The State of the Arts in Cuba

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The Cubans we’ve spoken with so far have been quite unreserved about their feelings on the fruits of the revolution. “We’ve been figuring it out as we go along,” is a common refrain. Chucking Batista and the old regime out was a no brainer, albeit an improbable accomplishment, given the money and vested international power behind the old regime. They talk about it with the same reverence that Israelis use for their war of independence: a ragtag group of idealists – rural peasants and college students coming together against overwhelming odds. But once the dust had settled and it came to establishing a new system of government, well, governing had been a purely theoretical exercise up to that point, argued and debated in back rooms with the same fervor (and unwarranted conviction) that you might expect from college students.

They’ve been sanguine about the results. Were mistakes made? They’re quick to laugh – where do we start? But hey, they say, we keep tweaking things, trying to figure out how to make it work. The ideology has been fluid, with an emphasis on practicality. You might catch a moment of bitterness – just a moment – at the how they feel the world has taken turns promising favors when it suited, then snatching them away. Joel points out that the Russian embassy is shaped like the hilt of an enormous knife, stuck, they like to say, in Cuba’s back. But then his broad, easy smile is back: “Hey, what can you do?”

From my email, it seems that I’m not the only one struck by the parallels with Israeli independence, and a fascination with how differently the big players in the world at large have responded. (No, don’t worry – I’m not at all oblivious to the country’s ongoing abuses of human rights, nor, I’m sure are the Cubans with whom we’ve been speaking. Just saying – have a look at some other countries with whom we’ve been best of buddies.)

But enough about politics. Anyone who’s traveled farther than the next county line (or, hell, ever turned on the new – even Fox News!), should be well aware of the gulf that exists between a government and the people it governs. And we’re here to meet the people. Did I mention that the whole point of this trip (other than hey, this is a chance to see Cuba!) is as a cultural arts exchange? We’ve been spending our days meeting with painters, scupltors, musicians and photographers close to non-stop during the day, seeing some amazing stuff. Can’t begin to capture it all, but here’s a and-then-we-went-to-this-other-place precis:

First stop, two days ago (I think it was two days ago – Maybe three? I’ve lost track) was a printers workshop in the heart of the old city. It’s run as a cooperative, where resident artists get to vote new members in.

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Then it was down a maze of narrow streets with precarious masonry to visit the home and studio of Afro-European-Cuban artist Jorge Manuel Almagro. Sculptor, painter, woodworker, filmmaker – pretty much any form of art that’s going to impinge upon your eyeballs, I think Jorge has tried it. No, not “tried” – excelled. We only saw a tiny sampling of his sculpture, but his paintings leap off the canvas in those same three dimensions. I kept peering at them from different angles to reassure myself that they really were just oil on flat canvas, not wood, steel and glass built upon each other.

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The modern art scene in Cuba is wildly alive, but the country has a long history of fine art, much of it on display in the Christopher Columbus Necropolis – the old Havana cemetery. Spectacular, breathtaking funerary marbles – fluttering gossamer captured in stone, commemorating the city’s beloved. The tallest (by decree) is a monument to the 34 firefighters killed in the late 1800s putting out a warehouse blaze in the heart of the old city. The warehouse owner had neglected to tell anyone of the arsenal of explosives he had hidden in back.

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We spent a morning in Muraleando – an artists’ community in the hills above the harbor, built on the land grant of an old dump. I’ve forgotten how many truckloads of trash they said they had to haul away before they got down to street level, but now those same streets are decorated with gorgeous painting and sculptures.

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At the other end of the city, we got to wander the world of Jose Rodriguez Fuster, a prolific and flamboyant ceramic artist who has remade his neighborhood to resemble a place in which Gaudi and Dr. Seuss would feel entirely at home.

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Our final stop of the day yesterday was to the home of Roberto Salas, who as the sixteen-year old son of a New York journalist found his own snapshot on the cover of Life Magazine, documenting Castro’s prank of hanging a Cuban Liberation flag on the Statue of Liberty. Two years later, when his father came to Cuba to cover the revolution, Roberto followed in tow, and established himself as a master of the camera, taking many of the intimate and iconic portraits that have become a part of the national memory. Salas says he’s always steered away from politics. He’s just interested in people, in textures, in stories.

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Then (again, sorry about the and-then-we narrative), this morning, we spent a breathless few hours with Prodanza, one of Havana’s three professional dance troupes. Y’all know I’m not one for ballet, right? But. Wow. Their school and rehearsal space is a cracked concrete floor protected from the sun and rain by a corrugated tin roof and tarp. But. Wow.

Pablo?

Yeah?

Why are you still talking?

What do you mean?

Just show us the photos.

Oh, right. Here are some photos:

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Tomorrow we leave Havana for a couple of days in Trinidad, to the south. May not be online again until we get back. In the meantime, enjoy.

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