Cuba WallPapers
René Francisco and the 4th Pragmatic Collective. Ciudad Generosa (Generous City). Havana, Cuba, 2012

René Francisco and Pragmatic Pedagogy

Felipe Moreno

Everything or nearly everything that I do in life connects with art. Perhaps the largest part of my professional life has revolved around reconciling art and pedagogy.”

René Francisco Rodríguez, Havana, Cuba, 20111

Contemporary Cuban artist René Francisco Rodríguez was born in Holguín, Cuba, in 1960. Recognized internationally, Francisco has a body of work that spans several media (painting, sculpture, installation, video, photography and performance) challenging the boundaries between art and life via the exploration of personal and social contexts in his practice. His artistic career has seen different stages and overlapping experiences: work as a collaborative duo with the artist Eduardo Ponjuán; personal work; collaborative social inclusion projects and pragmatic pedagogy in which his activities as a teacher and artist converge. This essay explores his latter hybrid innovation of art and pedagogy.

René Francisco entered the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plasticas (National School of Fine Arts – ENAP) to study painting in 1977, proceeding to the Instituto Superior de Arte (Superior Institute of Art – ISA) to study printing from 1982 to 1987. Upon completing his studies he joined and continues to be part of the faculty of ISA.

A student-teacher dynamic has infused his life and work since his teens, first as part of a team of athletes and then singing in a charanguera orchestra at ENAP.2 This spirit of the collective, also cultivated in his childhood as part of a large family, is a constant presence in his work.

Cubo-Cuba 2009 Oleo sobre Lienzo, 180x120cm copyRené Francisco Rodríguez. <i>Adios</i>. Oil on canvas. 180x120cm, 2009
René Francisco Rodríguez. Cubo-Cuba. Oil on canvas. 180x120cm, 2009

Art and Pedagogy: Methods, Influences and the Cuban Context

As a teacher, Francisco experimented with new educational paradigms influenced by Joseph Beuys, one of the most well known examples of artists engaged with education as an art form.

One of the things I’ve done for years is to work outside the classroom; not having a fixed space. Despite the magnificent environment at ISA, it was more interesting to me that students could find content directly on the street. This gave me the chance to get to know many aspects of Cuban life. I gave classes at the same time as I was doing research for my personal work to the point there seemed to be no difference between one thing and the other. For me, pedagogy has been a way of making art.”3

Francisco’s methodology is to facilitate collective fields of creation. The teacher-creator works horizontally, leveling vertical models of student-teacher relationships that often assume the teacher as the holder of knowledge. Pedagogy, for Francisco, is a type of transaction capable of subverting this verticality on the basis of an interpersonal relationship that breaks down academic hierarchies. So here eliminating exams and avoiding content dictated by the institution is key. Content should arise from the students’ interests.

Pulling the Rug. San Francisco, USA, 2001. Work developed during a residency in the USA when he received an honorary doctorate from the San Francisco Institute of Fine Arts, 2001.

René believes that the teacher needs the openings that a student can present and that this void produces the desire to be as eager and open as the student. Teachers also need to recognize their own voids that in turn will be filled in the exchange with the students. Desire then weaves interpersonal bonds. Circumstances point toward the content. The transmission of knowledge circulates within the group, providing a collective experience that also strengthens the individual. For René, it is very important to listen to where the student wants to go: there is a lot of flexibility and openness to the provocations of life; at times, he consults the I Ching for advice.

His intention is that the student engages in an archeology of him or herself, to inaugurate a state he calls “degree zero of knowledge”. This clears the way for collective possibilities, the results of which are potent. The teacher becomes a receptive acoustic speaker of the desires of a new generation.

In pedagogy it is essential to ascertain needs: those of the teacher and those of the students. A teacher who develops a creative and flexible pedagogical approach needs certain co-ordinates in order to select an exercise which will meet the students’ knowledge-based and activity-based needs. I’m very interested in the idea of teacher-student relations developing as a kingd of communion or co-existence. Creative friendship will surpass and reverse all that. This is what the Cuban author José Lezama Lima called “devouring”. Class schedules change, daily life eludes planning, and the streets become a classroom.”4

04 Colectivo Cuarta Pragmática. Trust.
René Francisco Rodríguez and the 4th Pragmatic Collective. Exhibition Trust.  Factoría Habana, Havana, Cuba, 2011.

