This post, and a few more that will follow it, is based on photographs that I took during a week’s visit to Havana, Cuba at the end of December, 2015 and the first days of January, 2016. Readers interested in the topic of Cuba may scroll back to three earlier posts or click on these links: “CUBA I: Cars;” “CUBA II: José Martí;” “CUBA: Callejón de Hamel. The Art of Salvador.”
Because travel to Cuba for Americans was then and still remains restricted, first-time visitors may find it simpler to travel on a pre-arranged tour. I and my wife took advantage of a general tour led by the CEO of AltruVistas, Malia Everette. The tour focused on Havana and included some visits to artists’ studios. I document some of these visits in the following photographs.
Here we see Pablo Menéndez, on guitar, with his band, Mezcla. They entertained our group on the roof deck of his house in the suburb of Miramar. Mezcla, meaning mixture, offers a fusion of Afro-Cuban music and American jazz. Here is a link (6:44) to Mezcla performing Mambo Influenciado in Yoshi’s in 2013 in Oakland. Menéndez sees his music as a “part of the living tradition of one of the major religions of Cuba, which would be called Regla de Ocha.”
Born in Oakland, Pablo traveled to Cuba with his mother at the age of sixteen. He stayed to study at Havana’s Escuela Nacional de Arte and has remained a resident of Cuba ever since. His mother, a well-known jazz and blues singer, is Barbara Dane. Here is an interesting interview with Menéndez on YouTube (5:39) in which he talks about his mother, among other things.
Photographer Roberto Salas also lives in the suburb of Miramar. He, too, was initiated into his profession as a teenager. His father, Osvaldo Salas, had emigrated to New York in the late 1920s and then worked as a photographer for Life magazine and the New York Times. In 1955, at the age of fifteen, Roberto accompanied his father on an assignment to cover the young Cuban activist, Fidel Castro, who was fundraising in America for his revolution against the regime of Fulgencio Batista.
As a result of this assignment, both father and son were later invited by Castro to return to Cuba, becoming semi-official photographers of the Revolution.
Both the above photographs are by Osvaldo Salas. The top one, showing Che Guevara smoking, is dated 1964 or possibly a little earlier. The lower one (centered on an easel), captures Castro leaning out of a car in New York City and waving to a crowd while an American flag fills the left background. It was taken in April of 1959 and documents Fidel Castro’s “victory lap” after winning the Revolution.
In these two photographs, Roberto’s body partially blocks a photograph on an easel. We see enough of that photo to recognize Che leaning in from the upper right. The partially-hidden figure on the left is Castro, seen frontally in the process of lighting a cigar. This photograph was taken by Roberto and is a tour-de-force, once you realize that this is pre-digital. Salas is working with film, and his only light source is the flare of a match that Castro struck to light his cigar. The match illuminates a puff of smoke and the men’s two faces. The rest of the foreground is dark.
Roberto Salas took this photo in early January of 1959, mere days after Batista fled Cuba on January 1. It was taken in the Presidential Palace, from which Batista had ruled and which would soon be re-named Palace of the Revolution.
Taller Experimental de Gráfica de La Habana
Taller Experimental de Gráfica [TEG] is tucked into a corner of the Plaza de la Catedral. It was founded in July of 1962, taking advantage of salvaged presses from the tobacco industry, which had turned to newer technologies for the printing of cigars, cigarette packs and decorated snuff boxes. TEG provides needed workspace and tools for Cuban artists and printmakers; it offers courses in lithography, woodcuts, etching and engraving; and it has a small upstairs gallery from which prints may also be purchased.
In the above photograph, Guillermo Malberti is working on a piece he calls Homage to Astor Piazzolla. It is one image in a series he titles Camino al Paraíso (Road to Paradise). We see the side of an articulated bus, the bellows of which becomes the bellows of a bandoneon (the Argentine accordion) along with hands that play it. Astor Piazzolla, of course, is the famous Argentine composer best remembered for his contributions to tango. Here is a brief YouTube performance (2:50) of Piazzolla’s Libertango.
The articulated bus helped to rescue an overburdened transportation system in Havana, starting in 2005, with the first arrival of Chinese Yutong buses. Locally, they are known as “P” buses and served the longer city routes in Havana. The bus is an appropriate subject for the Camino al Paraíso series, as Malberti says the series deals with “what is ‘moving’ in the street,” whether cars or popular phrases.
