Colour me Cuban

From galleries to markets to street art, creativity thrives in Havana, writes Shaney Hudson.

Istep through the archway and feel as though I am Alice in Wonderland, falling down the rabbit hole. Musicians pound drums to a thumping rumba beat. Sculpted black faces extrude from walls. Giant industrial insects made of welded car parts perch on telegraph poles. Greek columns topped with classic busts rise from the ground. Bathtubs are sliced in half and used as park benches. Every wall, door, gate, floor, roof and water tank of the surrounding apartment blocks have been splashed with bold primary colours.

I am standing in the middle of the Callejon de Hamel, a small back alley in the suburbs of Havana that has been transformed into a living canvas where the murals, totems and art installations reflect the slave history and supernatural beliefs of the Afro-Cuban community. All around me the crowd moves, humming with energy. I am completely in awe of what I see. Here, art is a fusing together of the community, their homes, the streets and the sculptures - here, art is life.

A man walks past me and laughs as I stand there like a deer in headlights, trying to take it all in. "Did you see her?" he laughs. "She is watching you." I look up: above the entrance to the street, bricked up in the shape of a church, is the bust of a black woman. Long thin branches stick out from behind the statue like featherless wings, while strips of ripped rainbow material cascade from her naked torso in a hooped skirt. I have just made my acquaintance with Oshun, the Santeria goddess of love and patron saint of Cuba.

I never imagined I'd find a world like this in Cuba. I'd assumed that art would be limited to the sort of dull propaganda that proliferated in socialist states during the Cold War. I quickly discover that while everyday life in Cuba might be plagued with shortages, artistic expression comes in abundance.

Stepping on to the street in the district of Centro Habana for the first time feels as though you're stepping on to the set of a movie. There's so much drama on the streets - the intense game of stickball being played on the road by kids, the wife on a second-floor balcony lowering a door key on a string to her husband, the horse and cart clopping by - that at first it's hard to notice the murals blooming from the concrete buildings.

Soon enough, the crumbling facades reveal their cultural role as a canvas. There are recurring themes in each mural: nods to African roots, Catholic traditions, the ocean that protects and provides, the dove of peace, nationalism and of course, revolution.

While I prefer the grit of Centro Habana, there's no doubting the beauty and polished grandeur of Habana Vieja, one of the best-restored towns in the Americas. Declared a UNESCO world heritage area in 1982, the place is a photographer's dream with lines of washing trimming the balconies, buskers on every street corner and spontaneous salsa dancing on the street.

What is so refreshing about both neighbourhoods is that they are free of the clutter of advertisements and commercial graphic design, leaving you free to interpret and appreciate the art that surrounds you. Being a tourist district, there are a number of art galleries. We enter one near the Plaza de San Francisco de Asis. A short Cuban man approaches us with the faux friendliness that only a well-oiled salesman is able to muster. But he does have an impressive collection of work.

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A small piece of art catches my eye: a black canvas, a man's face, an umbrella protecting it and arrows in green and orange pointing down like rain. I'm reluctant to buy it, though. Cuba prohibits the export of "national treasures" and all artworks are theoretically required to have an export certificate.

Acquiring one, however, really takes the fun out of souvenir shopping: you have to take the piece to the other side of Havana for inspection, fill out paperwork, wait around for a few hours, pay a fee and then come back a day later to pick it up. While it sounds like a thrilling insight into the tedium of Cuban bureaucracy, I can think of better ways to have an authentic Cuban experience. We ask our dealer about the process. "It's a small piece," he replies casually. "Stick it in your luggage. They won't check."

It's fairly clear that if he sells this piece on the books, there's going to be less money in his pocket and ours. We shrug and decide to take the risk. At worst, we figure, we have to forfeit the art at the airport. Luckily Customs don't bother us, even when we have a last-minute guilt attack and declare our purchases.

While it's easy for us to bend the rules, it's a lot harder for the artists themselves. One of Cuba's many ironies is that it heavily funds the arts while also enforcing censorship. Criticism of the government is not tolerated; however, art critics believe this is what makes Cuban art so sophisticated - the artists have to be skilful to skim past the censors and communicate their message.