As curator and critic Eugenio Valdés Figueroa notes, Latin America has a rich tradition of education through art and Cuba, in particular, has been a fertile ground for these exchanges and relations “from the time spent in Havana in the 1960s by the artists Roberto Matta (Chile), Julio Le Parc (Argentina), Jesús Rafael Soto and Carlos Cruz-Diez (Venezula); or by Ana Mendieta (Cuba/US) in the 1980s”5. The classrooms of ISA and the faculty at the Universidad de La Habana have been hotbeds of experimentation and debate, welcoming many international artists and critics. In addition, the vital presence of the Havana Biennial (inaugurated in 1984) whose 1989 edition was seen to “extend the global territory of contemporary art and redefine the biennial model”, similarly reflected and energized the vitality of Cuban scene and a desire to challenge and renew traditions of artmaking and organizing.6 In the 1980s, key artists such as Flavio Garciandía, Consuelo Castañeda, Lupe Alvarez and others, broke with traditional hierarchical teacher-student relationships and repositioned the teacher as a facilitator so that students could discover and extract their own harmonies: each student contains an inner music that the teacher simply accompanies to make these sounds known. Increasingly pedagogy became a laboratory outside of the classroom shifting into the complex socio-political territories of Cuban life. In 1989, ISA created opportunities for teachers to carry out projects based on their personal experiences as artists and here artists saw in pedagogy a way to connect social space with artistic space.

So a spirit of experimentation was in the air imbued with past models and new possibilities. Beuys, a key influence, Francisco notes, reached Cuba informally, almost like a rumor: “Beuys’s ideas swept the streets… students stormed the school with him… brought to their classes whatever the academy disapproved of…”7. There weren’t catalogs or magazines but rather a kind of buzz related to the subversion of traditional pedagogical formats. Both Beuys and Ana Mendieta influenced the design of Francisco’s educational projects. The dimension of public performance, on the one hand with Beuys and on the other that of the intimate with Ana Mendieta, who lived in the woods communing with nature as a means of connecting with her homeland. She was engaged in the primordial and questions of origin, while Beuys was occupied with issues of political partisanship amidst mass society.

The influence of Beuys makes me see myself as a facilitator, as someone who mobilizes and coordinates, like a person trying to serve a table making sure that everyone is having a good time. What most excites me in doing pedagogy is to bring people together and make them feel that every generation has a commitment to itself. The artist has to believe in him or herself and be brave.”8

Francisco’s proposed pedagogic space is one where thinking is done out loud and is openly documented throughout the process; individual thought fragments complement and articulate the collective.

A pedagogical space is one in which you think aloud and test the path to be taken. […] Pragmatic pedagogy is accommodation not limitation. Care must be taken in this respect: it provides a complete “tool box”, a wide spectrum of instruments, whose usefulness will be determined by circumstance.”9

For over ten years Francisco was part of an artistic duo with Eduardo Ponjuán. They critically examined forms of representation embraced by Soviet realism and reflected on the art-market relationship that was taking hold in Cuba. The idea to work in groups began with his friendship with Ponjuán at ISA. Yet, they were very different people. Ponjuán was in his fifth year when René entered ISA. One was from Holguín and the other from Pinar – two cities at opposite ends of the island. They were two dynamic forces thinking about almost the same issues, at the same time, producing a kind of mystical quality that winded up in friendship. They began working together in 1986 making drawings and continued their collaboration for another ten years. The partnership with Ponjuán reached a point at which Francisco felt the need to share his work with others, and hence the idea of the Pragmatics. This beginning drew directly on the relationship with Ponjuán as a teacher and artist: “I think it was like a multiplication of interpersonal relationships, of this intersubjectivity.”10

