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It’s something of a cliche, but within minutes of leaving Havana’s Jose Marti Airport, visitors are transported back to an earlier era. Soviet-style (and often Soviet-built) architecture predominates, the roads are full of 1950s-vintage American cars, and many billboards are filled with slogans proclaiming fidelity with Fidel and the Cuban Revolution. A short walk around the city reveals that the nascent entrepreneur class realizes the profit potential of these throwback elements, and there are burgeoning opportunities for visitors to Cuba to return with cultural objects of historic and highly decorative value. Chief among these objects are posters and photographs with revolutionary themes, many available for as little as $25.
Art is everywhere in modern Cuba. Cuban leader Raul Castro has allowed individual families to turn their street-level living rooms into art galleries. Souvenir shops sell brightly colored renderings of Havana street scenes. Even the antique license plates for sale are in an array of pastel colors. Freedom of speech and expression have certainly been limited over the past 50 years, but art has flourished inside and outside the limits. A visit to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana (National Museum of Fine Arts) reveals an impressive collection of Cuban artists, many of whom have exhibited outside of Cuba.
It’s also possible to visit the home of Jose Rodriguez Fuster, known as the “Cuban Picasso.” In addition to his individual artistic pursuits, Fuster has used colorful tiles to decorate his own home and some 80 others in Jaimanitas, a fishing village on the outskirts of Havana. Similarly, a visit to Las Terrazas, an eco-tourist resort and small village about an hour from Havana, would not be complete without seeing the workshop of Ariel Gato Miranda. “Griel,” as he is known, paints and prints on paper made from recycled paper products and tree bark.
While the vibrancy and quality of the art scene is surprising, it is the political art that captivates the first time visitor. Some of it is subtle, like the small posters advocating for five Cubans held in U.S. prisons – “Obama Give Me Five” the posters say. Elsewhere, copies of Alberto Korda’s book, Diario de una Revolucion are sold. Diaro includes Korda’s revolutionary-era, black and white photos of Fidel, Raul, and Che Guevera. The young revolutionaries look like rock stars in their khaki military uniforms and long hair.
The most striking political art is in the form of posters from the 60s and 70s readily available for purchase in antiquarian bookstores and from street vendors. While the common theme is the revolution and the enduring importance of the principles on which it was based, the artistic styles vary widely, ranging from a heroic 1973 photo poster of a female military figure holding a Kalashnikov rifle to a 1970 poster with a simple admonition, “Resister, Vencir” (Resist, Triumph). In one classic, the fire-engine red image of a Cuban revolutionary is animated by the command, “Defender la patria deber de revolutionario” (Defending the homeland is the duty of the revolutionary). The abstract image seems to jump off the page as the bright red stands in stark contrast to the now-yellowing card stock on which it is silkscreened.
The pinnacle of the genre is work by Felix Beltran, the Havana-born artist who was once the head graphic designer for the propaganda department of the Cuban Communist Party. Beltran, who studied in New York, France, and Spain, moved to Mexico in 1980. He has exhibited around the world and lectures on the power of the poster as a mode of visual communication. His masterworks include a 1971 poster calling for freedom for American black activist Angela Davis and his October, 1969 silkscreen entitled “Che,” which was issued in a series of 200. The latter employs contrasting black and red horizontal lines to render the classic visage of the Argentinian-born revolutionary. The 22” X 17” image of Che shimmers with an op art effect.
The tawdry veneers of the pastel buildings on the route to the airport were barely visible in the light of dawn. A graffiti drawing of Che is animated by the phrase “Hasta la Victoria Siempre” (Onward to victory always). A little further down the road, more graffiti, “Socialismo Muerte” (Socialism is Dead). Art fueled the revolution, art has sustained the country over the last half century, and art may be leading the way to a very different future.