Cuban Art & Living

Adventures of Discovery on the Forbidden Isle

This blog is about one woman's personal adventures during a continuing 10-year search for artistic treasures on the forbidden island of Cuba... experiences so rich in cultural pathos that, by comparison, we in "the north" seem to move around in our world almost without touching it.
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I met Alicia de la Campa in 2006 at “Patrimonio,” the Cuban Ministry of Culture where she was doing business with the Puerto Rican publisher of Arte Latinoamericano, who would prominently feature her works in his magazine.  I was there on a mission to have the  paintings I had purchased from a number of artists, documented and approved for exportation.

A year later, I am in Alicia’s Havana home workshop asking my long-time Cuban interpreter and facilitator, Jose, to explain my predicament.  I have fallen in love with five of Alicia’s compelling paintings but, alas, a last minute change in purses finds most of my money still lying on the bedroom dresser at home.  Would Alicia even remotely consider letting me take these beautiful images home to the U.S., and I will send the payment back to her?

She shifts on her stool.  “How will you send the money?”  She is aware that due to the embargo, a maximum of only $300 can be sent to Cuba.  In this country nearly devoid of lawyers and litigation, she likely would perceive this as a highly risky decision.  Her gentle, chocolate Korean-Cuban eyes search mine.

“I will find a way.”

There is something about her demeanor on that stool … serious, confident.  She and Carlos softly confer, friends since their college days at San Alejandro Academy of Fine Art where she later became Professor of Fine Art.

In barely the time to think these thoughts, she murmurs “ok” with a slight nod of the head.  I have the hope, but she has the faith … a brave leap of faith.

I dance a jig and hug them both in gratitude.  Then, in a gesture of sisterhood and in the absence of a sharp instrument to prick for blood, I impulsively slip a favorite bracelet off my wrist and onto Alicia’s.

I did, indeed, find a way to send payment.  and through time and simple trust in each other, a bond of lasting friendship has grown and endures to this day.

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We are in Immigration and Customs in the airport of Camaguey, Cuba, a provincial town founded in the early 16th century in the center of the forbidden island 750 kilometers from Havana.  It is the year, 2002.

The airport smells like early summer dust and old furniture, and echos a din of creaking conveyor belts, the chatter of arriving passengers, and the plunk of baggage contents emptied onto wooden tables.  Serious Customs agents, working for the most efficient department in the Cuban government, inspect the baggage entering their country.  There are no smiles, no jokes, no clue that you are innocent until proven guilty.  

Each passenger on our Miami flight is scrutinized.  Most of them are Cuban Americans visiting relatives; some are selling Arkansas chicken, Washington apples and Midwest rice to the government; a few are humanitarian workers building churches and delivering donated hospital supplies; and two of us are here to buy art for exportation to the United States.

The uniforms of the Customs agents are dark olive green; smart, crisp and well-fitting with a metallic name badge on each right lapel.  The female agents’ short, tight skirts reveal sheer black textured stockings and high heels.  A waft of the popular perfume named for the Cuban national flower, Mariposa, mingles with the stale air.  They walk tall with confidence, these agents in egalitarian skin hues of black, dark brown, caramel, mocha, ivory, pink and every shade in between.

With our tennis shoes and large ready smiles, my friend and colleague, Dawn and I, are dead-ringers for the gringas that we are.  We move toward the officious immigrations officer. 

“What is your work in the United States? “ the agent, Magali Rodriguez asks in stilted English, her eyes riveted on my face, waiting for a tell-tale sign of an untruth.  “I’m a television consultant”.  

The US requires that we travel to Cuba, not as tourists, but under the category of “Informational Materials.”  However, our Cuban visa requires that we travel only as tourists. We have to remember which country we are talking to.  But, too late, now. I’m in a third category and may be a troublemaker.  My cheeks feel beet red, and a necklace of sweat pops out around my neck.  Where did this feeling of guilt come from? 

