Finding America in the arts and culture of Cuba

Cuba, an island composed of keys, an installation at Fabrica de Arte Cubano, Havana. Photo by Michael Gill.

Cuba, an island composed of keys, an installation at Fabrica de Arte Cubano, Havana. Photo by Michael Gill.

Cuba is not on the list of countries from which the current US administration has banned travel. However the relationship between the island nation and the US is dominated by our partisan politics. And there are whole lot of people with families, jobs, and other professional relationships on both sides of that border who even now are awaiting news about visas and travel plans. Those include people associated with seven Cleveland arts organizations involved in an international residency program this spring.

On a trip to Cuba in January, two dozen representatives of those Cleveland organizations visited Cuba and their cultural counterparts there to get to know each other and to take the first public steps in the Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion international artist residency program. They include CAN Journal, the Cleveland Institute of Art, the Cleveland Urban Design Center of Kent State University, the Cleveland Print Room, Cleveland Museum of Art, Dance Cleveland, and Verb Ballets. They found an overwhelmingly welcoming, friendly place where innovation and creativity triumph over profound scarcity of resources.

Helmo Hernandez, president, the Ludwig Foundation: "Cuba is the most American of Latin American Countries."

Helmo Hernandez, president, the Ludwig Foundation: “Cuba is the most American of Latin American Countries.”

They also found what Havana-based Ludwig Foundation president Helmo Hernandez described as “the most American of Latin American countries.” The Ludwig Foundation supports young Cuban artists.

If that’s a surprising description of Cuba, it’s only because of an American paucity of understanding–a holdover from the Cold War and its trade and travel embargo. But as the Cleveland group found, it gets its truth from a culture of ingenuity, a centuries-old struggle for freedom and self-determination, and of course from heritage that remains from the cozy relationship the US and Cuba enjoyed for more than half of the Twentieth century.

The wave of cultural exchange that has moved between the two countries in the last two years has shown that the two countries have plenty to gain from more contact with each other. And I think we are more alike than most of us would guess.

To wit: the Cuban city of Matanzas is home to an artisanal, literary publishing collaborative called Ediciones Vigia. By hand, using recycled paper, scissors, and glue, Ediciones Vigia publishes a mix of emerging local writers and other works of Cuban literature, including classics (such as by the national patriarch Jose Marti, a poet who led Cuba to independence from Spain, with US help) and even a few surprising authors. Emily Dickinson, as it happens, is a popular writer in Cuba. There are of course significant differences between this venture and parallels in the US. In a country with scarce internet access, and where recycling paper for publishing is more a matter of necessity than of principal, publishing books this way is more practical than conceptual. Nonetheless, Americans in the artist book, small press, and ‘zine scenes would all feel right at home in the studios of Ediciones Vigia.

In addition to handmade editions of 200, the book artists at Ediciones Vigia make one-of-a-kind books as art objects, like this one.

In addition to handmade editions of 200, the book artists at Ediciones Vigia make one-of-a-kind books as art objects, like this one.

If all goes well, the group’s editor Laura Ruiz Montes will be in Cleveland later this Spring, getting to know Latin American artists here, and writing about them from a Carribbean perspective for this blog, and for the print magazine CAN Journal. Examples of books published will be exhibited in the gallery at Waterloo Arts, and with the exhibit as a backdrop, the group Artist Books Cleveland will offer a hands-on workshop. Each of the Cleveland organizations above has a residency-based project like that.

In some cases cultural touchstones between the US and Cuba are literally carved in stone.

On the plaza in front of Ediciones Vigia is a statue of the nineteenth century warrior Antonio Maceo, who –along with the poet Jose Marti–fought for Cuba’s independence from Spain. Perhaps this is a surprising place to find a voice that would sound right at home in any narrative of US nationalism, but Maceo’s words, carved into the base of the statue, sound just like a bit of Yankee machismo:

“Asking for rights is the behavior of cowards incapable of exercising them,” Maceo is credited with saying. (“Mendigar derechos es propio de cobardes incapaces de ejercitarlos.”)

Statue of Antonio Maceo, Matanzas

Statue of Antonio Maceo, Matanzas

Carved above that sentence, there’s another that puts the message a different way, and despite the cultural twist embedded its choice of weapon, it sounds every bit as much like the voice of a charismatic American general:

“Liberty is not requested. It is won with the edge of a machete.” (La libertad se conquista con la fila del machete. No se pide.”)

