When Cuban artist Erik Olivera Rubio paints portraits of people, they’re not always supposed to be people.
Although his exhibit at the North Carolina Central University Art Museum includes portraits of all kinds, “Los Orichas” is at the heart of the collection. It’s a series depicting human-like gods and goddesses worshiped by members of the Afro-Cuban Yoruba community.
The eclectic collection of Olivera Rubio’s paintings are on display until Nov. 17 at the NCCU Art Museum in Durham. It’s his first solo show in the United States since 2002.
The artist, who focuses on themes of black people and black culture, spoke about his work in a phone interview through translator Dr. Horacio Xaubet, who teaches Spanish at NCCU.
“Most of the portraits are sort of a compendium of my work thus far, many of them with a religious theme,” Olivera Rubio said. “Through the expressions of ‘Los Orichas,’ I want to communicate this religious feeling in Cuba in a very specific, spiritual manner.”
Growing up in Havana, the artist was surrounded by traditions of the Yoruba people, who are the descendants of Africans uprooted from their homes by slavery and transported to the Caribbean. Olivera Rubio is a “babalawo,” or priest, in his culture.
His acrylic portraits – the artist is allergic to oil paint – are realistic, striking and colorful. The “Los Orichas” series has earned Olivera Rubio attention since he started showing some of them in 2007, in countries including Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom.
The NCCU exhibit includes paintings portraying Yoruba deities, from Oshun, the goddess of love and happiness, to Obatalà, the father god. The Yoruba associate Oshun with the color yellow. In Olivera Rubio’s portrait, she’s a beautiful young woman with a laugh spreading across her face and a yellow light bathing her skin.
In the artist’s portrayal of Obatalà, the god is pensively looking into the distance, and his token color, white, can be found in his snowy white hair and beard that surround his face like a lion’s mane.
Other portraits in the exhibit include “Black Tears,” Olivera Rubio’s rendering of Cuban revolutionary and poet José Martí as an Afro-Cuban. The artist’s paintings of Eric Garner, who died in 2014 when a New York City police officer put a chokehold on him, and Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man who was fatally shot by a law enforcement officer in 2009, are also on view.
“He’s passionate about his work, and it shows,” said Christine Perry, who works for the NCCU Art Museum. “People come look at his work, and they’re totally mesmerized by how he captures every little detail — lines on eyes, wrinkles on the face, how he uses different colored paint to show the texture of the hair.”
Admission is free to the NCCU Art Museum, on Lawson Street across from the Farrison-Newton Communications Building. The museum is open Tuesday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. The museum is closed on Saturdays, Mondays and university holidays.
Some of the works are for sale, as well as prints, which are $50. For details, go to nccu.edu/artmuseum.