Cuba's Rising Art Scene Not Frozen in Time

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One of the Havana's many 1950s cars. Photograph by Stephen Lewis Close

One of the Havana's many 1950s cars. Photograph by Stephen Lewis

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One of the Havana's many 1950s cars. Photograph by Stephen Lewis

In a country sealed against time, Patrick Symmes discovers the irrepressible cultural vibrancy of an island with storied works from the past, rising art stars of today, and an eye on the future.

"That's a Picasso behind you,” the poet said. He climbed up the stairwell of his house, slowly, on aged legs. A venerable figure in Cuba, he was trying to enjoy these late years of life. On the landing, he pointed with quiet satisfaction to a charcoal drawing.

Actually, there were two Picassos in the stairwell, he said. Could I pick out the other one?

Not an easy task in this house, which was small but decorated floor to ceiling with more than 150 paintings. Small drawings and prints crowded against big oil canvases in rococo frames. Even the stairwell, two stories high, was covered with art, corner to corner, top to bottom. I had come to visit the poet (who asked to remain anonymous) at the behest of a Cuban friend, who had told me that I would be stunned by his art collection, and indeed I was.

I searched the stairwell, but not long. The poet nodded when I pointed low and left, to a tiny, minimalist sketch only inches across. A few curving lines in black. The Blue Period without the blue. Yes, he said, that was the second Picasso.

Painter Osy Milian. Photograph by Stephen Lewis Close

Painter Osy Milian. Photograph by Stephen Lewis

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Painter Osy Milian. Photograph by Stephen Lewis

I had to ask. How did you get two Picassos?

“He gave them to me,” the poet replied.

Of course. It’s Cuba. Anything is possible.

Everywhere you look, there is an object for the eye in Cuba, an item to lust after. Many of them are hidden in private collections, many more are hidden in plain sight. A freshly refurbished 1957 Buick, with a new coat of paint and an engine retrofitted with parts from a Soviet tractor. A first edition of The Old Man and the Sea, in a used-book bin for less than a dollar. An antique wardrobe, in continuous use since 1776, tucked into the back of a neighborhood church. A landmark mansion divided into cuartería, the plywood bedrooms that Cubans build beneath the chandeliers of the old aristocracy. The old aristocracy itself, still housed in the great neighborhoods of Havana.

But this is not a country whose cultural production is a thing of the past. Cuba’s robust tradition of visual arts continues today, in a long line that leads from pre-revolution modernist masterpieces to contemporary paintings and sculptures by a number of increasingly celebrated Cuban artists with international followings. The Havana Biennial—held, in typical Cuban style, every three years or so—has become a major stop for American gallery owners and collectors (the next one is in May 2015), and Cuban superstars like the conceptual collective Los Carpinteros and the sculptor Alexandre Arrechea are represented, respectively, at Sean Kelly and Magnan Metz in New York.

The Havana home of collectors Jean Marc Ville and Gretchen Lima Molina. Photograph by Stephen Lewis Close

The Havana home of collectors Jean Marc Ville and Gretchen Lima Molina. Photograph by Stephen Lewis

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The Havana home of collectors Jean Marc Ville and Gretchen Lima Molina. Photograph by Stephen Lewis

The overflowing talent on the island draws art lovers from abroad, not just to buy but to live. Jean Marc Ville, a 61-year-old Frenchman, has filled his Art Deco house in Havana with works by Manuel Mendive, Belkis Ayón, Roberto Di- ago, Raúl Martinez, and others—all at bargain prices, as his wife, Gretchen, a 38-year-old Cuban, admitted. “We never bought for money, we bought for pleasure,” she told me when I visited her and her husband. “But some of them are now worth 100 times as much as we paid.”

For Americans, Cuban art old and new exists in a gray zone. With a few crucial exceptions, U.S. citizens can’t visit Cuba. And for those who do, it isn’t possible to return home with many of the amazing antiques and decorative objects that this country offers. Cubans have houses full of things they would sell if they could, and their own government only recently surrendered a monopoly on the sale of art and collectibles. In the 1990s, the revolution even opened a pawn shop on the outskirts of Havana, where an anonymous door led to a storehouse of family heirlooms being sold on consignment to foreigners, with the government keeping up to 90 percent of the take. In those desperate years, Cubans were willing to part with anything to survive, and a kind of mad looting spree broke out in Havana. I was told of foreigners buying up crates of art for cash, of entire private libraries disappearing into the belly of the Iberia plane departing daily for Madrid, and of Art Deco metalwork being pried off buildings and offered to architecture buffs.

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Artworks are, oddly enough, almost the only thing that Americans can buy in Cuba, an exception to the half-century-old embargo imposed by the U.S. government and maintained by the Treasury Department. A rolled-up canvas, a print, or a sculpture being considered “informational material”—unlike, say, a chair or a cigar—the Treasury Department allows Americans working in the arts to visit Cuba and permits any American here legally to return with no limit on purchased art objects.

