Lita Cabellut | Queen Lita

“Wow! I love it! Give me a kiss, I am so happy!” exclaims Cabellut, throwing her arms around Ann Tsang and myself as we present her with copies of Kee Magazine’s 2012 Art Issue. Her evocative portrait of Coco Chanel titled Coco No. 14 graces the cover. 

“She is the perfect example that with power and discipline in our will and our minds, we can change a life. She learned, in the most terrible circumstances, to transform,” she says as she muses over the magazine cover. “You know, she was not glamorous, she was boring – I know people who have met her and they all say she was not nice. I think because she never learned one thing, and that was to really be in love. I call her the queen of the moon.”

“Why the moon?” I ask.

“Because it’s white and black and between them, there is nothing. Coco never accepted the middle. Ever. It’s not easy and it’s not for everyone, but what she showed us is that we are monsters. Chickens. Gods.”

It’s the first time Cabellut has seen – or even heard of - the magazine cover. Despite having exhibited in some of the world’s top galleries all over the United States, Europe, China and now for the first time in Hong Kong, Cabellut remains a stranger to her own fame. 

“My children say to me ‘Mum! You are very known!’ but I still think that I’m only known at home where everyone in the street - the dogs, the cats, the children –know me,” says the artist. “When I see any publicity I’m so shocked. But you know, sometimes I think it’s good not to know. It’s better.”

 Her exhibition Behind The Curtains opened in conjunction with the opening of the stunning new four-story Opera Gallery on Wyndham Street; the presence of Cabellut’s brooding portraits completely dominating the strip. 

“What I want to do with my work is arouse philosophy. I’m not interested in filling a room with bright colours,” says Cabellut of her exhibition. “I’m interested in filling a room with good thoughts and good questions.”

Given the scale of Cabellut’s dramatic – even imposing – portraits, I was surprised to meet a petite lady, barely over five feet tall with draping black hair and a voice loud enough to command the attention of an entire room but husky from a lifetime of smoking cigarettes. And when I say a lifetime, I mean she’s been smoking cigarettes from the age of twelve, only kicking the habit a month and a half ago. Lita is 52.

“Do you feel healthier already?” I ask her.

“Healthy? No. I’m hysterical,” she says. “I think smoking is one of the greatest pleasures you can have. You know, I could never come to Hong Kong if I was still smoking. Thirty hours of traveling with no cigarette? No no no, I would have ended up in jail for smoking on the plane anyway!”

There is a very special air about Cabellut. She’s a woman with soul and her presence, her positivity and her energy are about as captivating and intoxicating as her artwork. 

“ I was 13 years old when I visited a museum for the first time and I just, I fell in love,” says Cabellut theatrically, enunciating every word and clutching on to her heart with both hands. “I said to myself, I belong in this world. I want to give all my love and my life to art for as long as I am alive.”

True to her word, Cabellut has spent her entire life painting; her intense portraits pulling from memories of complex human emotions she has witnessed both growing up and as the patient, receptive observer of the world around her that she is today. 

“Us gypsies, we are very passionate,” says Cabellut. “The feelings in us are so strong that it is normal for us to feel that we can live and die in the same day.” 

A gypsy by blood, Cabellut has spent much of her life moving between different cities and countries. But as a child, Cabellut was brought up amongst fellow gypsies in Barcelona’s El Raval– a once poverty-stricken district notorious for crime and prostitution - until she was adopted at the age of 13. 

Parallels can be drawn between how El Raval and Lita have grown and developed over the years. Both have busted out of the dark and hit the ground running while still maintaining that roughness that makes them so intriguing; El Raval has since become Spain’s artistic, bohemian hub, littered with cutting-edge galleries and restaurants. Meanwhile Cabellut evolved into a world-revered artist.

Using oil paints and fresco in a technique she’s taken over five years to perfect, the surface of Cabellut’s paintings resemble a ‘skin’ making her subjects so human that it’s impossible to walk away without feeling as though you had actually met every face in the room – from the historical and cultural icons to the melancholy circus clowns or vintage saltimbanques. 

“You know, the body has a memory. When I make my palette, my body and my mind are remembering the painters of where I come from,” says Cabellut of the moody hues in her paintings. “I am Spanish. I come from a culture obsessed with darkness and light.”

More than just a painter, Cabellut is a storyteller. Most of her subjects are painted as part of a series, be it the aforementioned Coco Chanel series, an unforgettable string of portraits exploring Charlie Chaplin – “He was actually very philosophical, always giving us warning signs but no one listened because on screen he made them appear as jokes, making people laugh,” Cabellut says of her fellow gypsy – or her famous tribute to Mexican painter and great influencer, Frida Kahlo. 

“It’s what is behind these people, the reality behind the curtains, that is so fascinating,” says Cabellut affectionately of her oil painted friends. “Because everyone in Europe has been so down about the crisis, I recently did an exhibition in London of all these big spirits. I was trying to say to everybody hey, come, we may have lost money but we must never forget how big we are. We have knowledge, we have creativity and we are really incredible creatures.”