The art of Cuba

29

Dear Artist,

A bus sits idling and cannot find its driver. A few ancient automobiles avoid the potholes. Workers shuffle. The hotel rooms are not yet ready and, when they are, there are no towels. When the coffee comes, it’s cold and it’s not coffee. The Cuban government has a hand in every enterprise — every farm, garden, store, hotel, factory and art gallery. Commercial galleries are few and far between. In this island of 11 million, a handful of chosen artists are the ones who are recognized, get the press and are hung in the public galleries. If taste and craftsmanship were criteria, there’s not much going on. The souvenir industry is stuck with the same old stuff. There are a few street artists. I’m surprised to find little of the painterly realism as was produced in Russia during the height of soviet optimism.

cuban-art_Santiago-Rodriguez-Olazabal

Cosa sencilla (Simple Thing), 2014
mixed media by Santiago Rodriguez Olazabal
Galería Habana, Cuba

One has to ask if political and “educated” art choosing, in any country, gives an unnatural spin. Is there a chance that public art is pretty well always chosen for the wrong reasons? Is it possible that the best (along with the worst) contemporary art is found in commercial galleries in an atmosphere of freedom? And what happens when there are few commercial galleries?

Cuba is a place where time stands still. Its appeal is beyond charm. It’s tidy. There are no McDonald’s wrappers caught on fences along the highway. Here, little is wasted. Economic reverses as well as central planning have slowed development and redevelopment. Nevertheless, a massive restoration plan is underway in the old quarter of Havana. The beautiful colonial and art deco buildings of Havana remain.

Everyone here calls him “Fidel.” His countrymen know little of prosperity. It’s illegal for citizens to own a private automobile, computer or VCR. But here they have the highest literacy rate in the Caribbean. There’s no child labour. Health care is free. It’s an economy based on repair and conservation. But with incomes of $20 to $100 per month, there’s little left over for art. Right now Cuba is safe, docile, and poor. It’s a magic land where every village vibrates with traditional music, natural poetry and rumba. Where every freedom-loving would-be artist lives a dream that a nightmare will just go away.

graffiti-landing

Cuban Street Art : The Writing on the Wall
“All across Cuba, change is in the air.”

Best regards,

Robert

PS: “The citizens of Cuba can be all things unto themselves.” (Fidel Castro)

Esoterica: People who cannot travel or are limited in the travelling of their minds, are not as creative as those who do. Complex and confusing environments with a variety of phenomena are the ones that stimulate creativity. Better art is made in places where there’s a feeling of choice. Cuba is a one-eyed ’59 Buick with a recycled Lada under the hood. It’s chugging on a dusty road that never seems to end. Fidel loves to blame the situation on the U.S. blockade. Artists know differently. Lovers of freedom know differently. Everyone waits.

This letter was previously published as “The art of Cuba” on January 10, 2003.

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29 Comments

  1. Perhaps an update is due.
    I was in Cuba in May of this year and found fantastic art. The Art University was the best I have seen
    any place. Many artists come to the US and other countries but always seem to return.
    And Castro is no longer called “Fidel”, but is called “him”.
    Hotel had plenty of towels, soap, etc.

  2. Yes, I am with those others who have actually travelled to Cuba many times. I was there last February and found it less barren than that letter states. But then I realized the letter dates from your late father;s visit in 2003. Why not introduce the reader to the historic note and then compare it with more recent observations. Cuba will now change drastically, and not all for the better as most of us who have seen it over the years have appreciated the charm. It would be a n interesting exercise to now begin to document the changes this will also bring to the art scene.

    • With respect for your in-person visits to Cuba, What is charming about a people of great, ‘joie de vivre,’ being forced to live under one man’s spirit, and freedom, crushing thumb? I had the great pleasure of meeting and befriending a superbly talented and accomplished Cuban musician while visiting Jamaica. She was a classically trained harpist; fortunate enough to have been granted a limited, strictly enforced visa to accept a one month gig performing at a resort hotel dining room. She was desperate to find away out of Cuba so that she might pursue her dream of performing with an orchestra and have an opportunity, that she had been denied for her entire life, to see more of the world.