“The arrival of foreign collectors sounded an alarm for the Cuban government,” said Luis Miret Pérez, the most prominent of a new generation of art dealers emerging as Havana experiments with liberalizing the economy and, with it, the buying and selling of art. Pérez, whose small Galería Habana represents Los Carpinteros, said that the chaotic cash-and-carry art deals of the 1990s have given way to a stable, informed market.

Regulation has helped. A few years ago Eusebio Leal, the forward-thinking historian who was responsible for the successful restoration of Old Havana, came up with an initiative that requires the Cuban government to preserve Cuban art. Now, the dismal and confiscatory government-run pawn shop has been replaced by an annual auction for international art dealers, a sort of Red Christie’s where the government gavels off artworks, valuables, and antiques from its own collection, a systematic de-accessioning of works seized from the Cuban people. The morality of buying art this way is hard to parse—who are the looters, the buyers, the sellers?—but that’s typical for Havana, and the merchandise is first-rate.

Private galleries are now legal in Havana, and Fidel Castro himself recently crashed an opening for Kcho, an installation artist who sits in Cuba’s legislature. One night, I turned up for an opening at Servando Galería de Arte and discovered the kind of social scene that would be normal elsewhere but which seemed to me unprecedented in Cuba. I’d expected a quiet affair, but the triangular space was packed with people for a double exhibit by José Figueroa, a legendary realist photographer, and the younger artist Alejandro González. I was immediately struck by the fact that, among the whirling, chattering crowd of art lovers and cultural mavens, few seemed to be looking at the works themselves—typical in jaded New York but rare in stimulus-starved Cuba.

It was the art itself that was the problem: It was political. You could see people deliberately avoiding it, and for good reason. Art isn’t a safe thing in Cuba; at any moment it may open your veins. González’s still lifes were elaborate fakes, documentary-style re-stagings of dark moments in the Socialist-Realist nightmare: In a 1989 mockumentary, the Berlin Wall is coming down as a Cuban surveillance office sits abandoned; Havana graffiti is rubbed out by a loyalist; the TV shows the face of General Arnaldo Ochoa, purged and shot by the government that same year. These events disappeared down the memory hole of Cuba’s official media, erased from history, and González was taking a risk. Themes of spying and the unknown are one thing, but when I pointed out Ochoa’s face, one Cuban woman physically recoiled, crying out, “Him!” Art is the only way Cubans can think, feel, and remember.

One of the most prominent, if most improbable, experts on the burgeoning Cuban art scene is the Miami-based philanthropist Ella Fontanals-Cisneros. Born in Cuba and raised in exile, she has become a patron and a huge player here, building her own collection of twentieth-century Cuban paintings while scattering support, encouragement, and party favors to a range of local artists old and young. And although she has properties in Miami, New York, Madrid, London, and Switzerland, Fontanals-Cisneros now spends much of her year in Socialist Cuba, at an elegant house in the Siboney neighborhood outside Havana.

Fontanals-Cisneros feels touched, even awakened, by the difficult lives of the Cubans she meets. “People have a solidarity,” she said. “They want to live. Everything means something, even a plate of food. Everybody lives every moment. They take nothing for granted.” She is also struck by how the arts are held in such high regard, as if the culture of Cuba existed “in some other time” than our degraded pop moment. Indeed, in Havana there is none of the advertising and salesmanship that shout at you in American cities. “I feel like I’m living in the 1950s when I’m here,” she said.

For Fontanals-Cisneros, the island is littered with surprises. She recalled someone offering her a look at some works from the 1940s’ Concrete period, a brief abstract movement that thrived in Cuba a little longer than elsewhere. “They opened a drawer, and I saw two paintings,” she recalled. “I said, how much? They said, $800. I said, I’ll take both.”

But there is also a flood of counterfeits—lost treasures are a commercial meme here, routinely faked. There was a time when antique ceramics from Argentina were imported and resold at a markup to tourists seeking “Cuban” antiques. Fontanals-Cisneros’s collecting has made her a target of the wrong people. At one point, she was approached by an intermediary who asked her, “Do you know somebody by the name of Poyack?”

“I said, you mean Pollack? Show me where this painting is."

The person could never produce a “Poyack.” Fontanals-Cisneros believes that if she had expressed interest, a painter would have been found to counterfeit a Jackson Pollack for her.

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There is another side of the art market, of course—that of the artists themselves. Cuba’s strange isolation has made it one of the rare places where an artist can live off art alone, and exert a surprising degree of influence on a uniform and materialistic social system. From the beginning, the revolution promoted popular culture, from films and theater to music and dance, but also invested in the strictly visual fields, opening up dozens of schools of art or design, including the nation’s premier academy of art, ICAIC, to train students as young as 13. There is no penalty for being an artist here: You are paid the same, fed the same, and housed the same as the bu- reaucrat and the laborer, your output taken as seriously as theirs, or more so. If you are going to be broke, Havana is a fine place to do it.

