Art In Cuba

By: Dan McElroy

The restaurant was all the way up in the penthouse. The elevator was a tight-squeeze, rickety contraption, clearly meant for a bygone era—for tourists no longer around to smell the salt winds crash white-tops over the Malecón (the highway, promenade, and sea wall stretched across northern Havana). The U.S. flag beat rhythmically over the embassy grounds under a few scattered street lamps. Even before the salt spray hit the windshields of the few passing cars still out at that hour, the city was beyond me. It had moved on. Already it had entered a new age and I was just beginning to put the pieces together.

There at dinner, overlooking the Gulf, I had the privilege of chatting with Foreign Correspondent Nick Miroff, stationed in Cuba for the Washington Post. As I began asking about art and the lives of Cuban artists I started to realize that I was about to learn much more than studio practices and painting styles. It was becoming clear to me that I had stumbled onto a story that might already be at the center of the zeitgeist.

So as dawn struck and the bus stop across from the casa particular (think B&B) at which I was staying revved into action, I caught my first glimpses of Havana street art—playful and painterly—and I let the pieces guide me through Vedado (the neighborhood in which we were staying). As we headed towards Havana Vieja, the heart of Havana tourism, the density increased: street art, public sculpture, and a pulsing studio scene. There were many dilapidated storefronts and barred off apartments, their broken grandeur a reminder of another time, but the tangle of downtown avenues and alleys more importantly hosted a bustling surge in commerce and culture. As I wandered in the crowds I heard music and stumbled into an open-air rock concert in one of the public squares, full of dancing and an large semi-circular audience ebbing as those at its edges came and went. The fully costumed dancers in the pit gave way to a raised stage and two massive speaker sets, the band as a focal point captivating the crowd. Not an hour later the square was quiet again, save for the flocks of pigeons and burbling fountain (giving me a chance to admire the public sculpture).

I darted in and out of the small galleries lining the streets, moving through an array of styles and influences. In t-shirts and paint-splattered jeans, these artists were building both broad and deep bodies of work at an impressive scale. One painting (in the movie, titled Corto Circuito) was marked for sale at around an 800 USD equivalent; the price was low to me, given the meticulous honing of craft evident by the dozen or so paintings in a studio not larger than a hundred square feet, but completely outside the means of most Cubans. The breadth in this body of work all crammed into this hole-in-the-wall studio was really impressive. I’d passed gallery after gallery like this, seeing the same thing: unassuming artists surrounded by vibrant and innovative work. Then again, I was really unsure what to think. I mean, who can afford prices like that in this economy? According to a pieceWhy Cuban Cab Drivers earn more than Doctors by Vox reporter Johnny Harris, Cubans only makes the equivalent of 20 USD a month from their government salary. Remember, Cuba is still a totalitarian communist nation.

To my question—who can afford it?—Mr. Miroff responded excitedly, “tourists and collectors, and [the artists] make huge money!”

