By Jack Meyers
The picture above is of an artist, deftly touching up an installment in his latest project on animal anatomy. His name is Raúl. You’d never guess his age, nor his origin.
He is 17 and he lives (and paints) in Havana, Cuba. Let me explain how and why Raúl, no more economically privileged than an artist from any other country, is capable of such mastery.
We’ve all read or heard at least something about the restart of U.S.-Cuba diplomacy, heard about the legacies of U.S. influence on the island, or know the names Fidel Castro and/or Che Guevara.
I expect that some strong emotions are associated with these emblems. From the willing exodus of unaccompanied minors by their own parents in the 1960s (Operation Peter Pan) to the countless human rights violations and ideological warfare, the zeitgeist of Cuba is shrouded in pain. Families were stretched across two continents. On other hand, as a result of adverse circumstances, Cuban culture, food, music, and especially Cuban visual art, were transported to the U.S., as well.
I argue that the former theme is one of timely concern for art connoisseurs and politicians alike. In a world of global communication, technological determinism, visual artists on a controversy-mired island are a key point of departure – and a welcome sweep of alternative social strategy – for understanding what these new relations with the historically communist government will like look like. It is the visual artists, the mobile, the malleable, the marvelous movers and shakers of Cuban ideology, that have a vital lesson to share with all players in the re-boot of U.S.-Cuban diplomacy.
First, let me explain how I learned this vital lesson.
During January of this year I took part in an art history tour of Cuba with my alma mater. My classmates and I stayed with host families in El Vedado, the central residential area of Havana. We were meeting artists, visiting galleries, and creating our own projects with found objects and photography.
Our creative resources—namely DSLR cameras and experienced professors—were provided to us by our college. We were incredibly privileged and were about to get a swift slap to remind us of that.
That is when we arrived at the (unknown to us, but world famous) National San Alejandro School of Fine Arts, a secondary school where many of Cuba’s famed artists got their start, including contemporary all-stars Wifredo Lam and Carlos Quintana. What remains unnoticed about these remarkable artists is the circumstances in which they have produced such noteworthy pieces of art.
As many know about Cuba (and criticize it for), resources are scarce for everyone. Lines at grocery stores are hours long and many products found with ease in the U.S. are impossibly expensive for Cubans. In spite of this resource scarcity, the teenage students at San Alejandro are taught to grin and bear it—and creatively repurpose their surroundings to create art.
Cardboard and Styrofoam are among the materials students commonly use to replace higher-end fabrics and tools. This is not to say that Raúl, who is painting above on canvas, is exceptional. The government provides what students called a “symbolic grant” for art supplies. Meanwhile, most of the money used for supplies is coming from students’ pockets or funds from the school, explained San Alejandro’s administrators to us in a presentation.
In other words, Raúl and his classmates have (learned) lessons of virtue they could share with U.S. students and politicians alike.
Something can indeed come from little (or nothing). Not only that, but given the students’ comparative lack of access to hard currency and the fine line of freedom of speech, they make it through impressively content. In fact, just like Quintana and Lam, many students are well-known and critically-acclaimed by the time they graduate at 18, according to claims by a teacher at San Alejandro.
In light of a more dreary canvas of the island that is smeared with Cold War anxieties, Cuba’s artists have been doing just fine. In fact, there is a rather sizable Cuban artist community that has maintained political and cultural relevance both in light of and because of the attention brought to the island by the normalization of diplomatic relations with the U.S. One article for Christie’s, famed art auction company, showed that the limitations of studio space have added an emotional intimacy to the viewing of Cuban art. (Not to romanticize scarcity here, but on my trip to Cuba in January, I did get to go to an artist’s home/studio and there certainly is a pathos unlike that of a third-party museum).
So what does this teach us about economic, social, political limitations? It is clear that there is an intrinsic and unique value in art that is created under oppressive circumstances. And what about artists as a driving force for change? Well, for one, artist and common art connoisseur Alexis Leiva Machado, known internationally as KCHO, opened the first public Wi-Fi hot spot in Cuba.
Then how can U.S. diplomats, politicians, and journalists alike learn from student-artist Raúl, KCHO, and their artist compadres?
That is up for us, the students, the teachers, the journalists, to decide.
Jack Meyers visited Cuba last winter.