Two other artists at work during our visit were Guillermo Vantoler (if that is his name, since I was unable to find him in a later computer search) and Angel Rivero, who also goes by Andy. Besides this long abstract print, Andy also showed me a set of smaller prints that dealt with Obama and Cuba. I would have purchased one of these, except he disappeared and I was unable to locate him before our tour group had to depart.
Angel M. Ramírez
Appropriating figural imagery from medieval paintings and manuscripts, Angel Ramírez places them in new contexts, as in the found-object collaging that forms a thick frame around Reflection (seen in the upper photograph above).
These photographs were all taken in Ramirez’s studio. I would have liked to take a photograph of the artist, except he was talking to a client and it would have been rude had I aimed my camera at him. Instead, I took this detail of his kitchen shelf. Although quite spare and functional, even his kitchen revealed his quirky humor through small found object sculptures.
Cecilio Avilés and Imagen 3
Cecilio Avilés, a Cuban painter and well-known cartoonist, has a studio in one of the buildings on the Paseo del Prado. From here he is able to oversee some of the 200 artists who constitute Imagen 3, a cultural project that he organizes for the benefit of the larger community. From what I was able to understand, Imagen 3 uses the elegant pedestrian promenade of the Prado, also known as the Paseo del Martí, on Sundays as a place to promote cultural entertainment, to teach people strategies for developing their own businesses, and to learn, develop and practice skills in the visual arts.
All Imagen 3 offerings are free. The artists who display and sell their works on the wide promenade also teach classes here to children as well as older citizens. According to one article, “Hundreds [of] Cubans take part in these events, including more than 300 children from nearby neighborhoods and even farther.”
Yasser Gamoneda Montero is one of the artists participating in Imagen 3. I would have liked to photograph him alongside of some of the paintings he was displaying, only he didn’t want his paintings photographed. Instead, he gladly allowed me to photograph him displaying his official identification card as an art facilitator and approved Prado exhibitor.
Centro Cultural Antiguos Almacenes San José
The Almacenes de San José served for 125 years as a warehouse for goods arriving by sea until 2009, when it was restored and transformed into a vast, general public market for arts and crafts. If it’s hand-made, you will likely find it here.
Pedro Pulido and Proyecto Sociocultural Comunitario Cintio Vitier
Pedro Pulido, a painter, sculptor and poet, is one of the founders and the main coordinator of Proyecto Sociocultural Comunitario Cintio Vitier. Cintio Vitier has been described as “a net of people who voluntarily work on projects for the social well-being of communities.” Cintio Vitier was also a well-known Cuban poet and novelist of the twentieth-century.
Cintio Vitier is involved in artistic projects all over Havana, from what I gather. However, in the seven photographs below, I only document what I found right in the vicinity of Pulido’s house/studio/school in the suburb of Vedado. Tossed on a benchtop (directly below) are some paintings on paper by Pulido.
The next two photographs show local children at work on an art project using clay. I title the photograph taken from above as each child works on a mask, Niños Creando Almas, or Children Making Souls. This title acknowledges a stated core philosophy of Cintio Vitier: “Haciendo Almas,” the forging of souls, a term borrowed from José Martí.
In these last four photographs–two above and two below–we see small urban projects that I imagine were done by the students of Cintio Vitier under the direction of Pulido. The mural depicting about a dozen people in a celebratory dance uses three-dimensional masks, like those being made by the children, for the faces of the dancers.
The mural seen directly above is across the street from Pulido’s home/studio, and it contains at least five representations of José Martí, along with many Cuban flags. In front of it is a bit of artistic urban furniture: an old safe transformed into a chess-table top with seats.
Below, on the next block, we see two more murals that serve to beautify the neighborhood and mask a long concrete wall of unrelenting grey.
Francisco Gordillo Arredondo
Of all the artists visited on our tour, Francisco Gordillo Arredondo is clearly the one most wedded to integrating his Afro-Cuban heritage into his art. In fact, his ancestors from many generations back came to Cuba from Angola and the Congo as slaves to work in the sugar plantations of Las Villas. Naturally, they brought their religion with them. His great-grandmother had been consecrated in what would become known as Santería, and his grandmother was a priestess of Obtalá. Apparently he, too, was initiated as a priest of Santería.
