Fusterlandia: The Havana Neighborhood that became José Fuster’s Mosaic Masterpiece



[Many thanks to Veerle Poupeye (Critical.Caribbean.Art) for bringing this item to our attention.] Alexxa Gotthardt (Artsy) reviews the history of Fusterlandia, José Fuster’s “mosaic masterpiece.”

The kaleidoscopic world of Fusterlandia is a sprawling, mosaic-covered labyrinth of streets and bungalows on the Western outskirts of Havana. The painstaking creation of artist José Fuster, the mosaic wonderland is adorned with many phrases. Viva Cuba stretches across a series of smokestacks, while Homenaje a Gaudí (“Homage to Gaudi”) decorates one wall. And above one otherwise unassuming archway, the artist inscribed Convierte en milagro el barro. This phrase, which is also the lyrics to a song by Cuban musician Silvio Rodriguez, fittingly encapsulates Fuster’s work over the past four decades—turning mud into a miracle.

When Fuster began his mosaic project in 1975, Havana’s Jamainatas neighborhood was a run-down fishing community. Times were hard in post-revolutionary Cuba, and during Fidel Castro’s reign, art wasn’t top-of-mind for most.

But Fuster had studied at Havana’s Art Instructor’s School in the mid-1960s, and continued his education traveling across Europe, where he saw masterpieces by Pablo PicassoConstantin Brâncuși, and Antoni Gaudí. The experience stoked dreams of creating work of his own that would earn similar admiration, he told National Geographic in 2013. After returning to Cuba, Fuster purchased a small wooden home in Jamainatas and started his life’s work, using the walls and streets of his hometown as a canvas.

He began by blanketing his own bungalow with shards of colorful tile and broken pottery. Exuberant figures and lush plant life took shape, filling the surfaces of a large courtyard. Across its walls, people wave their arms in the air, as if dancing or praising the Cuban sun, while mermaids, fishermen, and a giant octopus pay tribute to the nearby ocean and its bounty. These are bounded by depictions of bursting palms, flowers, and fish, as well as more surreal details like colossal floating eyes and swooping curlicues that climb into the air, like smoke or seafoam.

After covering his own home, Fuster moved on to the streets and surrounding buildings, where he enveloped park benches, bus stops, houses, and even the façade of a local doctor’s office with swirling, colorful compositions. Today, his work stretches across over 80 of the neighborhood’s homes, plus additional structures. And at 73 years old, his work isn’t yet done.

Fuster’s debt to modernist greats like Gaudí and Picasso is palpable everywhere in Fusterlandia, the name his all-encompassing work has come to be known by. The bodies and faces of his figures fracture and distort in the spirit of Cubism; he’s even been nicknamed “Picasso of the Carribean.” Meanwhile, the undulating, seemingly limitless expanses of colorful tiles nod ecstatically to Gaudí’s Park Güell. But Fuster’s mosaics also draw deeply from Carribean culture, history, and the people who surround the artist in Jamainatas.

References to Cuban daily life abound across the murals. There are depictions of people playing dominoes and dancing, usually not far from renderings of the electric fans that keep them cool or the vintage cars that famously transport them around the island. Allusions to Santería, a religion mingling ancient Yoruba beliefs and Christianity, also crop up in the form of Virgin Mary figures and disembodied eyes, referring to evil eyes.

Fuster has made Cuba’s revolutionary history a consistent theme, too. One expansive mural shows the legendary Granma Yacht—a boat that transported 82 Cuban revolutionaries from Mexico to Cuba in 1956, ultimately helping overthrow the authoritarian regime of Fulgencio Batista. The visages of revolutionaries Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos are visible on the vessel, as is the man who would ultimately assume power and become a controversial authoritarian ruler in his own right: Fidel Castro. Big, bright representations of the Cuban flag decorate myriad surfaces in Fusterlandia, too, as well as a poignant mural adorned with the words No Guerra, or “No War.”

Fusterlandia is still growing. On most days, Fuster himself can be found in his streetside studio, painting tiles or arranging bits of broken ceramic that will cover his next surface. While the artist is still working towards his goal to createthe biggest mural in the world, he has also begun to think about a future in which he’s no longer around. He hopes Fusterlandia will outlive him, with other ambitious artists picking up where he eventually leaves off. “I don’t think that when I die this will fall apart in three days,” he mused in 2017. “I think that maybe new people will come and do a better job than I did.”

[Source of photo of José Fuster’s Fusterlandia by Joe Ross via Flickr and article: https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-havana-neighborhood-one-artists-mosaic-masterpiece.]

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