It was a difficult time in the Cuban economy when everything became scarce. Artists were forced to find new ways of making art without directly confronting the State. Given the difficult situation, many artists and intellectuals of the “80’s generation” began to emigrate. Francisco reflects on that moment:

For me it this was a very difficult time. Many of my friends emigrated for good. There was a profound fissure in the Cuban life and the whole pathetic atmosphere of a world in crisis. I’m sure the generational drama in which I participated was transferred to my students as a process of shared recovery. We had to save ourselves together; rescue our self-esteem and use honesty as a shield in the face of the cruel reality which was putting us to the test, as individuals and not just as artists. I feel that together we achieved this.”11

For those who stayed there was a desire to change the way of life in Cuba, and new ways of making art began to take shape. It’s not for nothing that Jorge Luis Borges, one of the censored writers in Cuba, writes about the importance of censorship as one of the motivating forces for the creation of new metaphors. The climate of the late 1980s in Cuba includes Perestroika and Glasnost, a new political openness and dialogue with the Soviet Union.12 Young artists discussed these events and incorporated them into their works. It was a radical change, given that the control of freedom of expression and government criticism was essential to the maintenance of the Soviet system. In Cuba, the 80’s generation who stayed lived Glasnost in their own way.

Pragmatic Pedagogy

Amidst this climate of change and uncertainty, Francisco’s courses at ISA, which he called Pragmatic Pedagogy, were a result of the necessity of working collectively to discuss the reality of the Cuban context and the possibilities of art as a powerful tool for social transformation. They were not regular courses. The timeframe depended on the specific conditions of each project, some lasted a year others continued for five or more working with students throughout their studies. The Pragmatics’ groups looked to intervene in the real world. It was not a question of populism, but rather, to find non-invasive ways to engage sectors of society that do not normally engage with art or go to cultural institutions.

First Pragmatic: Using a Pragmatic Pedogogy (September 1989–June 1990)

Together with a group of first year students from ISA, Francisco visited what is known in Cuba as the casa de vecindad or solar (social housing project) in a neighborhood of Old Havana.13 It was an old, ruined building broken into several dwellings that were multiplying as the number of inhabitants grew. Generally, people who inhabit the solares in Cuba are very humble people with limited resources.

06 La Casa Nacional
René Francisco Rodríguez and the 1st Pragmatic Collective. La Casa Nacional, 1990.

We offered residents a service: a student would work in their home, carrying out all the various tasks of daily life. The resulting object, created by the artist, did not have a contemplative objective – although it was rigorously produced – and its criterion of beauty would be the result of a producer-client relationship which took tastes and interests into account. On a teaching level, the producers were not unaware of the fact that the objects made were filtered by a group of popular traditions, by rituals, communities and social experiences, and were part of a symbolic universe.”14

La Casa Nacional (National House) was the name given to this First Pragmatic because usually the colors used on the walls and paintings created by artists at the tenants request had to do with national symbols and religious attributes – kitsch Cuban style – and also because the demands of the residents could be seen as a testimony to the essence of the psychosocial body and value system of that time period. Hence, this “transactional quality: the tenants received the table they wanted, the laundry room, the renovated living room, while students acquired another kind of knowledge in contact with a cultural heritage that was not programmed by the academy and with which they could conceive a future project, a form, a style”. As a teacher, Francisco learned along with the students, “certain trades: plumbing, brick work, construction, carpentry and more”15. He reflects on the artistic-pedagogic dimension of this process:

As we worked, we were debating questions such as who was the author, who was the agent, who conceived the work. There were theoretical questions being discussed at the time in philosophy, semiotics and aesthetics that we found we could resolve in practice.”16

According to René, it was a powerful experience because it meant touching people’s hearts and lives and engaging with a content that the university normally did not teach: that of a religious nature, or connecting with those who did not agree with the revolution, and others, who were even more extreme revolutionaries.