This is one of several painting Gordillo showed us. I have no knowledge of the iconography of Afro-Cuban art, nor do I know the title of this painting, but I am sure that it is meant to be read in terms of Santería and Palo Monte mythology. We see, from left to right a pair of legs that become two snakes as they sweep up and curl back down toward the center; a fish; a ghostly, human face in profile, facing left; a peacock; and a squatting goddess figure facing right and holding a child close to her chest.
Gordillo’s studio is quite small, as the very first two photographs reveal. There is hardly enough room on the floor to display his art, and even a small work table would have been out of the question in this room. It would have denied him the ability to move at all, and Gordillo, as can be seen, is a very tall man. Nevertheless, he has pushed small tables against the wall and stacked them with various objects: stones, dried corn, dolls, beads, fired ceramic containers, etc. I call them “fundamentos,” objects that serve ritual purpose in Afro-Cuban religion.
It would have been nice were Gordillo’s studio roomy enough to get a decent, straight-on shot of anything. I had to take this coffee-ground painting at an extreme raking angle, doing my best to flatten it out later with the help of Photoshop tools. Still, with this new medium, I sense that Gordillo is creating a new and interesting dissonance to his more representational Afro-Cuban imagery,
Municipal Museum of Regla
A confession: I entered no art museums in Havana. However, on a brief visit to Regla, across the bay from Havana, I went to the Municipal Museum of Regla. The exhibits in this small museum revolve around the various syncretic Afro-Cuban religions and their connection to the most famous icon in Cuba, the Virgin of Regla, which resides in the nearby Church of Nuestra Señora de la Merced. One might argue that even the Virgin of Regla is not merely a European Catholic figure, because, in Santería beliefs, she is viewed as the African ocean goddess, Yemayá.
As labels were scarce in the Regla Museum, I have no idea what rite or story is being represented in the large painting seen in the first of these two photographs.
The dancing Abakuá Doll, seen directly above, is part of that larger display and can be seen on the far right in that first photograph. The doll is dressed in what is known as an akanawán costume (although Cubans most commonly simply call it “saco”). Its main features are a tight-fitting conical headdress; a circular disc that floats behind the head, called an Ita-Muson (translated as either “umbrella” or “hat disc”); and bells called nkanika attached to legs and belt (although not seen on this doll).
The doll holds a staff and a broom, implements that clarify who the doll is and what it represents. The doll, or a human dressed in the manner of this doll, is Ireme. Ireme is not of this world. It is a messenger from the world of spirits, called forth through drumming–usually in a 6/8 rhythm. Ireme might be seen as the devil, but more often as the soul of an ancestor, an incarnation from an earlier generation, led into our earthly world to assist or officiate in a secret Abakuá ceremony. The Ireme’s staff is used to chastise unbelievers and punish enemies; it’s broom is used to cleanse and purify the faithful (and whatever else it sweeps by).
Finally, the expressive tilt of the doll’s body indicates that it is engaged in a ritual dance. These dances still take place with men in akanawán costume, usually not partaking of secret Abakuá rituals, but demonstrating their Afro-Cuban heritage–a heritage that forms the roots of Rumba. As has often been said, “The Rumba is Cuba,” and it evolved from the early fertility dances and primitive celebrations of the African slaves who, centuries ago, worked in the sugar plantations of Havana and Matanzas.
Here is one YouTube (4:15) of hundreds of examples we could find of an Abakuá dance performance with Ireme dancers. The man in white pants is a Ñañigo, an Abakuá believer, who leads the various Iremes into our earthly world, with the help of drumming.
The Abakuá drumming pattern, by the way, is a 6/8 rhythm. Its ancestral beginnings were in Africa, from where it came to the Cuban sugar plantations with the slave trade and eventually evolved into the music of Cuban Rumba and Afro-Cuban jazz…
…and with this, we return to our beginning–the music of Pablo Menéndez.
Post Script: For anyone who wants an introduction into the 6/8 rumba drumming pattern, I offer these two YouTube demonstrations: Kalani on the conga drums (5:13) and Steve Thornton showing and discussing the Abakuá rhythm (6:01).