El Sexto, Cuba's Top Dissident Artist, Appears in Miami With Two Pigs: Fidel and Raúl

On December 25, 2014, Danilo Maldonado Machado, thin and atrevido, rode in the back seat of a blue Lada with a smile dangling beneath defiant eyes. As the driver headed down Havana's Malecón near Avenida 23, police sirens wailed.

Maldonado was headed to a performance piece based on George Orwell's dystopian Animal Farm. But then two Communist cops stopped the car. They quickly recognized Maldonado's unrepentant gaze and asked where he was headed.

When he answered, "Parque Central," the officers returned to their car and they all drove over in a caravan. Once there, the cops found two small live pigs, one marked "Raúl" and the other "Fidel" in fluorescent blue and red paint. Maldonado was immediately arrested and taken to the notorious Valle Grande prison.

"Some of the officers laughed; others just didn't know what to do," says Maldonado, now 32 years old. "The message was first to have fun, to laugh. Funny things get to people more easily. And that really demonstrated the power of art."

Maldonado, also known as "El Sexto," is Cuba's most controversial and best-known dissident artist. He has spent the past three months in Miami quietly preparing for his first United States exhibit, "Pork," which opened February 25 at Market Gallery on Alton Road in South Beach.

It includes elements of the show he intended to display that Christmas Day when he was arrested. Cuban rock band Porno Para Ricardo played psychedelic music as two pigs, "Fidel" and "Raúl," were released into a wooden pen at the back of the gallery. Minutes later, Maldonado joined them in the pen.

"Most people will die and no one will ever talk about them," Maldonado says mysteriously as he jumps onto the wooden gate. "But if I die today, all of you will remember me."

Maldonado was born during the Special Period, when the Soviet Union's dissolution plunged Cuba into a dire economic crisis, in the impoverished Nuevitas section of Camagüey, about 400 miles from the capital. He took to the streets at a young age, working unofficial jobs selling tobacco and finding rides for people on the street. But that wasn't enough for the artist.

Once he began drawing, he couldn't stop. When he was 9, he sketched a caricature of Fidel wearing a green uniform with a monkey's head. "My mom became very nervous, and she said I couldn't paint that. I asked, "Why?... If I've always painted, why would I not be able to paint that?' Art in general has empowered me," Maldonado says.

"We'd drink, do drugs, that type of thing," he says of himself and his friends growing up. "And then the spray can came to me. I started doing graffiti. I think graffiti was a way to liberate myself. I was not content with what was happening around me, and I wanted to make art."

In 2014, he dubbed himself "El Sexto." The name was a commentary on the Castro regime's campaign demanding the return of five so-called Cuban heroes — who were actually spies being held in U.S. prisons — from the United States. El Sexto is the sixth.

"I became that personality," he says. "It was like being Zorro."

Maldonado was always hustling to make his pieces come to life. When he turned 25, he began signing his name on walls, plastering flyers with his face, and stenciling. He paid a state-sanctioned printing company ten CUCs to print interactive flyers. The word "miedo" ["fear"] was written across the center, with a dotted line along the middle, telling the reader to tear his "fear" in half. Another series had instructions on folding the paper until it formed an airplane, whose wings read, "Freedom."

The Castro regime had no patience for his rebellious spirit. After his arrest in December 2014, Maldonado was incarcerated without trial for ten months. While he was inside, his work caught the attention of the Human Rights Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes and protects human rights globally. Last May, the foundation deemed him a "prisoner of conscience" and awarded him the Václav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent.

"You shouldn't be jailed for creating art," Maldonado says. "It was hard being in there, but I believe it happened to me so I could demonstrate [against] these injustices."

Despite international attention — including stories in the New York Times and Washington Post — Maldonado remained imprisoned in the cramped and decaying concrete cell. "I got to know another part of Cuba," he says. "There are a lot of people who are incarcerated just for being in the capital picking up bottles. There were people who would bake sweets for sale, and they were incarcerated. So why are they there? The [authorities] want to put that fear in the people."

After Porno Para Ricardo and other close friends and family members led a campaign for his liberation, he was finally released this past October. Then he applied for a visa to visit the United States, which was surprisingly granted.

While Castro's regime has deemed him a dissident, Miami's Cuban exile community has greeted him with open arms. Miami-Dade Police Maj. Jose A. Perez welcomed Maldonado into his office and gave the artist an MDPD hat, which he proudly hangs in his studio.

"Miami is my second family," Maldonado says.

Since November, he has been living in a Little Haiti studio that smells of sweat and aerosol paint. The Human Rights Foundation in New York set up the modest space, where he sleeps on an inflatable mattress, surrounded by his work. His days are spent under constant stimulation. He listens to Stromae and Bob Marley, doodles on his iPad, watches Cuban films on mute, and drinks café con chocolate from the trendy coffee shop across the street. It's a far cry from his Havana lifestyle.

Last week, the artist opened his first exhibit in the United States: "Pork" at Market Gallery. Surrounded by close friends and supporters, he showed off new paintings and 40 works he drew while in prison. In the intimate space, he also performed Resistencia, in which he was inked by celebrity tattoo artist Chris Nuñez.

Across Maldonado's upper left back, Nuñez etched a dedication to Leopoldo López, a Venezuelan politician who's unjustly imprisoned. It's one of many tattoos across the artist's natural canvas — one of them depicts Laura Pollán, founder of Cuban opposition group Ladies in White.

"This exhibit could have never happened in Cuba," says Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White, who was at the event. "Everything is at the service of the government there. And a 'counterrevolutionary,' as the Castros call them, could never show his work."

Earlier in the evening, the gallery screened a rare Andy Warhol film from 1965, The Life of Juanita Castro. It was inspired by an article Castro's sister wrote for Life magazine in 1964 titled "My Brother Is a Tyrant and He Must Go." Warhol's avant-garde satire on Latin American politics depicts an imploding family portrait. Waldo Díaz-Balart, whose sister was Fidel Castro's first wife and whose two nephews have served in Congress, stars in the film.

"Waldo Díaz-Balart was the catalyst to Warhol's project and has handed the torch to El Sexto, symbolically, by welcoming the screening during Danilo's show," says Steven Pollock, curator and art dealer.

Despite Miami's warm reception of Maldonado, he has no intention of staying. United States-Cuba relations are thawing, but he knows his work on the island is far from over. He remains committed to shocking people out of their complicity.

"I want youth to be ambitious, to think that if you want to do something, you have to do it all the time," Maldonado says. "Change comes from us, not from the government."

Staff writer Jessica Weiss contributed to this report.

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