La Casa Nacional is considered a social project, but according to René, it is also truly personal and intimate. It was a time when he passed almost 24 hours a day with his students, merging his activity as a teacher with everyday life that seemed to produce a kind of inspired state of being present, of innocence and of immediate contact with life. This intersubjective relationship directly affects student-teacher bonds: “For the first time I say that I am not the teacher, but another member of the group, that via his experience, models the demands of the collective.”17

Through this contact with his students, Francisco sees the critical role of reducing the distances that occur between professor and student in traditional forms of teaching. Not wanting to lose the relationships built during the course, at times created over years, Francisco began to exchange correspondence with his students as a means to maintain the bonds of affection. Via these letters, Francisco perceives how these bonds are actually more transcendental than the classes, with all the dynamism and importance that they had. These letters fed a spiritual community and a fertile interpersonal sensitivity.

07 La Casa Nacional
René Francisco Rodríguez and 1st Pragmatic Collective. La Casa Nacional, 1990.


Lately, many things confirm the certainty of this laboratory style work that we have initiated, although it’s still at the early stages. Today, for example, the fact that I started reading the book of Russian constructivism that you indicated (i.e. the student suggested the book and said: “Listen, René, take this, you have to read it because it has to do with your ideas”). It is this kind of mysterious and strange intuition that leads us to the things we need. It seems that someone among us, whom we do not see, is pointing to and putting things in our hands. This is what it means to see together. In the last class (and I put in parenthesis here a question mark: Class? Really?… La Casa Nacional was class? It was more like a month-long performance), I felt this communication between all of us, despite Pilar’s silence (Pilar de los Reyes was a student who always appeared to be deliberately quiet), which is a Duchampian silence. Without this sense of communication, all that we want will not be possible. May this book of great utopias create a bridge between us.


In the following years came other exercises and other pragmatics. Quadros por encomenda gratis (Free Artworks Made by Request), 1990, held in Santa Cruz del Valle, Ávila, Spain, was an offshoot of La Casa Nacional, this time furthering Francisco’s own personal work, while still maintaining a focus on social intervention. Here, ordinary people outside of the art world were invited to be part of an action where the artist painted a work based on the person’s request with themes suggested by them. In this way the artists abandoned themselves to the desire of the other who determined the work’s content. Afterword, when the artist delivered the free artwork, the bonds of affection created through this transaction became obvious. Francisco recently repeated this project in Rio de Janeiro in 2012 for an exhibition at Caixa Cultural, and then again in 2014 at Casa Daros with a group of painting students from the Parque Lage School of Visual Arts.

Second Pragmatic: Workshop of Exhibition Debates (February 1991–June 1992)

The Second Pragmatic called Taller y exposiciones debates (Workshop of Exhibition Debates) took place between 1991-1992 and aimed to find new creative paths for young people who came into the university with a strong desire to critique and question everything, which was very different from the romanticism of La Casa Nacional. It was an uncertain time. The new group of students brought irony and debate, questioning the social potential of art. Their focus was to create a context of debate about art itself. They began organizing exhibitions in collaboration with the cultural center Casa Del Jóven Creador. They created a micro-departmental institution of which the artists themselves were employees. Many of the exhibitions featured a program of debates and within the group the students assumed responsibilities for different tasks: some made posters, others took on the administration of confirming exhibition/debate spaces, etc. In this way the artists inserted themselves into the professional world of art.

Third Pragmatic (1997–2001)

The Third Pragmatic was called Galeria DUPP – Desde una Pragmática Pedagógica (DUPP Gallery – Using Pragmatic Pedagogy). However, it had nothing in common with an art gallery. There was no physical space, no objective to sell art. Rather, by assuming a collective model, the name facilitated an artistic identity outside of the context of the course, strengthening, at the same time, the collective and the students’ individualities. It began in 1997 and ended in 2001. It was the group with whom Francisco shared the most amount of time and with whom he developed diverse courses. The experience with DUPP Gallery began in 1997 with an expedition to Jaruco in search of the interventions left by the artist Ana Mendieta in this rocky area of the country. Later, they organized two editions of the Havana Performance Festival in 1998 and 1999.