“It’s so crazy. It’s like the inverse of the starving artist.” Nick Miroff

And that’s the power of art in Cuba right now. Tourism from the U.S. is still prohibited, but tourists from the rest of the world, particularly Canada, flock to the island for its music, scenery, and its art. To travel from the U.S. means that you need to fall into one of the twelve State Department approved categories for a visa, but as relations thaw and Cuba looks to reestablish its economy—after the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Venezuela—U.S. tourism is inevitable. Besides, before the twelve categories you basically couldn’t travel to Cuba, at least not directly, and Cuba has seen a 36% increase in U.S. travel since December 17th (the announcement of reestablished relations) according to The Guardian. Much of that has been under the banner of “Cultural Exchange”—the designation that allows guided tours at all levels from multi-city, tour-bus extravaganzas to informal hour long street guide tours. What’s more, there are signs from some of the major Chelsea galleries in NYC like the Jack Shainman (in their feature of Yoan Capote ) that say that Cuba is the next hot art scene. Now, NYC has been largely cut off from Cuba by the embargo, so calling it the ‘next big thing’ is slightly unfair. The economic conditions that created this contemporary culture are a very specific blend of circumstances: of artists being among the few allowed to travel, of the collapse of the Soviet Union (which was, by the Castros, named the ‘Special Period’), and of a rich cultural tradition that has demonstrated its international appeal. Despite this, New York is the core of the art world; having Chelsea signal a spike in interest, as diplomatic relations have started to thaw, recognizes that this state of affairs has produced artists of real merit. More importantly, this interest will make this situation much more lucrative. This situation—an opening of Cuban markets in the very near future—that might otherwise convert Cuba into a resort destination, a fear, as Mr. Miroff put it, of becoming, “another cheap place to lie on the beach,” may yet allow Cuba to sidestep the resort economy. Already there are steps to develop the Mariel Free Trade Zone, which hopes to create an industrial center and revitalize Havana as an important international port. Cuba’s much needed capital, then, may come by leveraging a new culture industry: a network of dancers, musicians, sculptors, photographers, and painters, who can define a new cultural product that the U.S. is hungry to consume. If Cuban artists are willing to pay the high state taxes, then they will in many ways be at the epicenter of an economic explosion. The taxation system in Cuba is relatively new and a complete mess, but suffice it to say that the party is coming around to the idea of letting profit incentivize culture, rather than having artists rely on a stipend, and even despite the under-declaring of what was sold at a show abroad can still look to make an income that can in some way make projects like Mariel a reality. Having spoken to many Cubans about this, there’s a feeling of wanting to contribute to their society, beyond the billboard propaganda and “Long Live the Revolution” slogans still eerily plastered on walls and in political speeches. They would find this a noble and maybe even an ideal arrangement.

Artists like Leo D’Lazaro and Mario Pelegrin Pozo deeply understand this, and are already making use of the special power afforded artists in this society. Both attended Cuba’s National Art Schools’ Institute of the Arts but have followed very different paths since graduation.

Both are to some degree international artists: D’Lazaro has traveled to salons in France primarily, but also Mexico, Argentina, Italy, Spain, selling mainly in Europe but also in Latin America and the U.S., while Pelegrín has donated murals to the University of Michoacán in Mexico and the City Hall of Waterloo in Canada. This kind of geographic freedom is something many Cubans would give a lot for and it informs how each of the artists see their own nation: that through travel and access abroad, each of them have taken a deeper look at what it means to be Cuban.

At the intersection outside the gallery of D’Lazaro, a banner reads “Art” on one side and “Arte” on the other; one can just about feel the mass of Americans that are about to flood the city in only a few months as summer approaches. It hangs high above a few large mural portraits and giant cartoon animals, notably tagged by a street artist whose work I kept seeing throughout the city.

Making my way inside the gallery space, itself an immersive exhibition, I felt the hand of an experienced artist. From photography to larger than life-sized sculptures of the human figure, D’Lazaro’s surreal world and the bizarre realism of blended photographic and painted images clued me into his larger philosophy. On that point he told me,

“I like, independently, culture, painting ... photography, which is a very contemporary language. I paint quite a lot. Collage is my technique, and interaction; the interaction of photography, the interaction of three-dimensional work, with the environment of the space: it’s all a big interaction that you need to experience in the gallery, and that reinforces the concept of my art. Yes, it’s my own form, my personal way of transmitting my message no? I need to transmit a message that is specific and amplified at the same time ... [about] being in the present. I’m in love with the idea of a route into the present and being in the present, but looking ... to see it all from a different angle...” and I’m reminded of the painting I bought, with not one but two ways of being hung: one that shows a characteristically well kept Cuban car against the backdrop of building façades in the process of peeling, reflecting in a rusty puddle, or the other side with a pair of dancers passionate in their salsa echoing into the distance in smaller and smaller portraits, dissolved into a sea of brush strokes. “...It’s a little bit universal, but ... ultimately my theme is very Cuban as well.”