  3. How auspicious. I just returned from Cuba. I didn’t get into any art galleries or museums unfortunately. I did appreciate the simple watercolours in our hotel resort room. The leather and suede piece behind the reception desk caught my eye. My friends bought the little 5×8 reproduction pieces of cars, city scenes etc. I found them to be too commercial. I think things have changed a little since Robert’s visit but not a lot. There really is a feeling that art is a big luxury and the necessities of life are not really available to all. There was a lot of poverty evident and people did not look happy and carefree.
    I managed a couple of sketches on the beach. But I would have loved a day to myself in Havana to catch the locals unaware.
    Take care, Mary Jean

  4. Am not sure what date Robert write this but I have to say I disagree with him about the arts in Cuba.
    Huge talent there now.
    I was there in June this year for the Bienale and saw many works by Cubans who live in Cuba that blew me away.
    Yes there is the usual touristy work which we find in every country, but there are serious art forms of all kinds there now.

  5. I read this, thinking this is the most inaccurate missive you have written, Sara; then I saw the original year, 2003.
    No wonder. And even then people could own a car, although not many could afford it.

    Whether the art is good or not is a matter of opinion. I didn’t see much I liked, but others did.

  6. Connie MacLeod on

    The opinion expressed here by Robert in 2003 is a very skewed highly politicized point of view and wasn’t a balanced perspective in 2003. It certainly doesn’t apply now and I am curious as to your motive in reposting it. I’d appreciate hearing your reply.

    • Hi Connie, I agree with your comment. It seems that 55 years on many Americans still want to try to justify the draconian measures they took against the Cuban people by trotting out the same old tired cliché views of Cuba. The rest of the world moved on a long time ago. It is quite sad that Sara would trot out a 12 year old piece by her father to continue to perpetuate this nonsense. Good art and artists will always make us think and question. When we become part of the propaganda machinery, it’s time to put down our brushes.

  7. I note that the two graphics included in the body of the article speak to the new Cuban art world: the first is dated 2014 and the second has a descriptor below saying. “All across Cuba, change is in the air.” An embedded pictoral message!

  8. I have to agree with many of the above comments. I visited from the UK a few years ago (after Robert’s original post but before finding The Painters Keys) and found some interesting art and many examples of “allowed” private enterprise. The music and people were fantastic. I found it very curious that this particular letter has been re-posted. Even if I’d seen it at the time of the original post, I feel I’d have been inclined to question the viewpoint expressed which – even at the time of my own visit there – is also factually incorrect. It is true that there were no McDonald’s wrappers blowing in the wind. However, with the recent shift in diplomacy, I fear that it is only a matter of time before this starts to happen. One of our tour guides indicated that a plot in Havana was already reserved for that ubiquitous organisation.

  9. In a recent (non art related) email exchange with a journalist from my Eastern-European native country, he offered “to help me out” via his personal connection with a government art gallery. He was interested in my art academic “lineage”. It always saddens me to remember how few and unwavering paths are in the world that lacks a functioning economic ecosystem.

  10. I was in Cuba in the early 2000’s several times as my son was working in Havana. I Saw fantastic art! In the Fine Art Museum, in the few commercial galleries & at the chosen historic edifices hosting the Art Biennialle in Havana. There were also many powerful sculptures around! I came away thinking the place was full of it, and of course the music was everywhere. I felt the realist political Art shared by the Russians was a small gift to the Cuban natural talents. The same could not be said of the great Russian gift of the Ballet, which is still outstanding. Perhaps art flourishes more without crass commercialism.

  11. Well, I have to agree with practically everyone who wrote above, Sarah. I have been to Cuba several times, starting in 1986 when the Soviet Union was still subsidizing the Cuban economy with cheap oil and paying well above the world price for sugar. In those days the stores were full of inexpensive goods made in the USSR, Eastern Europe, and China, and there were lots of Ladas mixed in with the old American cars and some Japanese models. People were well educated and relatively prosperous, compared to the surround island like Jamaica and Haiti.

    I was there around 2000 a decade after the USSR disintegrated and conditions were much poorer as for the second time they had lost their principal market and supplier of spare parts for practically everything and the world price of sugar and tropical fruit was quite depressed; a situation not helped by the US blockade of all Cuban exports and trade. The stores had little in them except the basic staples, but medical care including dental and vision care and education continued to be free, including university, something that even the wealthiest countries in the “west” like Canada and the US claim they can’t afford! Even then there was plenty of music, art, and culture everywhere you looked, and the streets were spotlessly clean in contrast to Mexico, Jamaica, Haiti, or New York Miami, or Detroit, for that matter.

