Save the Whales: “AmberGris Inc.” and Post-Graffism with Ruben Ubiera
A decaying beached whale lies on its side. Its rib cage and jaw bone are exposed through panels of missing flesh. Vultures wearing red neckties pick away at the whale’s remaining flesh. Roses and sunflowers have bloomed within the whale’s rotting carcass.
The scene is a gruesome one, yet despite the bad taste the imagery might leave in your mouth, the forms and figures are beautifully and carefully painted, represented with a true-to-life sense of detail. There is a dichotomy present in the work between the bountiful growth of beautiful flowers, representative of new life, and the rotting whale conquered by money-hungry “vultures” in pursuit of ambergris.
Ambergris is a solid, waxy, flammable substance of a dull grey or blackish color, produced in the digestive system of sperm whales. Ambergris is used in creating perfumes and produces a fragrance similar to musk. From the 18th to the mid-19th century, the whaling industry prospered, with some reports stating nearly 5,000 whales were killed each year. The possession and trade of ambergris was made illegal in the United States in 1973.
The piece, titled Ambergris Inc. and painted by the Dominican artist Ruben Ubiera, was painted under the umbrella initiative of the Pangea Seed Foundation, an organization with aims to provide artists a means of painting large-scale murals addressing pressing ocean environmental issues.
Since it’s founding, Pangea Seed has created 300 Sea Walls murals in 12 countries with the support of over 250 international artists. Iryna Kanischeva of 352Walls partnered up with the Pangea Seed Foundation for a collaboration with Sea Walls: Murals for Oceans in Gainesville, Florida.
We had the chance to speak with Ruben about his mural and his intentions behind it.
What is it?
It’s something I wanted to do that would shock. I believe that in today’s world, people aren’t really shaken, screamed, or shouted at, because their attention span is short, small and they don’t have time to stop and look at things. It’s really about awareness and the realization of what’s happening to our oceans.
Can you tell me about the Pangea Seed Foundation and how you got involved with them?
Honestly, I was just doing my thing, painting from the heart. I was told about what it is that they’re seeking to do and what the program was about and I told them to definitely count me in.
So what exactly is your connection to whales?
I live in the Dominican Republic, and whales swim there all of the time to mate, and I’ve been seeing them since I’ve been a young kid. Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of news about them washing up on the shores of beaches.
There are corporations that have banded together to make sure that poaching continues to happen, so I wanted to shine a light on all of that.
Is the title of Ambergris Inc. referencing the illegal poaching of whales that’s going on?
When I named it “ambergris”— it’s about how ambergris harvesting is not being stopped and the poaching continues and the polluting of the oceans continues and the corporations and businessmen and political powers that be still allow it to go on. That’s where the name came in. There are corporations that have banded together to make sure that poaching continues to happen, so I wanted to shine a light on all of that.
I heard there’s been a little bit of a controversy with the owner of the building that the mural is on, something about the imagery being too graphic?
Well, sure, that’s fine— it is graphic; it has caught a lot of people’s attention and now we’re all talking about ocean awareness. People think there should be a cuter way, and I tend to disagree. There’s hope, that flowers do come out and that life continues. And that’s really what the message is that I wanted to give. Life continues but we have to change the ways we do things in order to not deplete the planet of all of it’s supplies and resources.
When my mother passed away I became an artist. My first painting was of my mom.
I like the message and the approach, and I’m glad you don’t hold back from creating imagery that’s true to life. It’s not always rainbows.
Exactly, you can’t. I think that artists are here to enhance the mystery, while graphic designers tell a story that you have to get right away. The fact that we’re on the street and we can communicate messages like this and not be stilted by any association or group or museum or gallery— just being in the streets, the people have the right to know about these things.
How would you explain your art to someone who is unfamiliar with visual arts?
I’d describe it as Post Graffism. Everybody is familiar with graffiti today. I’ve never done graffiti, but I love it. I love the do-it-yourself kind of attitude and painting in so many different colors.
When my mother passed away, I became an artist. From that moment, I said, you know what, I never painted anything for her with all of my ability because I didn’t consider myself an artist. But they knew— my family always told me ‘you’re going to be an artist.’
My first painting was of my mom. I combined graffiti, painting, collage— all of the things that I knew to create my own style and at the time I knew I had never made graffiti so I knew I couldn’t call it that. But I think it’s an allusion to graffiti. It’s Post Graffism, which is an elevation of graffiti. I’m using their techniques and the tools of the trade but not to do graffiti. I’m doing public art for new generations to see.
Do you have any advice for young artists who want to grow and create quality work? How can aspiring artists put themselves in the position to be creating large scale works like murals?
The first thing is to love it; to be able to happily go about putting in effort. You have to have the will, you have to want it and you have to see where you fit and what you’re doing as far as the artwork is concerned. The thing that definitely made me stand out was when I truly started to be myself, and put myself into the painting.
Much like the whale mural, it stops you because it’s shocking, and people want to understand it. It’s truly just persistence, consistence and being true to yourself. The hardest thing is to find what it is that makes you, you. Because when that point comes, there has never been anything like it, and people don’t know how to judge it.
Another hard part is figuring out how to put your work out there. You’re naked when you put your work in a gallery or a show. People are going to judge you, and they’re going to say your work is shit or it’s hot. Sometimes you’ll have people see your work and fall in love with it. The artist’s career is an inward one. You really have to dig deep down within yourself.
Mural projects curated by Gainesville Urban Art.