Just replace the word “machete” with “bayonnette,” and Antonio Maceo could have had a place in George Washington’s army.

Matanzas is a town a little bit like Cleveland: A much smaller city than the capital, a place largely forgotten by the rest of the country, crossed by rivers and bridges, struggling against an economy that has left it behind, with artists taking a lead role in rebuilding the quality of life.

The Cleveland delegation found no shortage of parallels like this, largely due to the enduring legacy of the first half of the twentieth century, when the US and Cuba got along like reckless friends, drinking, dancing, and carousing. Cuba was a resort destination for wealthy Americans, and sometime home for Ernest Hemingway. There was a Havana Hilton. Cubans developed a taste for baseball, and an enormous collection of American cars. The relationship reached a pop culture zenith from 1951 to 1960, when Cuban born actor Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III–better known as Desi Arnaz–played Lucille Ball’s beloved husband Ricky Ricardo in the landmark sitcom, I Love Lucy. 

Taxi, Havana Vieja

Taxi, Havana Vieja

When Clevelanders look back on the city’s glory days—when the Orchestra and Art museum were founded, when the population was near its peak, when the city was an economic powerhouse—that same early twentieth century period is what they look back on.

And despite the isolation of the Cold War, the cultural legacy of that period—with all its wealth and the cultural exuberance that goes with it– endures. Music seems to happen wherever there are people. Up and down the streets you find endless blocks of dignified, classic architecture, the color of salmon and avocado, of peaches and cornflower. There are pillars and round arches. Some of them are beautifully maintained. Some are crumbling. And against that backdrop of early twentieth century wealth are its American cultural vestiges. Baseball is still popular. If ingenuity is a hallmark of US industry, it lives in Cuba, too, in a fleet of taxis, many of which are US made cars coming up on three quarters of a century old. Compare that to the age of your house. To keep those running as a DIY venture, without the support of Chevrolet, Ford or Plymouth takes some next-level repair and rigging skills. The existence of what they call on the radio “Latin Jazz”– which in fact is largely Afro Cuban Jazz—shows that Americans and Cubans have historically gotten along quite well.

In the Havana neighborhood of Vedado

In the Havana neighborhood of Vedado

If the continued use of those ancient cars is made possible by ingenuity, it is made necessary by a lack of money to buy new ones. Despite a paucity of resources, though, Cuba reveres high culture, and has profound wealth in dance, music, and visual art, all of which seem free to express even critical political views. Cuba has one of the world’s highest literacy rates. Advanced medicine thrives there. What the Cleveland Foundation’s Lillian Kuri calls “innovation from scarcity” has a lot in common with an adage taken as a kind of gospel in the US–that “necessity is the mother of invention.”

The last night the Cleveland delegation was in Havana, the feeling of familiarity reached a more intimate level, at a living room gathering with a guitar, and singing. Cleveland cafe owner Julie Hutchison had met Cuban singer Miguel Cuni years earlier, when Miguel came to the US to perform in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s world music series. They stayed in touch. And because of that relationship, the delegation of arts administrators found themselves beyond scheduled tours and meetings, gathered at a house party, bonding over music and beer. There are no language barriers or barriers of any kind, really, when people gather in homes with guitars to sing.

This week, the first resident artist from Cuba—choreographer Laura Alonso—will arrive in Cleveland to begin working with dancers from Verb Ballets. Alonso, daughter of the legendary dancers Alicia and Fernando Alonso—danced for 25 years in the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. She founded the dance school ProDanza in

Verb Ballets Associate Director Richard Dickinson, a former dancer with the Ohio Ballet under Heinz Poll, teaches a class with dancers from Laura Alonso Ballet at ProDanza dance center in Havana

Verb Ballets Associate Director Richard Dickinson, a former dancer with the Ohio Ballet under Heinz Poll, teaches a class with dancers from Laura Alonso Ballet at ProDanza dance center in Havana

1994, and its company Laura Alonso Ballet a year later. In Cleveland, She’ll set some of her choreography on dancers from Verb Ballets, for performances in March. In the weeks and months to come, other organizations in the Creative Fusion cohort will begin other collaborative projects, which will mean a steady flow of exhibits, performances, and perspectives shared in in different media, even urban design projects. Anyone who takes advantage of these opportunities will surely learn a little bit about the world, including that we have a lot more in common than embargos and travel restrictions might lead you to believe.

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.


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