When I heard we were going to a community project, I had no idea I would meet someone like Mario Pelegrín Pozo. His Patio de Pelegrín is both an earthy, mosaic inspired space (reminding me of the space of Fusterlandia) and an organization of fine artists, chefs, architects, gardeners and farmers: a pitched effort for the shared responsibilities of cleaning and straightening up for guests like us, all in concert to provide for the generations of Pelegrín.

I asked Mr. Pelegrín Pozo about his art, and he told me, “I use everyday scenes of my community. I’m interested, as an artist of my community, to give a voice to all of our traditions [and] the people of my community.”

I then asked him about the specifics of the project, and he told me it began, “2001, in the so-called ‘special period’ in Cuba, when we didn’t even have a pencil to write with— because it was during the time when the Soviet Union was failing and we had many difficulties, but the Cuban people can do a lot with very little.”

I asked what he wanted to teach the kids of Pelegrín, and his answer was,

“Primarily to transmit to them, from the older generation to our kids, an introduction to our traditions, so they’ll know how to go out into country with the secrets they’ll learn here and that afterwards the kids will follow through in becoming successful artists and help realize these community traditions elsewhere, and won’t simply forget them.” Here he gestures as if to elicit such a response. “Because technology has already become a way to kill community traditions. Right now the kids don’t want to paint: they want to be on the computer, they want to be with their phones, they want to be with their tablets, they want to be,” he shrugged. “I’m happy that the kids of this community don’t have any of that. I want the school to have them but for a specific course, in special cases that require research. But these things have already shown themselves to be an epidemic. No, I’m hoping for the time to come when these kids have careers as artists, that this place was, for them, the beginning to their discovery of that end.”

With these thoughts in mind, something Mr. Miroff said about baseball was a rather eloquent parallel,

“...this is becoming a big debate abound the baseball players. So, for the longest amount of time, right, the baseball players were traitors if they left and were playing here on these piddely salaries ... and the Cuban baseball players here know all the contract dollar amounts of all the Cubans who have ever left. The guy who is the biggest voice for change and for engagement with Major League Baseball and for this idea that Cuban ball players should go abroad, and make money, and keep most of it, has been Fidel Castro’s son Tony. MLB just came down here a couple weeks ago with Yasiel Puig and Clay Kershaw and Jose Abreu, the MLB executives, and Joe Torre: they all met with Tony Castro ... and he’s at the forefront of this, and part of it is a response to this argument which was ... these athletes were going, ‘well, how is it fair that artists can go abroad and do shows and sell their work and keep most of the profits, and we’re artists, you know—why can’t we go play in Japan or go play in the States part of the year and keep our salaries, or keep most of it, or pay some taxes or whatever?’ and I think that they’ve kind of broken through and we’re starting to see that,” He highlighted however, that, “because of the embargo it’s not clear how it’s going to work with the U.S., but Cuba has definitely turned this corner in terms of the idea that these ... super talented individuals couldn’t really ... be compensated for their talents, [that] they had to sort of work at the service of the revolution, and now they’ve ... psychologically made the jump to like, ‘ok these are super talented individuals and they’re gonna deserve what they make ... and that if they can share some of it with the rest of us then that’s great,’ and that’s really interesting to see too.”

For their part, various art facilitators like Camilo Garcia López-Trigo at UNEAC (el Union Nacional de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba – the National Union of Writers and Artists in Cuba) will directly build the economic rapport necessary for Cubans to reap the benefits of an opening market. UNEAC sits at the nexus of government and individual artists, so when you pan out and look at what a new Cuban economy is going to look like in five, or ten, or even twenty years, administrative roles will negotiate the terms of that economy. Their work will therefore determine artists’ relative value to the State-centered economy—how they will contribute to Mariel and other government projects—and to the country’s increasingly free market, to likely with Chelsea taste makers and set Cuba’s artistic value to the world.

I caught up with Mr. López-Trigo to ask him about his job, and hear a little about where he thinks Cuba is going.

Click here for the full interview.

