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Art Essay: “ Murals and Street Art of Havana, Cuba”

By Franc Palaia
ART TIMES online May 2014

Baseball Player, Havana Cuba
Baseball Player, Havana Cuba

When the opportunity to go to Havana, Cuba arose in February, I jumped at it. As of now, the only way for non-Cuban Americans to get to Cuba is to travel with an organized group of professionals in order to “research” Cuban society or culture. On return to the States, the professional traveler is required to write a book or an article or lecture, or produce an exhibition based on the Cuban research and experience. I have traveled extensively internationally to collect images for my work as an artist since the 1970s.

I am a photographer and muralist, and have been documenting walls, graffiti and murals on four continents for many years. As a child, I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and ever since then, I have been fascinated with Cuba. I wanted to visit this Latin socialist society because it has been vilified and misrepresented in our mainstream press for half a century.

My first taste of Cuba was the plane I flew on departing from Miami. I boarded a small plane with my travel group of 25 Americans from all over the US. The roughly 100 seat 40 year- old chartered plane had neither corporate logo nor name, and appeared to have been repainted by hand with a brush like so many of their 1950s classic Cuban American cars!

Dos Hermanos, 340'x550', Pino Del Rio, Cuba
Dos Hermanos, 340'x550', Pino Del Rio, Cuba

The Havana airport was so small and remote that we actually walked off the plane onto the ground and entered a packed airport with a crushing mass of anxious Cubans waiting for their first glimpse of their long-lost American relatives, for many, their first trip to Cuba.

My first impression of Havana shattered my pre-conceptions of the city. First of all, it is much bigger than I imagined at almost 3 million people, and the condition of the once-elegant buildings was sadly much worse than I had anticipated. In fact there were many areas that looked like Haiti after the earthquake with huge sections of multi-story buildings in complete ruin and even collapse with gaping holes, entire floors missing, and walls that looked like they fell a few hours earlier. In spite of its state of dilapidation, the city reveals its former architectural splendor with a variety of architectural styles, spectacular and eclectic in comparison to other world cities. In fact, Havana would be the most beautiful city in the world, if it possessed the funds to repair its architectural gems. In fact, Havana was an architect’s treasure with exquist examples of every style of architecture from classical, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Art Nouveou, Art Deco, Modern and contemporary.

Old Woman photo mural by JR, Havana, Cuba
Old Woman photo mural by JR, Havana, Cuba

My quest on this trip was to scour Havana’s urban landscape and document as many walls and murals as I could find. I ended up photographing approximately 80 wall paintings. Given the politics of Cuba, I expected most of the murals to represent Fidel Castro, Che Guevara or communist propaganda. Instead, I saw only a handful of these official themes. The Cuban murals encompassed a full spectrum of styles and imagery: folk, political, naïve, abstract, cartoons, and graffiti. I was pleased to discover three colossal black and white photo-murals by the internationally-known street artist, JR, winner of a TED prize. He photographs local elderly citizens in poor neighborhoods, and wheat-pastes their enormous faces onto imposing city walls. His series he calls, “Heroes of the Earth”. Other murals were affectionate attempts to simulate American-style graffiti with cartoon imagery, balloon letters, and bold colors.

Other wall works were a combination of Cuba’s intermixed racial background of white, Latino and black slave culture with references to baseball, Santeria (a folk religion that is a mix of Catholicism and African spiritualism), and historical figures or political martyrs, such as Jose Marti. A good example of this is an enormous 100’x40’ mural in the Habana Vieja section where 67 artistic and literary Cuban heroes are depicted in a unique stucco, sepia-fresco technique. Finally, the mother of all murals and one of the largest in the world is the Dos Hermanos (two brothers) mural painted on the side of a jagged mountain by a team of artists in 1960-64. It is located two hours west of Havana in Vinoles, a small tourist village in the Pinar Del Rio province. This simulated “cave painting” based on archeological findings measures an astonishing 340' high and 550' long. It is today a major tourist attraction and is extremely impressive in its scale and complexity.

Step Mural & Man w/ Towel.Havana, Cuba
Step Mural & Man w/ Towel.Havana, Cuba

Ever since the first cave paintings, walls have been drop cloths for ideas, and walls are vital venues of private and public communication. In free societies, murals are visual “Rosetta Stones” expressing perspectives of children, fine artists, social discontents, and corporations to powerful governments. Overall, I was surprised by the variety of the murals and graffiti in Havana. It was gratifying that the visual freedom of contemporary Cuba included all forms of artistic expression. I did not see any anti-government graffiti. It was striking and frankly a relief that I did not see any commercial advertisements anywhere in the city or in the countryside. It was a pleasant not to be bombarded with advertising on every square inch of space as we see in the US and other Capitalistic countries.

Finally, I was impressed that, in spite of the lack of many consumer- comforts, the Cuban spirit was vibrant in their personal affection, their music, dance and their friendliness toward Americans in general.

(Franc Palaia lives in both Poughkeepsie, NY and Jersey City, NJ)

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