Cuba Trip 2013
John Washington established the Cuba Arts Experience to enable postgraduate students from the School of Arts to experience Cuba’s unique cross-cultural history, music, architecture and art.
Located at the crossroads between Europe and the Americas, Cuba has long been one of the Western hemisphere's most important cultural centres. Early colonial wealth allowed upper-class Cubans to build museums to house their collections of visual and decorative arts, and eventually establish academies for teaching. However, it was not until the first half of the 20th century, when Cuban artists such as Wilfredo Lam and Rene Portocarrero began to eschew rigid academic art forms and promote more avant-garde techniques and themes to better reflect their country's history and personal perspectives, that Cuban art began to blossom.
Since the revolution, there has been an aggressive programme of cultural reforms that has tried to enhance and promote artistic expression on the island. The creation of various artistic institutes and councils, and the establishment of the National Art Schools in Cubanacan outside Havana, has served to promote and train new artists. Graphics arts, often in the form of propaganda posters and billboards, have also flourished under the current government. Painting is a field in which Cuban artists have managed to retain a fair degree of freedom of expression, in spite of the difficulties involved. The contemporary generation of Cuban artists has developed diverse and rich styles, many with strong anti-establishment undertones.
Today Cuban artists must contend with the inevitable state control of art galleries and the scarcity of materials, but the legalization of self-employment means that many artists are now able to sell work directly to the public, and also participate in cultural exchanges abroad. There have been numerous traveling exhibitions in Europe and North America of their work, all of which have contributed to the growing international awareness of Cuban art and individual Cuban artists.
Of the seven Art History MA students who applied for the fantastic opportunity to experience the culture of Cuba, Ana Varas-Ibarra, Adwait Singh and Rhiannon Jones were selected based on the strength and quality of their applications to the programme.
Ana Varas-Ibarra worked closely with Laura-Jane Ryves in the Development Office to establish an exciting educational arts trip to Havana which included visiting the Wilfredo Lam centre of Contemporary Art and meeting with specialists to consult the archives, attending the three-day International Colloquium of Art Studies in Cuba and Mexico and visiting the workshops of a variety of Cuban artists. In addition to experiencing the Havana art scene, students also spent four days visiting John in the beautiful valley of Viñales which is rumoured to be Fidel Castro’s favourite place in Cuba. Here, the students experienced everything from local Cuban culture and salsa dancing, to rock climbing and swinging from the limestone faces of the cliffs above traditional thatch-roofed Cuban houses.
Student Experience Manager
Rachel Evans, Student Experience Manager in the School of Arts said:
“This was a fantastic opportunity which enabled MA History of Art students to experience the wonders of Cuban art first hand in the intimacy of artists’ studios and through the original archive of reputable institutions. It is clear that the students had a fantastic time and got a lot out of the trip which offered both an educational and cultural experience and has helped the students develop their thinking in preparation for their dissertations and essays. The School would be delighted if John would be willing to fund the opportunity to benefit future postgraduate students, and there is plenty of scope to open the opportunity out to other disciplines offered by the School of Arts, such as Film and Arts Criticism”.
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Cuba Trip 2015
Cuba Arts Experience- 2015
University of Kent
José María Heredia
We overflew the island at night, and could not see it from the sky as we landed. We were eager to feel the contrast with our worlds, with the places where we come from— United States of America, Italy, Mexico and the Faroe Islands—, and our wish was granted, indeed. I would say contrast was the characteristic and permanent feature of our trip: contrast with our backgrounds, and internal contrasts in the island as well. On descending from the aircraft, the contrast of temperature, the heat embracing us with a sensation that one forgets during a winter in Europe. Contrast in technology, from the absence of WiFi, almost omniscient in the rest of the Western World, to the cars that circulate around town, many of them with original parts from the 1950s. As we entered a Cuban family’s house, we could also feel the contrast in the way of life—a refurbished old mansion divided and readapted into several homes, with no gadgets, no air conditioner (although some other accommodations did have it)— and a different style… much more colourful than we are used too, a celebration of Kitsch (or what can one say about glossy, shiny curtains with profusion of lace covering windowless walls for the sake of decoration, or artificial flowers adorning the shrine of a plastic doll dressed as a yoruba deity?). We felt contrast in flavours, from diversity of sweet fruits—pineapple, mango and banana, of course, but also guanabana (soursop), guava, and mamey— to the traditional moros y cristianos (rice and black beans), ropa vieja (pulled pork stew), and lobster in tomato sauce; the options repeated over and over again wherever one goes to find something to eat. Contrast in the economy, of course: food cheaper than we had ever had and fixed low prices for accommodation, no publicity, no known brands for commodities (from sodas and candy, to shampoo and clothing), no fashionable shopping, and no soap (in many places we visited). Contrast between tourists and locals, between luxury—yes, even backpackers and low budget travellers walk in shoes that probably cost the equivalent to a Cuban doctor’s monthly pay, let’s face it— and austerity.
