A Visual Legacy : Art Reflects Life in Cuba

By Goodfriend, Pennelope | The World and I, April 2002 | Go to article overview

A Visual Legacy : Art Reflects Life in Cuba


Goodfriend, Pennelope, The World and I


The Cuban way of life is difficult for Americans to understand. Cubans live in a double economy: they have jobs and purchase goods legally, but they also buy and sell through the black market (where staple foods and necessities such as tools are still more accessible). These dichotomies extend further. Most Cubans have two jobs, one paid in pesos and the other in dollars. The "utopian state" promised forty years earlier no longer exists. "Post-utopian state of collapse" is a more appropriate description of the country today.

Tourism, foreign investment, and dollars from family members who live outside Cuba are now the main sources of income on the island. For most, life revolves around the scramble for dollars. The luckier folk have access to family cash, known as fulla, sent from Miami or donated by a foreign lover or benefactor. Without access to U.S. dollars, Cubans must rely on their wits and faith. They joke about getting by on fe, Spanish for faith but today an acronym for familia extranjera--family abroad. Habaneros have become maestros at inventing ways to get around shortages. Barter is common, and so are time payments.

At a time when sugar, the country's main export, is in decline, the fastest growing industry is tourism. Almost everyone is involved in some aspect of it. Indeed, tourism has allowed a local arts scene to flourish. Arts and crafts cater to the tourist dollar, and art is exempted from the U.S. trade embargo. Art sales are thus bringing money into the street economy or what might be called the Cuban private sector. Consequently, Havana's markets are overflowing with cheap canvas scenes, busty, cigar-chomping ceramic mulattas, kitschy erotic carvings, paper-mechA masks, and images of vintage Yankee cars.

Art as revolutionary hymn

Most Americans think of Cuba as the land of Fidel Castro, communism, cigars, sugarcane, and Elian Gonzalez. Certainly few regard the island as a source of art. Most would expect its postrevolutionary art to be oppressive political rhetoric and social realist propaganda, but in Cuba today art is both traditional and modern. A wide range of contemporary painters and other artists can be found: the formally trained and the self-taught, street and underground artists, and official artists. Indeed, Cubans have imaginatively stretched their limited resources to produce colorful, diverse, socially engaged art.

The artists who grew up after the 1959 revolution--the generation of the 80s--have been given considerable encouragement. From the earliest days, the revolutionary Cuban government invested heavily in culture. Education is provided free by the state, and art schools provide access to professional training. This reflects Cuba's liberal notion that artists are no less socially useful than masons, storekeepers, and bus drivers.

Until quite recently, artists were employed by the various state institutions. The state functioned as a patron, buying and commissioning art. Artists received only a small portion of the receipts from the sale of their work and lived modestly on their salaries from other occupations. Most artists live with family members in small rooms. Frequently they reside, work, and exhibit their works in a gallery/store/studio/home setup, the casa particular. Finding an artist with a separate studio is still highly unusual.

In the late 1960s the government tried to compel artists to shun "decadent" abstract art and adopt the realistic style of the Communist Party's Mexican sympathizers, such as Diego Riviera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. These artists had turned from easel painting to the more public statement of murals. In the words of Siqueiros: "While it is technically possible to play a revolutionary hymn on a church organ, it is not the instrument one would prefer."

In 1984, the Havana Biennial exhibition was started. It serves to introduce the nation's artists to curators, critics, and collectors. …

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