Previous participants in this occasional travelogue know that I usually include pictures along with the text. In this case? Not possible due to dodgy internet connections. So all I have to offer are words and this image of the Cuban flag. Enjoy anyhow. Don’t know if I’ll be able to send more than this and one more.
Started the day with music, a “lecture” by a performer/professor covering 500 years of Cuban music in less than an hour. Like the art, hard to describe, but merging of European and African styles and that evolution. We heard nothing from Cuban indigenous peoples. They were exterminated. They live on only in the names “Havana” and a few other places.
On to the Fine Arts Museum for another learned tour and another collection of visuals very hard to describe, but showing a spectrum of Cuban painters’ styles from post-impressionist through cubism and beyond, integrating native and European themes with Cuban history. Powerful stuff.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, our heads were turned toward Europe, wondering what was going to happen to the communist block countries. We (speaking for folks in our group) were not really looking toward Cuba and its disaster. When the U.S. refused to recognize or support Cuba after 1959, the Soviet Union took on the job, and virtually every part of the economy became dependent on the Russians.
Without Soviet support, the country lost 70% of its imports and plunged into a state of privation from which they still have not recovered. Despite that and the blockade, they have maintained their stability by creating a hybrid economy which allows for some private enterprise, and there are investments from Europe, Africa, and other areas. It’s in its infancy. Maybe you’d call it creeping capitalism.
Many of the paintings and sculptures in the museum hit that theme hard. None more powerful, perhaps, than a work called “The Survivors”, a sculpture of a giant (maybe 10-12 feet long or longer) cockroach with a human head, face turned toward the wall he is climbing. Originally, there was an installation with several of the “bugs” but they are now exhibited elsewhere except for the one we saw.
Finally, an amazing evening at a Community Arts Center for a look at community activism at its finest. In a very poor neighborhood, there was an abandoned water tank, once used to collect rain water and distribute it to surrounding houses via gravity. Modern pumps rendered it useless, so there it sat. Around it grew mountains of garbage as the area became an unofficial dump. A couple of leaders had enough of the stinking ugliness, formed an association, and asked the government to give them the tank. Mystified at why anyone would want it, and having no use for it themselves, the officials said okay, and folks went to work. In a few weeks, they had cleared the garbage, then they set about beautifying the place. Painting, tiles and sculpture surround the tank. They mucked out the inside, finding not only unholy slime but a human skeleton. Now, the tank has become inside a place for artists to exhibit and sell. The top is a kitchen/eating/entertainment facility. The hillside leading up to the top is a sculpture/botanical garden.
We began with a tour by one of the founders named Victor, who showed us some of the sculptures—the ultimate in found art. A statue of an eagle made of old car parts—springs, valves. “We love our old American cars. They are part of our history. We take better care of them than you have.” We applauded.
From there it was to what we thought was an opportunity to listen to a community band, but turned out to be a group-participation in Cuban dancing. It’s been 74 years since anyone got me to attempt the Cha-cha-cha, but the two little girls, Barbara and Angelique, 9 and 10, I would guess, shamed us all into it. Soon everyone was way into their rhythm, such as it was.
From there to dinner, where we sat with each other and with community people who had helped build the center and who used its services. At our table was a small family which included a criminal defense attorney, Janice (looked like a regular, somewhat overweight housewife), a dentist, Adrian (looks like a hip-hop artist) and her daughter, Laura, a Downs Syndrome child. They showed a video of the girl performing a dance on stage, and later we bought one of her paintings. She’s done many of them, and they are every one worth framing.
The food was plentiful and tasty, followed by another band and quite a lot of dancing. The girls proved to be good jitterbuggers, and I had a great time hopping around with them to “Rock Around the Clock” and other old timey favorites. We ended the evening with a rousing rendition of, can you believe it? “I can’t get no Satisfaction.” You may have read that the Stones had recently filled a Havana soccer stadium for a free concert (we drove by), but no one there enjoyed that music more than we loved what went on at that place where community action transformed their barrio from a garbage dump into a center where people, their education and their arts thrive.