breaking them.
When you question what the past, present and future are, an artist has to rise above all that, they have to try to reach a space where time doesn’t exist.
But I don’t understand the need to destroy a work that was the expression of that transcendence at a given moment.
When you see it, you will understand. The destruction becomes so lyrical, so poetic, that it is no longer destruction. And there you will understand that in life you can see things as destruction, as tragedy, as frustration …, or as a process. A process where, even if you don’t understand it, everything is meaningful. I have called this work The Blind Eye, and it deals with emigrants, with ignorance, and the things that we don’t want to see. They are eight eyes that I did seven years ago. I have broken half of them and joined them with the surviving half. That’s where the past and present meet. The future is the process. The concept of passing time is so huge that, in order to understand that grandeur, we need closed rooms with small windows that frame the landscape.
But the windows you paint are enormous. Why have you chosen to express yourself in such large formats?
Now that I am older and have years and years of experience under my belt, I see that a tiny canvas has the same space as a large one, that tremendousness is in the soul, not in what we see.
Well, now I am working with very, very small formats. Those eyes that I mentioned are tiny. But yes, I have always worked with very large formats because of my expansive nature. I am exaggerated, my gestures are sweeping and I paint large-scale, because I need space to move on the canvas, because I have always wanted to put myself in the canvas but I didn’t know how, and using big canvasses made it easier to do that. Now that I am older and have years and years of experience under my belt, I see that a tiny canvas has the same space as a large one, that tremendousness is in the soul, not in what we see.
However, I cannot imagine those looming portraits of Camarón in a small format. They wouldn’t make the same impression.
Of course, because Camarón was so great that he needed that format. My children had often asked me “Mom, when are you going to paint Camarón?” And I answered “When I know how to paint his greatness.” When I finally painted him, I was so overcome that I cried. Those paintings are so important to me that I won’t sell them. Those pieces are my pieces.
And then there is Frida. The great and suffering Frida Kahlo.
Well, it was the same, with Frida it was just like with Camarón. My assistants would tell me “Lita, you’ve got to stop, you’ve got to leave Frida aside.” But I couldn’t leave her aside, I couldn’t finish the series, it was beyond me, I had become her absolute slave. I admired her so much, I was so desperate to merge with her, she seemed to me so extremely brave … And not just because she was a woman who knew how to bear the pain, who could transform sharpness into beauty, pain into peace. No. It was also because of her bravery in attempting to change the Latin man and help him to perceive, to understand and to love women in a different way.
She tried, but in the end she wasn’t very successful. At least with Diego Rivera, her husband.
If you are smart, that scares them, and if you are pretty too, they will run. Not many men are capable of accepting someone as strong or with such a free spirit or greatness as Frida.
Of course not, how could she succeed, when such a woman terrifies men. If you are smart, that scares them, and if you are pretty too, they will run. Not many men are capable of accepting someone as strong or with such a free spirit or greatness as Frida. Since the 1980s, there are surely a few more, because men have become a bit wiser and they are beginning to accept that such women are not tigresses that are going to eat them.
And other concepts of masculinity are starting to appear. How do you see men now?
Disoriented. Strong as ever. Some shy, others aggressive. Amorous. Necessary … And clinging.
Yes, because that’s how they are, they cling, with the same tendencies, the same frustrations. Men, like women, need to change, to free themselves from al the cheap sentimentality. Just look at young people, boys and girls, how free they are. They have no prejudices. The people of my generation, on the other hand, drag around a heavy baggage of prejudice.
Many people aren’t aware that, as a rule, women prefer men who are more feminine.
Yes, of course, because femininity is intelligent, it is human. Women are more patient and we think more of others because of the simple fact that we mothers. We are built to feel the pain and needs of others. Men find it difficult to develop that sort of sensitivity.
There was a time when feminism rebelled against maternity, because it was the leash that tied women to the table leg, to the roles of submission and dependency. Do we need to redefine the meaning of maternity?
Feminism involves the freedom to do what you like with the people you want to do it with, but there are still a lot of taboos, like the taboo against single women.
As with everything else, when you have to break moulds, you need to be aggressive and strong at the same time, and it is so painful to do so that sometimes we also break things that we need. Those feminists did that because of the need for change. But maternity is a marvellous thing. I am very maternal, very protective, and I don’t think that clashes with feminism. Feminism involves the freedom to do what you like with the people you want to do it with, but there are still a lot of taboos, like the taboo against single women.
And yet, there are more and more all the time.
I have been on my own for a long time. And when someone asks me “Haven’t you got a partner? Do you prefer living alone?” I answer “Look, would you ask someone who lives with a partner how is it that they are living with someone else and whether they prefer living as part of a couple?” Living alone is an option. If it means you can have more time for your passions, or it’s because you haven’t found the ideal partner who will respect all those things that make you happy, or for any other reason, it is a very easy option. Nowadays women don’t need men financially, we have become very independent, and that is a very good thing. We can decide, and if we have a partner, we do it of our own free will, not out of financial necessity.
Do you visit Barcelona often?
Yes, I like it very much, I try to go three or four times a year. Barcelona is my childhood, it’s me, it’s the city where I don’t get lost, I know all its nooks and crannies, its light, its smell. It is something that you have suckled at your mother’s breast and you carry it with you in your genes. I can be at ease in any city, but I feel at home in Barcelona.
But you have decided to live in the north, which is very different.
I came here to study, and then I had my children here. Sometimes life will keep you in places that you would never have imagined, and by the same token sometimes it drives you out, you never know beforehand. I might end up living in Barcelona. Or in the Ampurdán, which is a marvellous place.
Your projection as an artist has been almost a sort of blossoming. In just a few years you have produced a huge body of work and you have had shows around the world. Are you prepared for major success?
I don’t believe that major success exists. In that regard, I am either too ignorant or too realistic. For me, major success is my day-to-day life at home, in the studio, when I achieve something. You can’t imagine what it means to me to succeed in creating something that I have been after. If you were to tell me right then that my car was on fire, I would answer that I didn’t care. When you attain such success, several times a year, several times a month, the fact of having money, or being popular, of having your work in this or that museum, dwindles to almost nothing. My big success is still to come, and maybe it won’t happen until I am in my eighties, if I am lucky and I have painted a lot and I achieve something worthy of the name. But for the time being, my major success consists of being alive, of having survived a very difficult childhood, in being a mother, in loving my children madly and having been able to respect them and be respected by them. That is what I consider major success.
- Lita Cabellut. RetrospectivaFundació Vila Casas, 2018
- Antes de que venga la noche. Javier Santiso, Lita Cabellut. La Cama Sol, 2018
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