Fidel Castro himself understood that art is a powerful force in society, using it as fuel for the revolution. But very recently art has begun to be used in a different way. Earlier this year the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana hosted the first exhibition of US art, from the Chelsea district of New York. In this way, art is seen as a cultural bridge that could help build political ones. The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes is a stunning contemporary gallery where visitors can view artistic interpretations of 50 years of Cuban history and politics. While the gallery contains a number of important works including many by Wifredo Lam, Cuba's best-known artist, the more political pieces get my attention. My favourite is an interactive Punch and Judy-style puppet theatre. More than 20 puppets, bearing an uncanny resemblance to a number of world politicians who have been vocal about Cuban affairs, lay on the floor and in the display. I pick up one piece, slot it into the theatre and put down another. The puppets, interchangeable, lie on the floor as though they've been discarded by a small child. It's a brilliant visual metaphor of just how juvenile politics can be.

On my last day in Cuba I head to the Feria de la Artesania, an open-air handicrafts market where more than 100 artists sell their work directly to tourists. Run from Wednesday to Saturday, the market is located by the harbour between the old city and the sea, underneath leafy trees and in view of the fishermen who catch and sell fish at the entrance to the harbour every day. It's a centuries-old tradition.

Each artist displays at least 20 works and it's a riot of colour and clash of mediums. I spend at least two hours walking among the stalls talking to the artists and their families about what inspires them. Despite the impressive variety of work on offer, it's clear that a lot of the art is geared towards sales to tourists. My eye is caught by an acrylic depiction of an Afro-Cuban woman dancing. It's a beautiful piece I loop back three times to peek at. I make a reasonable offer and the artist laughs in my face. I shrug and walk away. Urgently, she calls after me, telling me she'll accept my price.

I'm frustrated by her ridiculing me and embarrassed by how desperate she has suddenly become. It's a sobering reminder of the poverty that exists throughout the island.

Eventually I find another piece I love and spend my last Cuban pesos on a simple etched ink image of a smiling girl, the background filled with symbols of Cuban folklore.

Leaving Cuba is like waking up from a dream. It is many countries and months of travel before I unroll the stiff canvas and see again the art I have purchased. I realise both pieces reflect different parts of my Cuban experience.

The etching seems to reflect the vanity of my own experience in Cuba, while the more abstract piece bought from the gallery reminds me of Cuba itself: a country narrowly avoiding the continuous arrows and barbs from the outside world.

Despite the US trade embargo, through the trappings of censorship and beyond the hype; from the galleries to the markets to the streets, Cuba's art scene is thriving. In Havana, it seems that not consuming as much leads to you creating so much more.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Cuba is best reached by flights from Mexico or Panama. Flights to Havana start at $US669 ($734) return from Panama City through Copa Airlines. See copaair.com.

Air Canada has return flights from Sydney to Havana (via Toronto) from $3512.92. phone 1300 655 767, see aircanada.com.

Australians require a visa, $85, see embacuba.cubaminrex.cu.

WHERE TO STAY

Habaguanex Hotels has a range of properties throughout Habana Vieja, including the Hotel Florida on Calle Obispo, with rooms starting from $80. See habaguanexhotels.com. Phone 1300 002 822.

Casa Particulars are the Cuban version of a B&B. Due to government restrictions on email, bookings are best made by phone well in advance. Recommended are Casa Esther Cardoso at Aguila 367, between Neptuno and San Miguel, Centro Habana, phone +53 7862 0401. Casa Cristina y Aurelio is at 109 Calle Luz, Apartamento 9, Centro Historico, La Havana Vieja. Phone +53 7867 6373. Prices start at 25 CUC ($29).

WHILE THERE

Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes is at Calle Trocadero in Centro Habano, open Tuesday-Saturday 10am-6pm, Sunday 10am-2pm.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Cuba-junky.com is a good website for first-timers.

The official tourist information service is Infotur, see www.infotur.cu or Lonely Planet's Havana: City Guide, $34.95.

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