HAVANA — I check in at the classic Hotel Nacional and head to the landmark sea wall known as the Malécon. I know I shouldn’t stand close to the stone wall that holds back the sea but I can’t resist taking a photograph of the clouds over the churning water. And I can’t avoid getting doused by a towering spray of sea water that crashes over the sea wall. I don’t care. I love being back in Havana. I’m ready for new adventures.
After several visits to Cuba’s vibrant capital, on this trip it’s easy to see that tourism has increased, thanks to an influx of U.S. tourists. The classic 1950s American cars are shinier than ever and the tourist-friendly Old City (Habana Vieja) has gotten a fresh coat of paint.
Above: The writing's on the wall for Cuba's creative artists.
Speaking of colour, two museums that are a must-see on my trips to Havana are the Museum of the Revolution (Museo de la Revolution) and the National Museum of Fine Arts (Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes — Arte Cubano), which sit across the street from each other. Both offer me a unique vision into the Cuban experience.
My footsteps echo on the marble floors of the Museum of the Revolution in rooms where Cuba’s last dictator, Fulgencio Batista, entertained guests. Built in 1920 as the presidential palace, Fidel Castro famously said of the handsome edifice: “I never liked this building … we are going to try to make the people love the building.”
Castro did that by transforming a symbol of the dictatorship into a celebration of Cuba’s struggles with Spain and the United States. Today, glass fronted displays tell the history of the revolution, especially the details of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.
In a large plaza outside the building, there are artefacts from those struggles. Tanks, propeller-driven fighter planes and anti-aircraft missiles sit alongside the make-shift weapons of the revolution, an armoured delivery truck and a tractor. Bullet holes testify to the combat they suffered.
Above: Some Cuban artists are playful while others make political statements with their work.
The Museum of Fine Arts is devoted to works by Cuban artists, or works created by foreign artists while they were in Cuba. Arranged chronologically, the tour begins on the top floor. The earliest paintings, landscapes from the 16th and 17th centuries, depict the island as an exotic paradise.
As Cuba has evolved, so have the stories told by artists. Wealthy colonial aristocrats are portrayed like their Spanish cousins, regal, dignified and wise.
Tapping into the island’s sensuality, Guillermo Collazo (1850-1896) created voluptuous landscapes and sensuous portraits of women.
I spend hours in the galleries, enjoying striking, vivid images by modern artists like Mariano Rodríguez, Alfredo Sosabravo, Pedro Pablo Oliva and the amazing Antonio Eligio Fernández, better known as Tonel. Their deeply moving paintings rival the work of the best artists from around the world.
Cuban creativity is not confined to museums, though. Walking around Havana, I love seeing the work of street artists who paint on walls cracked with age, corrugated metal fences and temporary construction sites.
To find their art, I visit neighbourhoods outside the tourist areas. I compulsively walk kilometres each day into areas where fruit and fresh vegetables are sold on wooden carts and laundry hangs from lines stretched across balconies.
The artists I like the most employ humour in their images.
Above: Havana's street art comes in all shapes and sizes.
These works sometimes survive for only a few days before being painted over, so I take photographs of my favourites. After four days exploring the city, I collect more than a hundred photographs to share with friends back home.
Because they risk fines and jail, graffiti artists usually work at night. Most are anonymous but some artists sign their work.
Caníbal by Mr Myl is a striking character with a green face, diamonds for eyes and a mouthful of large teeth. The artist called #403215 reminds me of Banksy, the subversive English artist. Both use stencils and both are wickedly ironic. In one wall painting, a man with a dog’s head walks a dog. In another, a man with a wrench for a head is held in the air in a fist as if signalling victory, but “Help!” is written above the hand.
Most graffiti is apolitical or subtly political. But not all. Some graffiti artists like Danilo Maldonado, known as El Sexto (the Sixth), push the boundaries of overt political satire and have been jailed or forced to leave the country.
Above: More traditional art can be found in Havana's national museum.
A few graffiti artists use social media to reach their audiences. Yulier Rodríguez (a.k.a. Yulier P) paints alien-looking figures with gaping mouths and disembodied faces. Braulio Fabian Lopez Hernandez, known as Fabian, tags his paintings “2+2=5.” His “Supermalo” is a man with his face hidden by a balaclava. Both artists have Instagram and Facebook pages and sell their work in galleries like Taller Comunitario José Martí.
So, when you visit Havana, make sure you spend time in the museums and explore the city away from the tourist areas so you can discover Cuba’s vibrant art that explodes with creativity.
JUST THE FACTS
• To celebrate the creative energy, artists from Cuba and around the world will gather for the month-long 13th Havana Biennale in 2019 from April 12 to May 19.
• For art tours of Havana coinciding with the 2019 Biennial, Google “13th Havana Biennial.”
• Air Canada and a number of charter airlines offer non-stop flights to Havana and other Cuban cities from Toronto and other major Canadian cities.
• Walking outside of Old Havana’s tourist areas is safe. But wear sensible shoes and look down. Potholes are hazards easily avoided.
• From http://www.maps.me, download an interactive Havana map that can be used off-line.
• Warning: Only drink bottled water