First, we accompanied John Washington, our generous benefactor, to the endearing town of Viñales. A little conglomeration of houses lying in the valley of aromatic tobacco fields, surrounded by beautiful mountains of unlikely shapes, and once declared “paradise on Earth” by Fidel Castro. In the valley we explored on horseback the fruits of the countryside: fields of coffee, yucca and tobacco, scattered with trees bearing sweet fruits, or spiky pineapple plants on the side of the road—to prevent horses from running into the crops! We visited the entrails of the mountain and submerged ourselves into the absolute darkness of the cool and clear waters that are continually filtered through the rocks, shaping stalactites and stalagmites that casted rare shadows in the light of the torch. We were also caught into a storm and had to seek refuge in a small coffee shop on the road, along with chickens, kittens and the song of Changó, Yoruba deity of lighting and thunder. We went to the cultural centre of the town at night: a club bursting with different Latin rhythms played and danced skilfully by locals, before of the amused gazes of tourists. We also visited a mural painted in the bare rock of a hill, the Mural de la Prehistoria, intended to celebrate the prehistorical past of the island and its first inhabitants; and the workshop of an artist, Ramón Vázquez, who paints transfigured images of his world into fantasies worthy of Flemish masters such as Bosch or Brueghel, with multicoloured characters that represent foreigners and locals of the island, and the struggle between the waves of change and the strongholds of tradition in Cuba. He finished our brief interview with a phrase expressing his love for his hometown, when discussing the interest of artists working for the Biennial to sell their work outside of Cuba or to eventually leave the country: “I’m like a tree, not a bird. I have my roots here.” And a beautiful land it is, to take root.
In Matanzas, formerly known as the “Athens of Cuba”, we found little information of the glories of its past, and of the artists, musicians and poets that were born there. But we did find a small editorial house, Ediciones Vigía, that creates hand-written and hand-painted books, that look like collage; and we also visited a nineteenth century pharmacy, formerly owned by Ernesto Triolet, preserved on its original state: frozen in time, with all the instruments, the laboratory, the jars of medicine and enormous books of prescriptions. The sea in the area was too beautiful to be ignored, and one wondered what life would be like by its side, being able to enjoy it as the families that bathe on its waves on weekdays, seemingly oblivious to office hours and the temporality of routine.
Trinidad is a colonial jewel, colourful, cobblestoned, surrounded by green nature and lively with music and the traditional street cries from merchants: “mangoooo, mango biscochueloooo”. It was the most musical place we visited. One can listen to romantic or revolutionary trova; admire African rhythms and dances from Santería rituals; or dance to salsa, bachata mambo, merengue, cumbia, chachachá and other joyful cadences. In contrast to the joy of its music, we also visited the former sugar cane plantations and sugar mills that surround the city. It was there, ironically in the sugar fields, where the most bitter suffering in the Cuban past took place, where the slaves where mistreated and even tortured on a daily basis. Only some overseer’s towers, ruins of colonial houses and silence remain over the old barracks, still reminding us of the painful lessons of the past. Broken stones lay scattered where ceibas (enormous and ancient trees) still thrive, the same ones that were worshiped by the slaves—and said to still grant wishers for believers that trust a coin on its roots and circle them 5 times, all around. It was there as well, in Trinidad, where the bandidos fought and lost against Fidel’s revolution, and one can still see the bloodstained shirts of participants in the guerrilla battles and their guns, or read the story on long panels of text in the Museo Nacional de la Lucha Contra Bandidos (National Museum of the Fight Against Rebels). Nature in the area, as we witnessed in the Sierra del Escambray, is simply paradisiacal, with rivers clear as crystal, waterfalls and lots of species of birds still leaving in the wilderness. There are also coral reefs, and a beautiful seaside, of course, plentiful of the treasures of nature.
On our way back to Havana, we made a stop in Santa Clara. The city has much more modern constructions than the other ones we visited, and a very different atmosphere, less touristic and thus better to give us an idea of the quotidian life in Cuba. It had a benefactor, Marta Abreu de Estevez, who founded many public works, among them the Teatro de la Caridad, a beautiful Italian style theatre built in the nineteenth century, which we could visit. We also visited the train that was derailed by Che Guevara in his most famous victory against Fulgencio Batista, and we visited his mausoleum, where he rests accompanied by his fellow partners in battle. It is an interesting place to learn about the revolution and its heroes, and to see the idolization of the figure of Che, who’s image is promoted in an almost religious way by the government (there’s a museum with relics and memorabilia related to him, next to the crypt). The revolutionary propaganda can be found in billboards and painted walls on the street and on the road, with phrases such as: “Nuestro socialismo es irrevocable” (Our socialism is irrevocable), or “Sólo la voluntad humana podrá salvar el mundo” (Human will alone may save the world); “ La palabra enseña, el ejemplo guía” (Words teach, but example guides).
