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Inside Cuba's exhilarated and savage arts scene

In Cuba, a country where criticism of the government is whispered and no citizen is allowed in any boat for fear they’ll flee to Florida only 90 miles away, it is somewhat surprising to come across a wild warehouse party in the beachside suburb of Vedado on Friday night, featuring rock bands, electrified flamenco, edgy music video, film screenings and an exhibition of compelling political art.

In a two storey former church, magnificently dilapidated and spot lit, a few blocks from the famous Malecon (boardwalk), the headquarters of the art collective F.A.C (Fabrica Arte Cubano) is teeming with Cubans and a smattering of young hip tourists. Swarms of well-dressed gay men and beautiful Cuban girls laugh and drink the ubiquitous mojitos as they saunter around the enormous multi-levelled space, discussing the art, buying cheap mojitos at the chic bars, watching the huge music videos and spilling into outdoor terraces, lit by moonlight.

The building has been adapted into a permanent multi-media art-space, with Moorish peep-holes through which art in all its forms can be glimpsed within exquisite architectural frames. As you wander through the space, art works and party-goers appear through these unexpected internal windows, creating a multi-dimensional experience, which changes every two months and is funded by the artists themselves.

A crowd of around a hundred sit on wooden crates surrounding one of several stages to watch a local band and the three mesmerising female dancers (Compania Flamenca Ecos) who perform a kind of trippy-new millennium flamenco to thunderous applause, while hundreds of other hipsters mingle downstairs.

The locals are either inoculated against the rum by virtue of its low-price and availability or they are high on this pulsating, joyful atmosphere. Everyone is well dressed but no garment has a brand name. There is no sign of drugs — no wired eyes or even the whiff of marijuana — ecstasy is here but it’s embedded in the artistic circus that keeps laying on new acts around every corner.

From the music to the soft-drinks — there is nothing obviously American on show. This is a tiny glimpse into a world where America has no cultural muscle and though some of the conceits of the art feel familiar, there are some striking differences in how it is received. When a Cuban rock-band takes to one of several stages, the audience is appreciative but there is no dancing or mosh-pit. They sit reverentially, then applaud passionately.

It is the visual art on the second floor that is particularly captivating and fulfills the promise of the exhibition title: “De Lo Sublime A Lo Ridiculo” (translated as “It’s a fine line between the sublime and the ridiculous”). Video art equal to anything one might see at the Tate Modern or Serpentine, nestles next to sculptures, oils and photographs. Curated by Maylin Pérez Parrado, a charming young Cuban art-history graduate, the exhibition could have easily been stumbled upon at any up-scale gallery in Melbourne or Sydney or in Berlin or New York. But here in Havana, the political heart-beat of the work is unsurprisingly louder and more emotional.

A magnificent world map — distinct and beautiful has subtly textured brick-work layered over the communist countries. Adonis Flores’ photograph of a Cuban soldier blows a bubble of multi-colored flowers. Enrique Rottenberg recreates a 19th century colonial salon with himself in a bunny suit confiding to a Catholic Priest. What appears to be a rusty old submarine periscope has tiny glass prisms in its sockets, showing photographs of normal life. The humanity contrasts beautifully with its inflexible infrastructure.

Everywhere in Havana you feel the layers of time. I think constantly of all the times I’ve said to my children: “Wouldn’t it be great to be standing in this place a hundred years ago?”. I am standing in that place and time — only the laptops of tourists in hotel lobbies and the stalls of canned soft drink (cheaper and more available than water) disturb the illusion.

Hotels are the only businesses that accept credit-cards  — and only those not affiliated with U.S. banks — so almost every daily interaction is cash-based. Horses and carts carrying tourists clip-clop around the plazas. My iPhone doesn’t work in Cuba — there is no service provider. Old men on street corners sell newspapers. There is no intrusive Coldplay or Beyonce blaring from shops, cafes, poolside or even in hotel elevators. The music that blasts out of the open bars, like the famous Bar Monserrate is live, Cuban and invariably great.

The Hotel Nacional, a faded but glorious mash-up of neo-classical, art-deco, Californian and Moorish design, reputedly built by American gangsters in 1930, overlooks the Straits of Florida and appears almost indistinguishable from the photos that line its hallways depicting the stars of bygone times from Edward VIII to Errol Flynn, as well as when it was the headquarters of Che and Fidel during the Bay of Pigs crisis.

Uniformed sullen waiters carry trays of daiquiris across the green lawn under the brutal sun, bell-hops load luggage onto brass trolleys, the grand dining-room menu offers shrimp cocktail before a cabaret show in the ‘Parisian Room’, and downstairs you pass a hairdresser and bank on the way to the figure-eight shaped swimming pool around which Americans in swim-suits snack on club-sandwiches.

All the architecture in Old Havana is Spanish colonial: faded muted colours – yellow, green, pink —  and intricate ironwork is set against the contrasting plazas, opulently green with palm trees. Look up and you will see rinsed plastic bags drying on washing lines and residents peering from their dilapidated  balconies onto the festive locals who roam the streets of old Havana until the early hours, talking and laughing.

