Fidel Castro, Winston Churchill, Jack Nicholson, Groucho Marx and Arnold Schwarzenegger — meet the cast of notables Janio Nunez has sculpted entirely out of Cuba’s famed tobacco.
The Cuban sculptor uses the same sticky leaves and time-honored rolling techniques that go into the famed cigars enjoyed by his subjects, and which was celebrated at last week’s 14th annual Havana Festival.
Using the locally-grown tobacco made world-famous by Cohiba and Romeo y Julieta cigars, Nunez has molded a Churchill in coat and fedora, a Nicholson sprawled on a chair and a Schwarzenegger in full “Terminator” gear.
The leaves — from the western Vuelta Abajo region — have been relished by cigar aficionados for decades, but Nunez’s interest in them goes much further.
“I saw my friends in tobacco, dressed in tobacco leaves. I dreamed of tobacco. I had to go to a psychologist,” Nunez says, referring to his time as a “torcedor,” or cigar-roller, at Cuba’s sprawling Varadero tourist resort.
“So as a remedy, one night, I started rolling shapes, objects out of raw tobacco. My first real piece was the Indian head on the Cohiba label.”
Nunez then spent three weeks struggling to get a meeting with the director of Habanos SA, the state-run cigar monopoly, in order to present his work.
“Tell me what it’s worth,” he recalls telling the director. “If you say it is worthless, I will destroy it immediately.”
The works were a hit. The director invited him to present them at the Havana Trade Fair at 1998 and at the first Havana Festival the following year.
From then on, indulging in his strange obsession with tobacco, Nunez began his “Celebrity Smokers” series, sculpting the miniature likeness of Che Guevara, Charlie Chaplin and Luciano Pavarotti, among others.
Then he went bigger, sculpting his first life-sized sculpture — of Churchill — in 2000 and showing it to the British wartime leader’s granddaughter Celia Sandys during her visit to Cuba.
The tobacco statue of the World War II-era British prime minister, who went to Cuba in 1895 as a freshly-minted military officer, now belongs to an Italian art collector living in Venezuela.
Nicholson and Schwarzenegger followed, but Nunez had to leave them behind during an exhibition in the Dominican Republic and has not been able to recover them although the circumstances of their loss remain unclear.
A few years later he discovered God and briefly abandoned sculpting.
“I wanted to become famous, but when celebrity came to me I was not ready,” he says. He studied to become an evangelical pastor and graduated in 2006.
But like so many tobacco-lovers, he was unable to quit. In 2008 he went back to sculpting, and last year he set up a workshop a half-hour outside of Havana, near the sea, where he raises his own crop.
These days he molds mainly smaller pieces for tourists, but has also been inspired by his newfound faith. His next project will be a fresco entitled “Foundations of Humanity,” he says. “God will reveal it to me.”