Nowhere are the benefits of easing travel restrictions to Cuba seen more prominently than through the lives Cuban artists whose works have been drawing increasing “studio tours” and, with them, some much needed cash-flow to the politically fraught island.
But for a nation that still recalls growing up in “fun times”—be it the Bay of Pigs invasion, the aftermath of Fidel Castro’s Revolución, or the effects of the U.S. trade embargo itself—these “trade missions (aka “people-to-people cultural tours”) authorized by President Obama a few years ago are also offering something very special: a rare glimpse into what it’s really like to live and work in Havana.
Whether you fancy sculpture, public installations, painting or drawing, here are some of the city’s “It” spots when it comes to catching Havana’s creative pulse.
For some amazing printmaking, be sure to check out the exquisite works of Sandra Ramos and Isolina Limonta at the Experimental Graphic Art Studio in Old Havana. COOL FACT: The famous co-op workshop was opened by Che Guevara in the 1960s after poet Pablo Neruda convinced him to save the art form.
To see homegrown artwork at its best, head to Centro Habana’s barrio of Callejón de Hamel to see the work of local artist Salvador González Escalona. At turns a muralist, painter and sculptor, his unique “afro-cuban” style of art mixes surrealism, cubism and abstract art in ways that at once mesmerize and enchant. NOTE: If you head there on a Sunday around noon, you can also catch some authentic rumba groups playing while you’re checking out the alley’s funky street murals and psychedelic art shops.
If urban graffiti is your thing, you’ll be happy to know the art form is emerging in Havana through a number of interesting collaborations with foreign artists. Head over to Regla to witness the 100-metre-long mural in the centre of the village showing off the work of Cuban and Brazilian artists. Cool animal stencils by the French graffiti collaborative Mosko et Associés can also be found in Centro. SPOIL ALERT: Look closely and you just might even spot British graffitist Banksy’s work on the corner of La Habana Vieja’s Obispo and Aguiar (it’s a ghetto rat—sorry, couldn’t help it.)
Be sure to check out the work of conceptual artist Wilfredo Prieto who lives and works in Havana and exhibits internationally (including in Canada where he designed the Mute (2006) installation at McMaster Museum of Art in Hamilton, Ontario). His most famous work, Apolítico, featuring 30 national flags stripped of their familiar colours, opened in Havana back in 2001 and has since travelled to Ireland, Italy, Holland, Canada, USA, Australia and France.
One of the many ways the Cuban government offers local artists the opportunity to display their work is through the nation’s famous Biennales. The initiative, running almost bi-annually since the 80s, brings together artists from over 40 countries. The Official 12th Havana Art Biennial kicks off next year in 2015, so be sure to book your tickets early if you’re keen.
If you feel like getting out of Havana for a little while, take a three-hour road trip toward the serene Pinar del Río province and take in the exquisitely beautiful Viñales Valley located amid the Sierra de los Órganos mountains. Besides the breathtaking views, you’ll get a taste of what inspired artist Ramón Vázquez León’s famous landscape paintings, as well as some of the country’s (and even the world’s) top artists and writers. Go! You must go.
Sure, nearly 50,000 works may adorn the Muse Nacional de Bellas Artes, with the collection divided into two separate buildings—the Cuban art collection (Arte Cubano) and the international collection (Arte Universal)—but rumour has it that the main draw to the latter is actually the building that houses them. (You didn’t hear it from me). Still standing in its 1954 location, the building was reopened in 2001 to much acclaim, after a five-year closure. Go and check out what all the fuss is about.
This article was sponsored by Travel Basecamp.