Every second car is a relic of 1950s America, restored with Toyota parts and new duco. The significant historic buildings are being renovated, but mostly the city’s  historical elegance clarifies the modern poverty. Beggars sit beside crumbling marble collanades. Mansions with only the external walls still standing are draped in thick vines. Everywhere the past and present collide with ad-hoc beauty.

The Museo de la Revolucion, praising the beloved Castro, occupies the old Presidential Palace from where Bastista once ruled. The marble staircases and elegant mouldings incongruously host the photographs and memorabilia of Che and Fidel in all their revolutionary glory.

Outside, the streets are full and the atmosphere is relaxed. Music is everywhere. In Obispo, the main street of old Havana, the locals queue for their quota of eggs from the free market while tourists queue opposite at the only bank where it’s possible to make a Mastercard withdrawals — over the counter from a an actual human who creates profound suspense as she studies your passport with unhurried concentration.

Taxi driving is a high-status job and many of the drivers are university-educated  — the man who drives me to Hemingway’s house was once in the diplomatic corps and is the only person I meet over five days who has ever left Cuba. Many of his colleagues are doctors and engineers who cannot get jobs and in any case, many trained professionals favour tourist-based occupations where they have the opportunity to interact with foreigners.

Every person I meet expounds love and loyalty for Fidel, who evokes the kind of affection appropriate to one’s actual father, not only the father of the revolution. Everyone expounds on free health-care and education — but lament the economy. “Things have to change”. Che is not held in the same regard as Castro. Despite the stencils that adorn many buildings and every T-shirt sold in the souvenir shops, his name elicits shrugs. More than once I am reminded he was Argentinian. His brutality is not forgotten. “It had to be the Che way, otherwise — ,”  the driver draws his finger across his throat.

Yselle, a 29 year old university graduate guide is, like most Cubans I’ve met, fiercely patriotic and intellectually curious. But she is simultaneously despairing of being unable to see the world. The problem, everyone says, is not the Cuban government but the lack of money and the impossibility of securing a visa from any country other than Russia and Equador.  She spends all her tips on the beaten up second-hand books lining the stalls on the Plaza Vieja and asks me to send her the novels of Paul Coelho.

In the midst of the pumping F.A.C. party, I ask Maylin — whose curatorial ability would hold its own anywhere in the world ––how she and her artistic colleagues find out what is going on in the global art-world.

“A little bit by the internet but it is very slow… and from foreigners like you or a few friends who live outside Cuba”.

When I show her a photo of Patricia Piccinini’s crazy animal hot-air balloon hovering over Melbourne that I happen to have on my phone,  she is very excited – she has glimpsed it somewhere on the internet and describes Picicinini’s sculptures with detail.

“Will you ever get out of Cuba – even just for a couple of weeks?” I ask her.

“It’s not possible. I am curating a show soon for the Dutch Embassy and I have a tiny hope to go to the Netherlands next year but it is completely a dream”.

I’m still mystified by how F.A.C. gets away with promoting art that is so clearly critical of communism, and so representative of the anti-establishment themes of contemporary political art all over the world.

She shrugs with a wry smile. “Irony allows us to define the work as essentially “art” rather than political comment. Humour helps us,” she says.

There is a beguiling nationalism in Cuba, a recognition of the beauty of Havana and an articulate cultural pride and affection for the Fidel of the past. It recognises no inconsistency with the longing for freedom and anxiety about money and the future. The simultaneous love for Cuba and criticism of its current state is evident in most of the art presented by F.A.C, which manages to be exhilarated, indigenous and savage all at once. For someone thoroughly jaded by sometimes posturing Western art that wears its polemic on its sleeve, I find myself incredibly moved.

On the way to the airport, my taxi bursts a tyre. I stand by the side of the road, while Leonardo, my loquacious driver, hastily fixes it in the atrocious heat. As we head for the airport, he shows me his laminated Cuban identity card which he carefully replaces in his pocket.

“This is the most valuable thing in Cuba,” he says, “all of Mexico wants one”. If you get to the U.S. coast with one of these in hand, they are legally obliged to accept you, he says.  A final reminder of one of the many realities Cuban art has the power and passion to tell.

You can buy plays by Joanna Murray-Smith here

3 responses to “Inside Cuba's exhilarated and savage arts scene

  1. Thanks Richard. Yes, you’re right. All the Cubans I talked to said it wasn’t the Cuban government that was the problem in leaving Cuba, it was firstly the lack of money (and catastrophic economy) and secondly the fact that almost all foreign non-Communist countries will not give them visas. One way or another, they feel trapped and although most people I met had great senses of humour, none were optimistic about the future of Cuba or their own future.

  2. …and since a year or two ago, Cubans can apply for a passport and travel. I understand also that they can live overseas for two years without relinquishing property or citizenship. The problem is, most can´t afford to travel.

  3. Hey Joanna…what a great piece. I loved your depiction of the subtleties of existence of talented, beautiful and intelligent people in a strange land.


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