In Cuba, even the simplest of gestures is surrounded by layers of meaning.
By Francie O'Flynn
Published July 05, 2006
Somehow, the incident of the flags says it all: It speaks to a country's sophisticated artistic vision; its resourcefulness and its tongue-in-cheek cheekiness. In fact, the incident of the flags on Havana's famous Malecon sums up 'Cuban-ness' in a very visual way. And it's a great story!
Let me share it.
While there is no U.S. embassy in Cuba, there is a U.S. Interests Section. This high-rise building is located across from the Malecon, a seawall that protects the old City (Habana Vieja) from the often tempestuous waters of the Florida Straights. In geographical terms it's a scant 90 miles from Miami; ideologically, it's a thousand universes away.
In January 2006, someone in the U.S Interests Section had a brain-burp. Why not use the building's facade to instant message the population of Cuba's capital city? A huge pixel board was installed at the top of the building facing Havana and the U.S. began beaming human rights messages in Spanish to a captive audience.
Or so they thought. One month later the Cuban government installed a message of its own. In a large square located between the U.S. Interests building and Habana Vieja, they mounted a permanent "art" installation. One hundred and thirty eight black flags, each adorned with a single white star, fluttered in the warm Cuban breeze. The installation totally blocked the pixel board – and its messages – from view.
138 black flags block the U.S. Interests Section building in Havana
Ingenious? Yes indeed. Humourous? That too. But those who know the country well would agree that in Cuba even the simplest of gestures is surrounded by layers of meaning. In the case of the flag incident, each star was supposed to represent a Cuban who had died as a result of U.S. foreign policy in Cuba.
There's more. The idea for the installation may well have been "borrowed" from one of the country's favourite sons – installation artist Wilfredo Prieto. Prieto, who lives and works in Havana, exhibits internationally (including a recent designed-for-space installation at McMaster Museum of Art in Hamilton).
For the Eighth Havana Bienal in 2004, he created an installation called Apolitico 2001-2003, in which 30 national flags, (reproduced in grayscale to illustrate the need to sometimes sublimate colour and individuality to achieve a unified world) fluttered in the breeze near the Malecon. Sound familiar?
Actually, it's entirely appropriate that the Cuban government, in responding to the U.S. pixel board "invasion", chose to take its metaphorical statement from its thriving art community. Like the sounds of Cuban salsas, rumbas and mambos, Cuban art is increasingly hogging the world art stage.
Young Cuban artists, sculptors, printmakers and installation and performance artists are creating a unique artistic vision that is becoming internationally marketable. A good thing in cash-starved Cuba.
Even more important to the Cuban government, which is now extremely supportive of the country's artists, the hot Cuban art scene is bringing in tourists the like of which this small island hasn't seen in almost half-a-century.
Unlike the tourists of the 1940s and 50s, many visitors from Canada, other parts of Latin America, Germany and Italy (and, yes, even several from the U.S.) are fascinated with Cuban culture. Lured by Cuban music, as popularized by the Buena Vista Social Club and other modern Cuban groups now touring internationally, these visitors are finding much to love about the Cuban people, the incredibly varied landscape and the now very visible art community. Cuba is definitely now on the culture map.
By one reckoning more than 10 percent of the population of Cuba (now standing at more than 11 million people) is artists. They receive (as do all Cubans) free education through the state, and the art schools in Havana and the provinces are first-rate by any standard.
The Cuban government offers artists many opportunities to display their work. Most notable are the Bienals, which the government and the art community have organized every two or so years since the 80s to bring together artists from more than 40 countries in a sharing of artistic visions.
Artists are now permitted to travel and exhibit abroad, to build their own houses and even sell their works on the internet or through a foreign dealer. They make more money than most doctors or lawyers. Not surprisingly, many young artists coming of age in the new millennium (unlike many of their colleagues in the 1970s to the 1990s) have chosen to stay and work in Cuba.
"These artists are committed to pursuing personal responses to the culture in which they have been raised. Despite state restrictions, these artists navigate a remarkable course of individual artistic expression that is at once critical and celebratory of the place they passionately call home," notes a University Art Museum report on a 2001 exhibition of nine Cuban artists held in State University of New York in Albany.