That same year (1999) Galería DUPP held two public interventions. The first, known as La Época (The Age), was held within a shopping center of the same name. In Cuba few people have the purchasing power to buy goods in shopping centers and so these places generate a lot of curiosity and are often frequented as places just to look. Here the works integrated with local products and highlighted a whole range of responses from the users and the public who frequented the place.

05 Baño público, 2002
René Francisco Rodríguez. Baño Público (Public Bathroom). Installation/variable dimensions, 2002.

The second intervention was titled Con un mirar abstraído (With a distracted look) and was held along La Rampa, an important avenue in Havana. Made in honor of abstract Cuban artists from the 1950s, the performance was a tribute to their spirit and to the mosaics these artists made along the sidewalks of La Rampa in the 1960s.19 More than a question of formalism, it was a reflection on abstraction and art in Cuba. In the 1950s, abstract artists received harsh criticism from members of the Popular Socialist Party, who played a prominent role in all cultural criticism during these years. With the triumph of the Revolution, Cuba’s art scene often tended toward conservatism in relation to the avant-guard. Despite or perhaps because of this, abstraction still maintained a great vitality within Cuba.

08 (1,2,3 probando)
René Francisco Rodríguez and the 3rd Pragmatic Collective. 1, 2, 3…probando (1,2,3…testing). Havana, Cuba, 2000.

In 2000, Gallery DUPP was invited to participate in the VII Biennial of Havana with their piece 1, 2, 3… probando (1, 2, 3… testing). The installation, mounted on the walls of the Castillo del Morro (Castle Hill) consisted of 100 cast iron “microphones” and paintings on curtains inside the building. A major goal of the group was to present a Cuban art that was more open and universal, and the microphone was for them an ideal way to make a comment on isolation. Representing the voice of the State’s long and intense speeches and, at the same time, the possibility that many people could stand up and express what they felt, the microphone has been a more than recognizable symbol within the context of the Cuban revolutionary process. 1, 2, 3… probando won the UNESCO award in 2000. With this project the artists of the Gallery DUPP learned that art should be an open path to all that is possible.

Fourth Pragmatic (September 2009–June 2013)

01 Colectivo Cuarta Pragmática. Classpool.
René Francisco Rodríguez and the 4th Pragmatic Collective. Class Pool, 2010.

The Fourth Pragmatic began in September 2009 and maintains the concept of a horizontal teacher-student relationship, in accordance with the interests and demands of the participants. One of the projects presented as part of the Fourth Pragmatic was Ciudad Generosa (Generous City) held from May-June 2012. This public art intervention built on previous works of the Fourth Pragmatic that had been exploring the occupation of various places in the city such as the piece Class Pool (September-October 2010), where the group dealt with water as an element of origin and procreation, making artistic propositions in a swimming pool of an old luxury condominium.

René Francisco Rodríguez and 4th Pragmatic Collective. Class Pool, 2010.

Plancalle (December 2010) explores road accidents on Havana’s 11th and 74th streets. Banking Rota (February 2011) draws on the architecture of the old Royal Bank of Canada and its role as the hegemonic center of finance in Cuba and Trust (May 2011) was a project presented at the Factoria Havana, a space for creation and experimentation in the city.

René Francisco Rodríguez and 4th Pragmatic Collective. Trust, 2010.

Ciudad Generosa was the Fourth Pragmatic’s contribution to the XI Biennial of Havana in 2012. Francisco and his students proposed constructing “a city” on the grounds of a small park in the capital’s Vedado neighborhood. The project’s principle was to build a supportive community amongst its neighbors, favoring positive human relations and the preservation of nature. A mill welcomed visitors with the message “Working together makes us happy”. Each student created his or her own project, researched the necessary materials and built a “house” in direct dialogue with his/her neighbors, fostering the creation of a collective space of enjoyment such as the earthworm sculpture and breeding farm, a metaphor of working together for the benefit of everyone, including the environment.