    More recently the Cuban economy has recovered a lot as they established new trade relations with South America, China, and more recently a greatly revived Russian economy. Russia recently wrote off Cuba’s $70 Billion debt so they are trading now without any repayment of old long term debt. In general the Cuban economy continues to recover from the “Special Period” following the loss of the Soviet Union’s advantageous trade terms and is far more prosperous than the surrounding islands with their 50 – 60 percent unemployment in Jamaica, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. And they are still providing free education right through university, and free medical care, dental care, and optical care in spite of the ongoing US blockade, which is pretty remarkable for a small impoverished island being sabotaged at every turn by it’s huge neighbour. They definitely have their priorities right, and Canada and the US have a lot to learn from them regarding environmentally friendly agriculture, education, and medical, dental, and optical care.

  12. Some believe that when the Castro brothers are no longer at the helm, Cuba will blossom. One can only hope that is true, and that Cuba can avoid the totalitarian stagnation that has enmired North Korea.

  13. This letter would have made a wonderful opening chapter to a mystery novel. How interesting it would have been if Robert had also been a novelist.

  14. This brought back memories of my early art training. In the 60’s, I was fortunate to study for 4+ years under Leopoldo Giraudy who was personal artist to Batiste. When Castro took over, Mr. Giraudy “escaped” to New Orleans, leaving behind everything incl. his paintings. He was hired as an art instructor at a gallery where I studied. He was amazingly talented and I owe much of my success to him. Later on he was able to bring his mother and a sister to live with him in N.O. (FYI).

  15. As one of artists who has experience creating in so called socialist/comunist countries, I could reply with the words of Mao: The most beautiful flowers bloom on the dump. Cuba is lucky that the social-realism from soviets didn’t hit them.
    It is nice to create there, but other thing is to live there. Problem with all the replies is that you write from the position of seeing what you want to see, but try to live there. Anyway, now Cuban art is great

  16. There is a gallery/store in my town (Beaufort SC) and the woman’s in-laws still live in Cuba. She and her husband have been able to make several trips there. I bought 2 wonderful canvases (rather large) with abstract portraits of a man and a woman. They had to be stretched here and may not be the best job but they are colorful and very well done. But these are paintings that have to be brought back as canvases because they are not “official” art. They don’t in any way criticize the government – but the artists don’t even sign them. I feel very blessed to own the pair and at such a reasonable price. Cuba would be a very interesting place to visit.

  17. I went to Cuba in January of 2012, found the art scene vibrant and very much alive, new cars (mostly KIA’s) everywhere and the people robust, happy and very friendly. It was the very best experience. Go quickly if you can, before they open up to mainstream tourists and become more like us.

  18. Roberts letter from 2003 is no longer relevant. We went to Cuba in 2013 and the art scene was dynamic and a real sense of slow, incremental and much desired change was in the air. One of the best “holidays” we ever took.

  19. As far as I know I’m the only American bringing artists to Cuba to paint – under the General Class License for Professional Research.. one of my strongest memories is a visit to the San Alejandro Art school in Havana. I had no idea that Cuban kids were getting such a good education in the fundamentals of art: drawing, anatomy, painting, etc. True, the models get paid about 50 cents an hour but then have no trouble finding good ones. I’ve seen some excellent examples of representational painting which is definitely NOT what Cuban art is known for. Also true that many artists make more (much more) than doctors, lawyers and engineers. But there are plenty of Cubans who value those professions and still continue to go into them. And the kids who are trained as tour guides make even more than the artists! It’s a most interesting country and the more I go the more I get hooked.

    • It is time to scrap this letter. I find it offensive. I have been to Cuba 26x and have always had the best of coffee and towels in my room. Cuban mechanics can’t order parts from the USA, so they have learned to remake parts and keep those wonderful old cars on the road. Ours are long gone in our dumps. And yes I have seen some good art. Three cheers to people who have survived when not being tied to the good old USA.

      • One wonders why Robert wasn’t more curious about the country when he visited Cuba.
        The major cities of the West all have their depressing sides: run down accommodations , rubbish and drub paraphernalia in the streets, homelessness, child and elder abuse, violent crime and drug addiction.
        Cuba’s infant mortality rate is lower than that of the US. Take a walk in a Cuban park on the weekend and you will see families spending much time together. Cuba’s children are happy, physically fit, and well educated. Their faces are not glued to electronic devices.
        Everyone in Cuba has a place to live even though it may be very basic. Everyone who wants a job can have one, even if it is as simple as sweeping the street. Everyone has basic supplies. The people are safe. Women are respected and have equal rights.
        Cuba’s contemporary art is incredible. The people express their love of music and dance in their free time.
        We hope Cuba does not lose the very things that make its culture beautiful and unique. Cuba needs our support but it does not need to be westernized.

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