It's a two-edged sword, however. Comments Painter Alicia Leal: "In the eighties one could not live by art. The wages were the same as a worker's. There were only a few painters. (But now) everybody wants to be a painter to make good money. I say: 'Where is the love for art?'"
An equally difficult question relates to artistic freedom. Yes, Cuban artists are permitted artistic freedoms within certain limits, but this doesn't extend to overt criticism of the state (Social commentary – Si; Anti-Castro – no), nor does the state sanction semi-pornography.
Other works simply violate someone's perception of what art should be. Sometimes, someone in power just doesn't like the artist. In fact, to an outsider such as me, the prescribed limits seem as shifting as the pure white sand on a Varadero beach.
The following incident took place during the seventh Havana Bienal:
A popular performance/installation piece by Cuban artist Tania Bruguera featured a video collage of what appeared to be the life of Cuban president Fidel Castro; the sickly sweet smell of decaying sugarcane and the presence in deep shadow of naked bodies, rubbing their mouths and slapping their thighs. "It's like Cuba," the artist was quoted as saying, "It's sweet. It can be dangerous. It's intoxicating."
Not for long, unfortunately. The piece was disassembled the day after it opened. Was it live nudity, as the official statement would have it? Was the artist's criticism of the state too overt? Or did a bureaucrat simply not like it?
Fortunately, repression, unevenly applied as it is, has failed to influence the variety of artistic voices and the different technical approaches that make up the current Cuban artistic community.
They range from the fantastical Cuban landscapes by Viñales painter Ramón Vázquez León that feature figures reminiscent of Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch to realism and magic realism to abstract expressionism and naïve painting.
Printmaking, particularly under the sensitive hand of an artist such as Sandra Ramos, has a long and proud place in Cuban art. Sculpture, photography, installation and performance art abound. It's this "cacophony of voices" that creates a truly interesting and unique vision.
"Cuba is the most incredible place, exotic and raw," says Eduardo Labrada Acuña, a painter who captures rural Cuba with simple clean lines and vibrant colours. "I want people to see the beauty of Cuba through my paintings of the countryside in which I grew up."
"You may see how, in spite of our sorrow, we Cubans never lose our joy in living here." Painter José Rodriguez Fuster, who has joyfully "decorated" his Jaimanitas neighbourhood with ceramics and paintings reflecting ordinary Cuban life and stories from the Santeria religion.
"I think art is very difficult to limit and bind. I paint scenes from daily life, house interiors, people, elements from daily culture etc. I treat women's problems, their leadership, their family conflicts, their relationships:" Alicia Leal.
"I am 91 years old. I was born with a paintbrush in my hand. I never had a teacher. My source of inspiration is nature. I do not imitate anything, not even my own things. I have everything in my mind, in my memory. " Ruperto Jay Matamoros.
"(I have) taken stylistically opposed extremes and arrived at a figurative style which is becoming more and more immersed in an abstract realm. This direction, I find, is approaching more exactly my own sense of reality and at the same time broadened my concept of reality." Orlando Ignacio Fernandez Merida.
"Not even I knew I was transforming myself into one of the pioneers…although great masters such as Wilfredo Lam had painted murals, they were painted inside houses. But as to outside murals, maybe fate had reserved this little piece for me. And that's how we got this mural on a public street. People's reaction was magical. Many knew the work it took me to find the materials and told me, 'Maestro, I have in the house a little bit of red oil paint' or yellow or a little printing dye. And so it was that I began to paint with whatever I came across." Salvador González Escalona, muralist and sculptor responsible for the creation of the murals of Hamel Alley in Central Havana.
As an observer of the Cuban art scene, I have been particularly struck by the way Cuba's art and artists reflect the national character. So much about Cuban art is strange, contradictory and deeply passionate. So much about these people and this place are also so. From the incident of the flags to the disassembling of a critical installation – sometimes it just doesn't compute.
But then, as the Cubans will say with a shrug: "that's Cuba." To me this means: Don't try to understand us, just appreciate us for what we are. And I do.
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