A report by Aalika Mahindre for Verve Magazine.
Although art in Cuba is coloured by and deeply entangled in the communist nation’s political history, it also affords artists a liberated lifestyle that few can dream of in the Caribbean island.
Sussette Martinez Montero, one of Havana’s foremost art curators, took a long drag of her cigarette, and the jumble of silver bangles on her other arm tinkled as she held it out to shake mine. She had tamed her rippling salt-and-pepper mane into a low ponytail with an amoebic scrunchy that matched the loud colours of her bohemian ensemble. A red vintage Ford taxi sputtered next to her on the cobbled street, its compact frame dwarfed by a hulk-ish driver. Narrowly avoiding a hurtling pedicab, my travel companion and I squeezed into the hot leather seats for a day of visiting a few well-known local artists, guided by Sussette.
The car first jolted to a stop under an apartment building that appeared unfinished, not unlike the rundown edifices lining Mumbai’s roads. After a three-flight climb, we entered the home/workspace of the unfortunately-named painter, Raúl Castro Camacho, who had decided practically to go by the pseudonym Memo. The red and black walls of his modern apartment, coupled with a dark leather sofa, were in stark contrast to the low-storeyed tenement-like dwellings that fought each other for territory on the streets below.
Sussette had explained earlier how art after the 1959 revolution carved an unexpected cultural and economic space in Cuban history; while the rest of the world might be accustomed to the trope of the ‘starving artist’, Cuban contemporaries are part of an elite class that is relatively wealthy and is afforded a largely unrestricted lifestyle under the otherwise tyrannical flag of communism. By the early 1990s, Cuban art had gradually morphed from propaganda into a medium of dissent, and reimagined the complicated national identity of a population trapped within a nation in flux. Memo found solace in the role of social critic, and the majority of his paintings are politically charged works inspired by the tense dynamics between Cuba and the United States. He has adopted the leitmotif of American pop imagery to interpret his existential dilemma as a patriot struggling to reconcile with a divisive government. Despite his ability to earn more than the meagre living of most Cubans (due to his exemption from the imposed maximum wage and access to the coveted convertible peso from foreign buyers), Memo is not entirely unaffected by the daily ramifications of living in a police state. As I was studying his canvas of the Statue of Liberty, painted to look like a starry constellation, he said with sincerity so visceral it caught me by surprise, “I will build my own cosmos.”
He envisions the United States, specifically New York, as a veritable realm of dreams, but ironically titles his paintings with contradictory names like Nightmares and Dark Night, in reference to the stifling claustrophobia of looking in from the outside. He stopped mid-sentence to show me the rapidly appearing goosebumps that dotted his arms as he spoke about his sinister 9/11 painting. The literal shattering of New York’s iconic skyline — located in his alternate universe — affected him in a way that he could only articulate with a brush dipped in ashy charcoal paint. We then moved on to what he referred to as his Mona Lisa. On a pitch-black wall were two shadowy inversions of the American and Cuban flags hung defiantly next to each other, and as he posed next to them, for a moment, his lips that are naturally predisposed to a bashful grin began to curl into a subversive smirk.
Meeting Memo and speaking with him was integral to the experience of viewing his paintings and understanding his unique position as a Cuban citizen. However, at our next destination, the artist was absent, and I chose to take it as a metaphorical illustration of her distance from the dismal truths of living under a Castro regime. Beatriz Sala Santacana’s elegant assistant ushered us into the ceramicist’s beautifully renovated mid-century house-turned-studio, Estudio Taller Santacana. The light-filled rooms with whimsical mosaic accents and garden with sprays of bougainvillea felt more like they belonged in a wealthy art collector’s Alibag pied-à-terre than in Havana. Since Beatriz was traveling — another luxury artists have — we were taken on a well-rehearsed tour by the assistant. Her sculptures were expertly set up in earth-toned galleries and we saw the imposing handmade kilns that took up their own room. She tackles the conflicts of the human condition and issues of immigration, and has focused most often on the themes of birth, womanhood and female power with glazed figures in a style slightly reminiscent of Indus Valley artefacts. Rows of vibrant ceramic tiles, jewellery, and housewares were enticingly arranged to stimulate tourists’ willingness to part with foreign currency in exchange for some cultural cachet. Beatriz has managed to concoct a profitable blend of art and commerce, and simultaneously leverages both capitalism and communism. She has established herself as a strong voice for those who continue to live in repression, which allows her an exceptional existence outside the clearly defined boundaries of Cuban citizenship.