Cuba has a huge class of professional artists, including an undeniably talented and productive industry for the tourist trade, with every street corner sprouting a display of lurid oils on canvas, mostly sentimental sunsets, erotic nudes, and old cars painted with market-tested naïveté. There is also a smaller but substantial wedge of trained talent—superb draftsmen, abstract painters, pop impresarios, video provocateurs—as well as a circle of deal-making professionals who cluster around them. Artists are among the few Cubans who are routinely allowed to travel abroad, on the correct assumption that once they see the financial standing of artists in the rest of the world, they will return. As a result, they have become a kind of Cuban elite, well traveled, better informed, in the powerful position of having contacts abroad and the image of the nation in their hands—ambassadors of an isolated people.

A 47-year-old painter known as Angél told me that he’d been to 15 countries and that, because the cost of living is so low in Cuba, the sale of a single canvas in Europe could support his family for years. I heard something similar from Osy Milian, a 21-year-old painter with a growing reputation, whom I visited in Havana. She graduated from the country’s best art school with rigorous training and zero debt, and after selling a few canvases on a tour of the United States was free to pursue her muse for months. Coco Fusco, a Cuban-American artist and writer who has championed Cuban artists, fears that “collectors are getting off too cheap” but still cheers a boom that lets artists show their talent and earn a living. “Someone who makes $5,000 at a Biennial,” she noted, “can live like a king for a year.”

For Angél, foreign contact has been good for the bottom line—he once sold every painting from a New York show—but even better from a creative point of view. There is no such thing as a dedicated art supply store in Cuba, so Angél has friends bring him paint from abroad, a year’s worth at a time. He said that Cuban artists have been able to combine the fruits of foreign contact with a Cuban talent for scrounging supplies from the garbage, and the result of the contradictory forces of scarcity and surplus is “an explosion of creativity.”

“The lack of materials forces you to develop your intellect,” he said. “How do I create something with nothing? It’s easy to work with plenty. The hard thing is to work with little."

History regresses to the mean, and I’ve long believed that the next Havana, the one after this, will be more like Old Havana. Searching for the future, then, took me to meet the woman who perhaps best embodies the past and Cuba’s long memory. That is Naty Revuelta, the legendary socialite, revolutionary, and lover of Fidel Castro who has been collecting art and stories continuously since the pre-revolutionary world of cosmopolitan Cuba. She, like other old-guard collectors, has held on to them all these years, in diminishing and fading glory.

Now 87, Revuelta met Fidel Castro in the 1950s, when he was an ambitious young lawyer on the make in Havana and she was a high-society debutante with an ingenue’s smile and eyes that could put any man, even a disciplined revolutionary, into a trance. The story is that Fidel arrived at Revuelta’s door one night, breathless, claiming that enemies were pursuing him. She sheltered him, and their epic love affair—a scandal of pre-revolutionary Havana—produced a love child.

Revuelta’s mid-century modern house, a mixture of South Florida horizontalism and Cuban eclectica, is more than the usual family museum. There are perhaps 100 works of art tucked into every bit of wall space, along with old photographs and small sculptures and tables crowded with candelabras, outdated telephones, serving bowls, great piles of reading (including up-to-date issues of Martha Stewart Living and a stack of New Yorkers), and a can of Silvo Tarnish Guard.

Her greatest pride is her library, a dense but well-curated collection on wide-ranging topics housed in a shaded study. This is the realm of an archivist, the windows covered to protect the books, the shelves organized and neatly labeled, her oldest volumes—a pair of eighteenth-century Spanish tomes on Cuba—wrapped in butcher’s paper against the elements and tied with string. Memorabilia dot the upper walls, a fine collection of revolutionary posters and graphic art, many of them incorporating images, small or large, of her former paramour Fidel in his man-of-destiny moments.

When you grow up rich and beautiful, people give you things. She got a great Wifredo Lam that way (“He gave it to me. It was a mujer caballo in profile”). But she had been forced to sell it, along with two paintings by the noted painter Fidelio Ponce de León, during the economic catastrophe of the 1990s. Loyal to a fault, Revuelta had been living then on nothing but her official $20-a- month state pension. People around Havana were starving, and sacrifices had to be made. Selling three paintings provided “enough for my family to live for four years.” Of the rest of the artists in her collection, she said, “He died, he died, he died, he died, he died, he’s alive, he died, he died, he died, he’s alive.”

Pride of place on her wall goes, with reason, to a large oil portrait of Revuelta herself in high society mode. “Other people say it doesn’t capture me,” she said, “but I think it does.” I can’t agree—Felix de Cossio’s portrait is emotional and vivid, depicting the beautiful young woman, but is stiffly conventional and misses something so visible in the subject before me more than half a century later: elegance, confi- dence, a playful command of the world.

At the door, she bid me farewell. “Be good,” she said. “And if you can’t be good, be careful. And if you can’t be careful, name it after me.” She waved me off, her naughty remark ringing in my ears. It was the winking Old Havana of the 1950s, everything coming back around again. The new Havana promises to be full of aspiration, glory, beauty, and sass. It’s going to be a wonderful party.

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