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Art in Cuba

It surprised me that many of Cuba’s most revolutionary and outspoken individuals are the island’s artists. Instead of being hushed by the famously domineering government, these creatives—painters, sculptors, photographers, musicians, poets and philosophers—are revered as celebrities, in accordance with socialism’s emphasis on intellectual endeavors. In an Orwellian-appropriate twist, those who make public comments on the state and its flaws are some of the country’s wealthiest citizens and enjoy certain freedoms—such as exit visas—not available to the mass population.

Indagare’s recent Insider Trip to Havana followed an itinerary that set my geeky art-history-loving heart aflutter. We visited artists’ studios, a brand-new collective housed in a former factory and the private home of a modern-day Gertrude Stein and had a private tour of the city’s foremost art museum that was led by a world-renowned expert on Cuban art. As I walked, looked, listened and admired, I was struck with the thrilling realization that we are at an important juncture in Cuban history. The artists of the country are in some ways leading a cultural revolution, aided by changes in the government and international relations.

Touring Old Havana’s National Museum of Fine Arts, our guide, whose English was nearly perfect, misspoke when she told us to “watch” the still-life painting we stood in front of (she obviously meant “look at”). But this word choice resonated with me after I spent a few days in Cuba’s capital. Foreigners who choose to visit (and for Americans there are now legal ways to do so), as well as those who stay away, are watching the country as it enters an era that will likely see great change. Without a doubt, it will be the artists who lead the way into this exciting next chapter. Watch this space.

Artists to Watch

The Cuban art scene is thriving and seems to gain more momentum every day. I had the pleasure of spending time with three talented artists during my stay. Kadir Lopez-Nieves (view his website) works with metal signs from before the 1959 revolution. He alters the signs—most of which are rusted, battered and occasionally filled with bullet holes—with paint and blown-up photographs of iconic 20th-century individuals. Damian Aquiles (view his website) works with metal and found objects, such as flattened gallon paint cans, to create monumental installations that are at once colorful and sobering.

Nelson Ramírez de Arellano Conde (view his website) is an artist in his own right as well as an important member of Havana’s artistic community. His work, with ex-wife Liudmila Velasco, examines cultural and political aspects of Cuban life through manipulated photography. He is also the director of Cuba’s National Gallery of Photography and is responsible for Fabrica de Arte Cubano, the gallery-cum-workspace-cum-hot-spot in an abandoned power plant in the Vedado neighborhood. When I was there, he was putting up a show featuring the best works of his contemporaries. The monumental pieces were dwarfed by the warehouse-like space, but their importance and outspoken statements managed to fill the room. At night the FAC becomes a club hosting viewings, cocktail events and a generally cool scene that would give a Williamsburg, Brooklyn, establishment a run for its money.

Carlos Garaicoa is already well-known in the U.S. and has had great success with his multimedia pieces that look at Havana’s dramatic fall from grace. Yoan Capote (view his website) is another celebrated artist, who works with sculpture to create deeply introspective works. The cooperative Los Carpinteros (view their website) consists of the brilliant Marco Castillo and Dagoberto Rodríguez. The pair produces often-witty work in myriad mediums, including Legos, watercolor on paper and LED lights.

Artistic collectives are relatively common in Cuba, in a nod to both Communism and medieval guilds. The Taller Experimental de Grafica de la Habana is a workshop for printmakers that is located just off the cobblestoned Plaza de Catedral in Old Havana. The artists, wearing aprons, work in the back, printing lithographs and etchings, and occasionally saunter into the front of the vast space, where works for sale are laid out on long tables.

To arrange a visit to Havana or to be introduced to any of these artists, contact the Indagare Bookings Team.

What's Allowed

We checked with our Cuban-American partners to get the official line on buying and exporting art from Havana.

According to the terms of the embargo, artworks and other cultural goods can be imported from Cuba. Most artists have bank accounts abroad, which makes paying them not just easier and faster for the buyers but also completely legal under the terms of the embargo. Regarding the Cuban regulations, only contemporary art is allowed to be taken out of Cuba. The artists must ask for export permission at a division of the Ministry of Culture that works with Cultural Goods and Heritage, which will provide them with all the documentation the buyers need to present when they are traveling with their purchases. The process for obtaining those permissions is usually very fast, typically taking no longer than a day or two. Many artists have deals with the official office’s workers, to avoid bureaucracy and expedite the permissions.

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