He began,

“So [UNEAC is] an organization which is getting together the most prominent artists and writers of the country. I am, here, ‘Cultural Promoter,’ is the name. It’s more a bureaucratic [position], but it’s very important because [artists] are coming here and I’m the one, one of the ones, ... paying attention to their demands and their inquiries. I mean basically I have to deal with all the writers, all our members, who are coming here or organizing—we organize prices twice a year—and then to organize that or normally right—I was doing it right now,” he laughed, “dealing with some meetings because we have ... activities every week about poetry or about history and literature...” I asked how often UNEAC has meetings with the artists, and he told me, “Well it’s very frequent, almost every week; we have all different things. Every six months there should be a bigger meeting and every year there should be one for all memberships. And every five years we have the general congress of the UNEAC which is an event, socially speaking, for the whole country because even [the government participates], I mean the national government, and then they are there just to hear their problems, their concerns, and their discussions or their proposals to solve problems and all that.” I also asked what some of the problems they discuss are, and he continued, “I mean it depends on the year because—for example, two years ago there was a huge discussion in the country for implementing a taxation system, that would affect the writers in fact, and so we had to organize also meetings with those people proposing that law to the parliament and have discussions and hear their concerns on all these issues.”

I was very interested in whether UNEAC dealt with questions of censorship, and he pondered, “Ah, well regularly we have these kind of meetings with the institutions and the government and the provincial government and the people who are responsible to that,” and paused thoughtfully, “you know that’s not a—now that you mention it—that’s not a normal discussion about that. No, I mean in real terms the people are very free to express their ideas in their books and all that, and that’s not a big concern for them. No, not at all,” and here he smiled.

I followed up by asking, on the flip side, about the things he loves about art in Cuba, coming from his perspective working for UNEAC, and he told me, “yesterday for example they were presenting one of the magazines that, I mean one of the regular magazines that we publish here in UNEAC, and they always are publishing important writers and talking about social issues and realities in Cuba and all that, and it’s always very emotional just to deal with that and hear their concerns and their proposals and all that; for me that’s fantastic—and to have direct contact everyday with important writers and important artists as part of my job?—My God!—What else [is there] to expect?

Again, his smile was infectious.

I finally asked him a question that will come as a surprise to most Americans: I asked how, considering the reality that Cubans get a regular flow of U.S. movies, TV, and through the black market, what an opening of formal relation really means for the arts—does it really matter if the culture is already present?

And, yes the culture really is ever present; the endless repeat of Adel’s Hello had crossed the Gulf from Miami, and I danced to Salsa along with Uptown Funk, heard even more U.S. music from taxi bikes, watched a few Michael Jackson videos on the bus from our driver Midel Rodriguez Garcia’s collection, and in the movie above there’s a sensational cover of Alicia Keys’ Girl of Fire by Yaudel Machado Diaz. Every week you can by a new weekly package, the ‘paquete semanal’ or just ‘el paquete’: a one-terabyte drive with all the media that smugglers could pack into it. It’s not really a sinister black market operation like we’re use to thinking in the U.S., but nevertheless it makes the embargo seem like even more of a waste of time. Mr. Lopez-Trigo’s answer was, “I mean we are only 90 miles away from the United States, so the influence is very obvious here.” His point was cultural but also economic, that the U.S. embargo has shaped the current Cuban economy and will be the deciding piece in what a new Cuban economy can become.

As I’ve had a little time to soak in what incredible knowledge I’ve been privy to, I regret that I’ve omitted important voices from the conversation. By happenstance I didn’t interview any women artists and clearly my sample of ‘Cuban art’ cannot nearly represent the entire island.

I do hope that despite these oversights this sheds light on the unique and influential position of artists in Cuba and a little of what that might suggest about how Cuba steps forward in our own time. In a moment when the rules of diplomacy and international relationships are changing, Cuban art is an influential forge for social and economic development. Cuba’s artists will not only will have a lot to say about all this, but be its primary driver.