I should have said “I’m a tourist, but we’re here to buy art” - but she was on to me.

“How did you get permission from your government to come here?”  Magali is very aware that, due to the 50-year economic embargo, the U.S. does not allow U.S. citizens to arrive in Cuba as tourists. 

“We are tourists, but we are also here to buy art.”  I hold her gaze while reaching inside my bag, and present the license for her inspection.

“Where will you stay?” 

“An artist friend is picking us up and taking us to a casa particular.”  Americans are required to stay in a hotel, and are not permitted to stay at a local’s house; but in my anxiety, I forgot.

She slaps her notepad down on the table in disgust and with a gruff  “Un momento,” stomps away, leaving us there to dread.

As she turns away, I see the black knot of bunned hair, the rod-straight line of her stocking seams, and the overly tight skirt that hugs her swaggering bottom.  The term, “tight ass” pops into mind, but, then, after a half day in Miami airport high security, and now the other half day in Camaguey airport, we are irritable. Sweat leaks down my dress and puddles at the beltline. 

Dawn hands me the Lonely Planet guidebook and I scurry for the name of a Camaguey hotel, any hotel I could rattle off.

Oh God, here she comes!  And she’s got her boss with her.  I close the guidebook.   

Boss Miguel Santana takes over.  “And who is this artist?” 

“Lorenzo Torres.  He’s waiting outside.”  That was all I could say.  Lorenzo was waiting outside in a crowd with an interpreter, and a car and driver, all arranged by Jose, our facilitator/translator from Havana. It is illegal for a local to be in a car with foreigners.  Fortunately, Lorenzo is a favorite beloved son of Camaguey, a well known artist who has painted many murals for government buildings.  Perhaps because of him, the government will forgive us our trespasses.

Miguel leaves abruptly, and a moment later, we hear a page for Lorenzo Torres from a loud speaker in the parking lot.   Locals are not allowed in the airport, and we assume he is being brought in for questioning. I imagine Dawn and I and this yet-faceless artist being shipped off to the infamous prison on the Isla de Juventud. For what, I am not sure.  

Now Magali, without a word, abandons her post and disappears through a side door.  We are left alone an undetermined amount of time to contemplate our crimes.

A half hour or more passes.  Dawn and I watch the airport empty out, then glance at each other, shrug our shoulders, pick up our luggage and walk out of the airport.  We introduce ourselves to the three waiting men, jump into the car and drive off.

Later that night, at dinner with Lorenzo and the interpreter, Lorenzo leans over and whispers in my ear the only words he speaks in flawless English, “I am not a Communist.” 

This is Cuba.  Things change, but nothing is different.  It is what it is, but it is not.  You can break the law, and sometimes, the law looks the other way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cuba, oh Cuba.  Pearl of the Caribbean, Sibling in the Sea. 
You are at a crossroads, on the brink of monumental change in your land.  And you must walk tall.

Walk tall, Cuba.  You are proud.  You, too, are American.  From South to Central to North America, we are all of the Americas, and you know this, deeply.

In the weeks and months at hand, stride forward with head, high, but, consider lessons learned from our long history together. 

You are strong and you are resilient.  But keep your eye on me. 

Remember, I have waltzed in and out of your life, at will, when it was in my interests … then I left you at the ball.

Walk Tall, Cuba.  I fear for you.  It is your nature to trust, but remember, barely three weeks before the end of what you call ”the Cuban-Spanish War,” I intervened.  When I arrived, your brave warriors had been fighting for three years, and were winning.  I took your victory.  I took the glory.  “Remember the Maine?”  Remember, too, it was Spain and I who went to Paris to sign the peace treaty.  You were not even invited to the party.

Walk Tall, Cuba.  I weep for you.  Stand with me, not behind me.  For five long centuries, you have been dominated by powerful giants. You’ve danced with the Crown, the Bear and the Eagle.  And, regardless of what is thought about your leaders, the last fifty years represent the first time in five hundred years that you have governed yourself.  Even I could not change your leadership through the tenures of ten of our presidents.