After Sussette was done with one of her many smoke breaks we made our way to the next artist, and this time I looked out of the car window with a more complex understanding of the place I was in. Havana’s landscape is embellished with many of the cliched accoutrements of tropical paradises, but the swaying palm trees, colorful tchotchke stores, and a population that gives the impression of being on permanent vacation belie the gloomy reality of life beneath the sun-drenched surface. I watched as a woman sashayed to the beat of contraband American pop songs blasting from a cell phone, her long coffee-hued limbs pouring out of high-cut shorts and a tube top. I wondered if she was one of the many who had secretly married an older European tourist to have money sent over. Old-fashioned cars cruised past her like candy-coloured sharks, and I witnessed time stop and progress in the same instant. I studied the line-up of faces looking intently at their screens as they huddled in a dark corner outside a once mafia-owned hotel with a Wi-Fi connection. T-shirts emblazoned with faux American logos were eerily illuminated by the white light of cell phones, the only channel to the world outside. Barely-stocked ration stores stand close to the city’s hip eateries, which serve just those who can pay with convertible pesos. I was reminded of my own coming of age in a city of contrasts as I confronted the same overwhelming sense of beautiful tragedy that permeates the air in Mumbai.
I had to pause my anthropological reflection as we pulled into the driveway of the expansive villa belonging to Kadir López Nieves. We were greeted by another artist’s absence and a well-spoken assistant, whose heels clacked and echoed on the art deco marble floors. Once again America and its promises loomed over us, this time in the form of kitschy tin Coca-Cola and Shell Oil signs. Kadir became known for using the iconography of American signage from the 1950s — symbolic of the pre-revolutionary era — and superimposing collages of historical Cuban images on to them. I was starting to see how the creative process in Cuba was intrinsically bound with its duelling realities; almost all the contemporary art coming out of the island centres around its fraught political environment and the basic human freedoms that ended up as collateral damage. Around us, the housekeepers, more assistants and various staff bustled about, clearly used to these visits by wide-eyed tourists. I suppose with Will Smith stopping by and spending 45,000 dollars, we were rather tame guests in comparison. Outside in the sprawling backyard, suspended neon signs hung over the mangy dog sunning himself by the pool as a caretaker scooped up stray leaves with languid strokes of his net. I was distracted by an audible dissonance, and realised that a slow LA drawl had emerged from the young 20-something sitting on the couch — an American student who was working on a project with Kadir. With the shock of blonde hair swooping across his forehead and his Macbook, he was a fittingly amusing extension of the backdrop of consumerism that covered the walls around him.
The last home was of Eduardo Notaro who, as it turned out, was Sussette’s husband. Their small apartment was filled with piles of old magazines and newspapers, quirky objets d’art and overflowing ashtrays in every room. He appeared from his room with a dishevelled ponytail and billowy lime green pants about 10 minutes after we arrived, complaining of a headache. “Maybe it’s because I’m always thinking about life under the Cuban government,” he joked with a dry smile. He definitely embodied the tortured artist stereotype in spite of his earned privileges, because like Memo he too was greatly disturbed by the state of Cuba. He showed us a pack of paper towels that cost three convertible pesos (CUCs), but almost 40 Cuban pesos, which is essentially the monthly earnings of someone on a teacher’s salary. Each anecdote was followed by a deep sigh and frustrated shrug — he is resigned to the situation, but is using art as a form of protest. The now-familiar political themes and American influence were visible in his work as well. He employed an image of Disney’s Pinocchio (1940) to represent the lies of the government, and used a recurring motif of a sailboat, as a symbol of migration, in a lot of his pieces. The last frame, which Sussette held up for us, was particularly haunting and she deliberately let it linger in front of us for an almost uncomfortable length of time. It was a multimedia collage made with an old sepia-toned photograph of schoolchildren in uniform, faces cut out, stripped of identities.
On this island, which exists as a detached yet pulsating organ, the already elusive identity of its people was reconstructed as a monolithic entity chiselled into submission by a revolutionary leader. Fates became intertwined and the collective memory of loss replaced self-perception. The post-revolution artists like the ones mentioned above have since discovered an escape from controlled ideologies. They enjoy the luxury of introspection as well as material perks, while carrying out the responsibility of representing and rebuilding the eroded sociocultural traditions of a society in isolation.