11 Ciudad Generosa (detalle)_copy
René Francisco Rodríguez and 4th Pragmatic Collective. Ciudad Generosa (Generous City). Havana, 2012.

Ciudad Generosa was an ideal solution proposed for a real community and a sample of what you can do with scarce material resources: a generous city, always open, with the ability to expand its limits and welcome newcomers; one that employs all types of people to build and make, to be seen and exist. Within the city, others live: recognizable, hidden, ephemeral. All legitimate.

René Francisco Rodríguez and 4th Pragmatic Collective. Ciudad Generosa (Generous City), 2012

Student Reflections

The pedagogical work of the artist René Francisco Rodríguez was a unique opportunity to experience how ideas grow and improve quickly when they are placed at a communal table. Since my days in DUPP, I miss the intensity of our discussions, and I appreciate the generous cooperation that helped us get to know each other better as individuals with the inevitable frictions that occur in a group experience.

Thanks to his pedagogic practice I believe in an art that is open to the provocations of life. In response to this curiosity and interest, the work turns into a lively conversation that ends up becoming something undeniably essential.”

Inti Hernández20

To speak of René Francisco in a purely professional perspective is difficult for me. It started with my admiration for him as an artist at a distance for all his work over the past 20 years. Then I began to have meetings and discussions about art with him, as well as meetings with other colleagues and artists, collective art exhibitions and intimate conversations about life in general. Each of these moments has been an exchange and a learning process where it is very difficult to determine to what extent he influenced me more, as a friend or as an artist.

René has been an inevitable part of my training as an artist, and I can mention a long list of tips of all kinds that he shared with me, which speaks of his honesty in relation to art. All this, to simplify it somehow, made me look at René almost like my older brother, as an artist and as a person.”

Esterio Segura21


Francisco’s Pragmatic Pedagogy has generated its own artistic and pedagogical context, integrating into the socio-cultural reality of the country. Collective creation and the inclusion of the most disparate of subjectivities and artistic needs often matter more than the authorship of pieces. Cohesive work and collective debate turn out to be more gratifying. The differences between each of the pragmatics can be explained by the shifting needs and socio-cultural contexts of each group. The teacher’s job in all of them: to integrate with the group, listen to the demands of students and from there orient the group so that they themselves want to determine its consequences.

1 René Francisco Rodríguez. Interview (Spanish): (Accessed November 2014) Free translation.

2 Popular music comprising instruments made from leftover materials (wood, metal, etc.) used as percussion.

3 René Francisco Rodríguez. Havana Cultura: Entrevista com René Francisco Rodríguez, 2011 (Interview with René Francisco Rodríguez): (Spanish. Free Translation) (Accessed September 2014).

4 Eugenio Valdés Figueroa. “Horizontal Interactions: Pedagogy and Art in Contemporary Cuba: René Francisco: Using a Pragmatic Pedagogy”. Parachute nº125. Special Issue: La Habana, 2007, pp 71 – 77, p.72

5 Eugenio Valdés Figueroa. “Horizontal Interactions: Pedagogy and Art in Contemporary Cuba: Introduction”. Parachute nº125. Special Issue: La Habana, 2007,pp 56 – 61, p. 58

6 See Rachel Weiss. Making Art Global (Part 1): The Third Havana Biennial 1989. Amsterdam/London: Afterall Books in association with the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna and Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 2011

7 Tonel, Antonio Eligio. “René Francisco. Del arte a la pedagogía”. Interview at a meeting organized by Magaly Espinosa at the Centro de Desarrollo de las Artes Visuales, Havana, May, 2010. Free translation.

8 Ibid.

9 Op cit., Figueroa. p. 75

10 Op cit., Tonel, p. 23

11 Op cit., Figueroa, p.77


13 T.N. Group homes with open access patios and corridors.

14 Op cit., Figueroa. p.74

15 Ibid

16 Op cit., Tonel p. 23

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid.

19 For information on the artists see:

20 Student statement documented at: For more information on the artist see: (Accessed January 2015)

21 Student statement documented at: For more information on the artist: (Accessed January 2015)