Walk Tall, Cuba.  You are eager, especially regarding the “blockade” as you call it.  But, be cautious.  This time, I am well-meaning … but I do have agendas.   Remember at the end of the Spanish-American War, in the Platt Agreement?  I vowed to “ensure your independence, to protect you from all foreign invaders.”   But, I needed Guantanamo Bay to do that.

Walk Tall, Cuba.  I ache for you.  The support you have gained is world-wide.  But, beware the seduction of too much capitalism.  Do not allow me to exploit your noble people and exquisite land with my influence and riches.  Because you’ve been reintroduced to capitalism slowly over recent years, you might escape the perils that Russia and Eastern Europe experienced.  Go slowly.  Don’t  let  me  eat  you  up.

Walk Tall, oh Cuba, you indomitable, passionate, and politically-conscious men and women, who are more like us than we are different.  You, with your southern joy of living and northern work ethic.  Here on the brink of extraordinary change, your entrepreneurial spirit is alive, and your laugh is not lost.  The world can be yours.

Cuba, oh Cuba, oh Cuba.   Pearl of the Caribbean, my Sibling in the Sea.  Your drums are on the wind.  This is the hour to fly beyond the leagues of the horizon and deeper than the depths of your rich seas, to forge a new beginning with me, your brother in history, your sister in time, across the Florida  Straits.  Stand tall.

 

 

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ANNOUNCING …

Cuba! Gallery of Fine Art is now featured in the July issue of SPACES, a slick Space Coast style and design magazine .  The article, “Artistic Pearls of the Caribbean” is nine pages of beautiful photos of Cuban contemporary art as it hangs in The Gallery and in the homes of art aficianodos; written by Maria Sonnenbert and photographed by Brian Abrahamson.  We are grateful to the magazine and Editor, Karen Huffman for this generous exposure.  To read the article, go to the abbreviated online version at www.spacesonline.com/edition/July2008/article2.shtml.

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Dr. Victor Bruno a professor at the University of Havana was here on university business a few years ago, visiting my dear friend, Dr. Marcelo Alonso, when it was decided to have a party.  I volunteered to make the mojitos (móe-hee-toes) but Dr. Bruno would not have it as he was, he said, always the mojito maker at departmental functions at the university. 
 
This is his delicious recipe…the way Cubans in the birthplace of the mojito, drink them.  And the way we drink them at Cuba! Gallery of Fine Art Openings.  No soda water, bitters or other fancy ingredient.  Just a good lemonade with mint and rum.

1/3 cup white sugar
3/4 cup lemon juice
3 cups plain water
Rum
Fresh mint

Pop a Rubén Gonzalez CD into the Bose.  For a batch, mix sugar, water and lemon juice.  Pour glass half full of the mixture.   Bruise the stem of a mint sprig, not the leaves, against the side of the glass with a spoon to release the oils into the liquid.  Drop in the sprig.  Dance over to the refrigerator.  Add ice to trap the mint at the bottom.  Add rum and stir.  Salud!
 

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Eduardo and Orlando’s mother, Nena, insists I come for dinner at the Garcia’s, every time I’m in town. 

Hugs and Kisses, then knee to knee in the tiny, tidy living room on the 2nd floor of a Havana walkup.  News is shared that makes friends feel like family.  Orlando got a passport, father Paco lost 25 pounds, Eddy and Yuliett are getting married in November.  Small gifts from Florida are presented.

In time, Nena moves on to the kitchen, the twins and I squeeze into their room and sit on the bunkbed next to the computer.  Orlando brings out their newest works.  I purchase a dozen sepia photographs and note a stunning painting on the wall, Eddy’s first significant work in oil.  Two artist friends drop in and the talk is young and lively.

At dinner the talk is of changes in the  Cuban “system,” the Castros, the Bushes, ironies, inequities, hopes and dreams.  We are all the same, we agree.  It is the governments that are different.

