Cuba is ripe with artists – both established and emerging – and interest in Cuban art has been growing in recent years, especially following the 2015 ease on travel restrictions. But this growing interest in Cuban art is jeopardized by the current administration’s increasingly hard-line approach toward Cuba, which is making it more and more difficult for travelers and foreign art buyers to visit the island and familiarize themselves with local Cuban artists.
For the past seven months, while living and working in Cuba, I visited the homes and studios of more than twenty Cuban artists in and around Havana and Pinar del Rio, a city west of Cuba’s capital and surrounded by the Guaniguanico mountain range. These artists ranged from internationally-recognized painters and sculptors to up-and-comers who were more than eager to show me their work, share a sweet café Cubano, and talk about everything from the struggles of being an artist in Cuba today to U.S.-Cuba politics then and now.
My tour of these artists’ homes and studios wasn’t just for fun. It had a purpose: All of these artists have come together to support the work of Carmen Vallejo and Rey
Febles, the brave and magnanimous individuals behind Carmen and Rey’s Cancer Kids, a faith-based group that serves the daily needs of a group of kids battling cancer. Discover the artists and learn about the upcoming event to be held in Jacksonville in February.
My tour began in the early days of a sweltering June. One of the first places I visited was the home of Ítalo Expósito. Ítalo Expósito embodies what it means to be an artist. He lives and breathes his work and that is evident from the moment you step across his threshold. Every surface of his home is covered in art. There are paintings on the ceiling, mosaicked walls, sculptures hiding in corners, and hand-crafted stairs. His work channels art through the ages, building on the study of the great artists over time, and it manifests itself as the many stories that make up his life in present-day Havana.
My next stop was the elegant Miramar studio of José Vincench, a prolific artist who no longer publicly exhibits in Cuba due to issues with censorship of his work by the Cuban
government. Some of his pieces take up the entire wall and are skillfully brushed with delicate silver and gold leaf. He is a player of words, deconstructing nouns like gusano (worm), exilio (exile), patria (homeland), and paz (peace), often speaking most clearly and intimately to Miami’s Cuban community and
their solitude in exile.
Rafael Pérez Alonso is a character; and a wild one at that. He is spontaneous, outrageous, and incredibly talented. He came to art later in life, is self-taught, and can work in most any medium. Touring his large, warehouse studio in Playa (Buena Vista
neighborhood), you will find quick sketches, refined drawings, collages, installations, bronze sculptures, and even skateboards made out of resin shaped like his homeland.
One of the most understated artists I met was Gabriel Coto. He opened up his home in Altahabana, a suburb on the outskirts of the city, one hot and humid afternoon. To beat the heat, we rocked back and forth in his traditional sillones (Cuban wooden rocking chairs), with electric fans waving back and forth, while he told me all about his residency in Oaxaca, Mexico, where he participated in the project Art and Conservation for the Sierra Chinateca circa 2007. He pulled out a battered old laptop, splattered with paint, and showed me photos of his incredible sculptures made from dried plants magically shaped into life-size jaguars and Amerindians. Argentinian-born, Gabriel moved to Cuba when he was just one year old with his diplomat parents, and has been living in Havana ever since. In addition to his sculptural work, he is an adept painter of faces. If you want to commission a portrait from a Cuban artist, this is your guy.
Later that month, I hopped into a familiar green 1957 Pontiac botero (Cuban taxi) with my favorite Cuban taxi driver, Yoel. He drove me and some friends to Santo Suarez to meet Alan Manuel González, a Cuban painter I admire. Although Alan won the bombo (Cuban lottery) back in the ’90s and emigrated to Miami where he worked as a cake maker and airbrush designer, he chose to return to Cuba a few years later to renovate his 1930s three-story home and build a studio (by hand), all while continuing his art. His work, like many of these artists, has been exhibited around the world, but he swears he can’t paint the same while abroad. He needs to feel the daily struggles of Cuba to paint the hyper-realistic and symbolic images that reflect what he defines as the madness and authoritarianism that persists in his country. His paintings often depict daily realities and landscapes trapped underwater or confined in transparent vessels to convey the oppression and restrictions that have shaped his daily life.