And finally, how to describe Havana? It is crowded, noisy, colourful, hot, old and new, in ruins and glorious at the same time, beautiful and terrible, intellectual and oblivious, clean and dirty, happy and tragic. Havana is the sum of contrasts and an amazing chaos. It offers itself to the visitor as an overripe fruit, perhaps past its prime, but still bearing the flavour that has made its story so transcendental. We visited the Museum of Colonial History and Art, The Museum of the Revolution and the Museums of Fine Art (Cuban and international). We visited the University of Havana, different colonial fortresses, Ernest Hemingway landmarks (they are everywhere, and the relationship to this literary figure with Cuba is as much legendary and bewildering, as it is touristy), traditional hotels (as the Hotel Nacional and the Riviera, old meeting places for gangsters) and different churches (from Regla, full with the syncretic power of Santería, to the cathedral, strangely empty and still catholic, and Paula, no longer used for mass). We saw a flashy cabaret show and the graceful national ballet (Don Quixote). We were also lucky to find the city inhabited by installations and site-specific artworks, sculptures on public spaces and murals, the Biennial shows and the parallel exhibitions that are always organized as alternatives to the events curated by the Centro Wilfredo Lamm. We visited La Casa de las Américas, the Callejón de Hammel and Fusterlandia, exaples of the different ways of approaching culture and art that coexist in Cuba: a governmental institution to promote the arts (created by initiative of nonetheless than Che Guevara himself); a street art alley, and the house of an independent artist, José Fuster, that has transformed his whole neighbourhood, in an original project of decorative arts and architecture, inspired by the work of Gaudi.
In Havana we walked stuffy, sticky streets with crumbling buildings in eclectic architecture—from colonial, or neo baroque and neoclassical to art nouveau and unidentifiable styles too—, in the old city. We walked its modern boulevards and avenues, with the sober and imposing monuments commemorating the revolution; its parks inhabited by both sculptures of heroes and tropical trees—real homage to the glories of the nation as well! —; and the malecón, sea side road refreshed by the sea breeze and overlooking the horizon.
It is truly difficult to summarize all the vibrant colours, the loud music, and the flavours and textures; the huge waves of information from past and present—so mixed and overlapping all the time! —; the exuberant nature with its surprises; the hard work, pain, poverty and struggle of people combined with their joie de vivre and dolce far niente; the smiles and phrases, kind or sometimes overwhelming, that followed us through every street and alley; the lessons of humility, perseverance and courage of those who have survived in the hardest situations and continue to strive, and also the lessons in cunning and bargain. Who knows how long will this city remain free from the standard unity of contemporary fashions and trends, preserved from the globalized look of other places, which look a lot like each other, hiding their essence behind advertisements, fast food restaurant chain signs and skyscrapers, crystal buildings and neon lights at night? How long will it remain kind of dirty with the patina of bygone times, but authentic, non-sterilized and aligned, crazy and disconnected? Who knows how it will change, now that it is reaching out for the world again, now that the world is reaching into it too. It was a unique opportunity, being able to visit it just know.
There are also lots of lessons from the Cuban arts, but this is not the place to talk widely about it—some of us will use our discoveries in our academic work. However, we most say we recognized in them the strength of its roots in tradition, and the projection into the future and the aims of this vibrant artistic culture.
In that world of contrast where spirits refuse to give up their happiness, in spite of the serious trials that history has bestowed upon them, of annihilation of its first peoples, colonization, slavery, exploitation through neo-colonialism and abuse of power, poverty and isolation (Cuba is ranked very low in quality of life indexes; although one must not forget that they eradicated analphabetism from the island and have one of the best educational systems in Latin America and the Caribean; and have as well great accomplishments in the field of medicine, etc.). Cubans ponen al mal tiempo buena cara (my own literal translation: “show a nice face when confronting hard times”), as a taxi driver explained, and they give us perhaps the only lessons worth learning in life: that one can stay strong and smile in the face of adversity; that one can create beauty and joy even from suffering; and that life is worth the struggle, one must go on. As Marc Anthony’s pop-hit song —that accompanied us everywhere as an ever present anthem in Cuba—states: “¿Y para qué llorar, pa qué sufrir? […] Voy a reír, voy a bailar, vivir mi vida, lalala” (Why cry, why suffer? […] I’ll laugh, I’ll dance, I’ll live my life). Come what may.
Mariana Guzmán Gómez Aguado
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