After dinner,  Eddy gives me a gift from his unjaded heart - the painting on his wall.  And when it’s time to leave, every eye glistens, and hopefully, we talk of change.  For now, only one of us is fortunate enough to cross the Gulf Stream both ways, but the friendship we have is a sturdy bridge across those waters of time and space.

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Hooray! Our new “Art Photos” page is up on the website for your enjoyment and collection.  http://www.cubagalleryflorida.com/cuban-art-photos

Angeles de la Habana is a 20-image series which recreates the magic of the architecture, the streets, the people and the angels of Havana.  Conceived and executed by twin brothers, Eduardo and Orlando Garcia using a combination of both traditional and digital photography, the series has won acclaim inside Cuba and a prestigious art award in Bolivia.  

Don’t prejudge the digital element of these photos before you have a look at them.  They are hauntingly beautiful.  The twins invite you to “see what you will” in the images.  But they also describe what they had in mind in their creation, such as, “It is wonderful that a comfort during the difficulties of life can be the memory of a loving person”  and “Sometimes we feel loneliness: moving around in the world without touching it.” 

We are convinced that Eddy and Landy have “old souls.  

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My interpreter, José tells lots of stories about life in Cuba, sometimes moving to the edge of laughter and tears at the same time.  Last week, pointing out a cannabalised trash can, he said, ”Ask anybody in Havana who takes their garbage to the curb about the enterprising spirit, here.” 

It seems the sturdy metal wheels of the country’s large plastic trash cans had been going missing, one and two at a time.  After a little while, they starting reappearing on all manner of things like toys, tricycles and delivery carts.  The system was silent about this.  After all, everybody knows the economy would collapse if the black market suddenly disappeared.

But when the wheels started showing up in schools around the country, the government got involved.  Many of the small trucks that transport school lunches from the central kitchens often a mile or two away, are breaking down and staying down.  Into the vacuum appears sturdy handcarts sporting “the” wheels.

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Bulletin:  This is to let everyone know we’ll be going to Cienfuegos and Havana this Friday, May 23, and will return with new works of unique and beautiful original art on May 31.  We’ll try to have them photographed and up on the website by June 15th.

Getting ready for a buying trip to Cuba always necessitates a day of shopping here at home.  When Cuban friends know I’m coming, they place orders for things that are cheaper in the US.  

So today, I’m off to Walmart, Office Depot and Toys R Us.  Raquel, who runs the casa particular (private home) that I stay at, wants a “stretchy” pantsuit, my interpreter needs a computer battery pack, his friend’s nephew, a robot toy.  But the most fun is shopping for gifts for the artists, fat tubes of much needed titanium white oil and acrylic paint, wrapped with a colorful ribbon, and presented after all the business is done and it’s time to leave.

Understand, this is a very selfish thing I do.  I just love the gesture when the artist smiles and raises the gift with both hands to the sky, then down to his lips, and kisses it loudly.  So Cuban!

Watch the website - June 15th!

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I’ve just finished reading “Cuba, A New History,” and would like to recommend it to anyone who knows little or nada about the country and wants to better understand it.  

British author, Richard Gott has been traveling to Cuba and digging into the archives of Havana and Madrid for decades to write this epic.   The specter of 328 pages of unusually small type is at first daunting, but then the scholarly writing and the fascinating story win over.

After moving from the days of settlement, slaughter and slavery to Spanish brutality, wars of independence, and a Republic of masacres and dictatorships, Goff then dedicates more than half the book to Castro’s Revolution. 

In the end, Gott plays with the question on all of our minds, “What will happen when the Castro era is over?” He says if you look at the long running themes of bloodshed, you could justifiably assume there will be blood in the streets.  However, he says that, and I paraphrase, the last 49 years has been the Cuban people’s longest continual era of relative peace in 500 years.  And that, he speculates, is what could make all the difference.

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