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Saturday, June 27, 2015

Post #2 from the Havana Bienal

 The posts run in reverse order, with the newest on top. So if you've come to this one first, read the other one before this one. On the other hand, my writing is not particularly chronological, so perhaps it doesn't matter. 
Internet is spotty at best in Cuba, as you may have surmised. I only tried twice while there. Once I was briefly successful, long enough to retrieve Giselle's contact info. which I had of course misplaced, and to also briefly say hi to Loring via email.
Internet access was very intermittent and difficult to get.  First one needs to buy the scratch ticket card for $8 that gave you a code and an hour's worth of service, and then to actually access the net. That can take a good portion of the hour in itself. Then, it came and went. Some days there weren’t even any cards to purchase, I’m not sure why.  

So here I am, a week later, back in the US and up in the woods of Maine, with finally the time and inclination to write.

We did stroll the Malecon, at least most of us, on a later day. It is a wide boulevard with a lot of fast traffic, not easy to cross, and installations on both sides. Leonora wanted especially to see a large sculptured  head she'd spotted from the bus, so she strolled along the city side. The rest of us, five I think, walked along the water side. Looking at the catalog later, back at home, I realized that there were a number of pieces I never saw at all, although most could be seen from either side of the boulevard.
We started at the "ice" rink, on the city side. It sure looks like ice, but is actually plastic. There was a stand with skates for rent, but it was only "open"" at night. Nevertheless, there were eight or ten teens playing hockey, barefoot and in shorts, with sticks. Very entertaining for us, as well as for them.
A nice counterpoint to the rink was a "beach" on the other side of the street and further down. There were lounge chairs and and umbrellas and imported sand, and a little cart with refreshments for sale. And people using them, including us. One of my travelling comrades offered to take a picture of me lounging, one of the few photos of me from this trip. The beach is very reminiscent, and maybe inspired by, the Paris Plage along the Seine each summer. It started out some years ago with whimsy and a share of irony, I think, but has now become a standard part of Paris' summer, more for residents, I think, than for tourists. I remember an aqua aerobics class in a pool along the river, which seemed absolutely surreal.
Just a day or two earlier, our group had gone to an actual beach about a half hour from Havana. I know that Americans aren't supposed to go to the beach (recreational, not educational) but I assume since it was paired with a visit to the studio of Janette and Norberto it was allowed or ignored.
We had met Norberto and Janette a few days before our visit to their home/studio. In fact, I think they may have been the first artists we met, on our first day. They are both printmakers, and both part of a collaborative of bookmakers that I believe was organized by Janette. The exhibit that first day included both of their work as well as others. When I examined one piece, a book splayed open into a circle, very appealing aethetically, Someone, (our guide Grendy, I think) pointed out to me that it was comprised entirely of ration books the artist collected in his neighborhood. It didn't occur to me until later to wonder if they had never been used, which didn't seem to make sense, or perhaps they would be stamped and kept, not torn off. Maybe I'll write and ask Grendy. I liked her a lot and want to be her fb friend. She is perhaps 30, divorced with a toddler son, and is going travelling to Europe soon with a group of other Cuban travel guides. Obviously one of the privileged, as those in the travel industry seem to be. I wonder if that extends to the maids in the hotels. They get good tips, so maybe so. Then again, the hotel is owned by the government, so who knows.
Two of the other books in the exhibit used white ink on a waxy looking paper. I was very taken with these because the technique was identical to the way Max's birth announcements, which we had made by a woman we'd met in Lima all those years ago, a technique I'd never seen before or since. "It's vellum," said Deb, the master printer in our own group, who'd studied at a prestigious printmaking school affiliated with the University of New Mexico. Vellum is a word familiar to me but I never knew more than that it was a kind of paper. When I looked it up, I read that it was made from skin. Was this, or Max's announcements, made from actual skin? I doubt it, and hope not. Although it isn't any different than leather shoes or eating meat, it doesn't seem very appealing to me as a birth announcement. As a work of art? I don't know.
With much of the art we saw in Havana, we were treated to the artist's description of techniques and significance. It certainly always matters to me if I've met the artist or craftsperson who made something I've admired or purchased, whether a papier mache mask or an arpillera ( the appliqued and embroidered hangings I collected in Peru) or even a piece of jewelry I purchased on a street someplace. And I did meet the three artists from whom I purchased a lithograph or woodcut print in Havana, and the ISA student whose ceramic piece I purchased.  And of course it deepens my interest to hear about the intentions or significance or symbolism in a piece. But what always hits me first is just a visceral reaction, something just pleases or speaks to me in the aesthetics. And that is true whether it is a street artist or a work in a museum. I may appreciate it more when I know more about it. But often I don't know anything about a work of art except that it strikes me as appealing, or startling, or even upsetting.
The pieces I purchased in Cuba have been sitting on my dining room table for almost two weeks now, while I try to figure out where to possibly put them. Every time I walk by them I feel a jolt of pleasure, that the description by the artist may or may not enhance, I don't yet know. The prints all feature symbols of native religious significance, which seems to influence a lot of Cuban artists. One is called Mothers of the Waters, and is two female heads. One is crowned by small fish, the other by shells, and they represent "sweet" water and salt water. The artist showed me the woodblock and several others. One of our group, Daniel bout another of his pieces, a much larger one. Where do these New York City residents find room in their apartments to display their art? I asked Ben, who with his wife, Robyn, purchased several large pieces this trip, (and one $1500 knife.) Robyn had come to Cuba last year, on the UNM trip, and bought a number of pieces then. They live on the Upper West Side and are both lawyers. I can imagine a large apartment there, with plenty of room for art, because my high school friend Nancy , also a lawyer, also lived in one and did have lots of wall space. But when I asked Ben, he just chuckled and said that most of the art wasn't hung. I heard him mention something to one of the other folks in our group about putting it in a closet.
Art collecting, and even more so, being a dealer, seems so out of my realm and league that I was a little concerned about joining this tour, that the group would comprise people from a so different world than mine, with whom I might not feel comfortable. But the thought of going on an art focused tour won out, and I'm glad it did. It's perhaps ironic that I was concerned more about being out of synch with my fellow group members than with being in a foreign culture with its differences and limitations.
Cathy was the art dealer in the group. My own stereotype of dealers being austere personalities was totally belied by Cathy, perhaps the most warm and friendly person in the group. She had made eight previous trips to Cuba to buy art, although she hadn't been there in the last nine years. She. has a private gallery in Montclair, NJ ( ie open by appointment).. She told me that she'd previously made trips to Africa, I forget which country, to purchase art for a client who knew what he wanted to collect but apparently had no interest in travelling there. I suppose in certain circles that may not be uncommon.
Yet Cathy was the most down to earth person, enthusiastic about everything, almost giddy and childlike in her appreciation. She'd enter a studio or gallery with an "Oh, wow" that was so sincere it made me smile. Also in our group was Julia, also from Montclair and a client of Cathy's, who's bought a number of pieces from her in the past from her gallery. Julia is in her 70's, a retired chemist whose husband died at age 68 about seven years ago. She moved from their home to a smaller house in Montclair. A house which apparently still has room for plenty of large scale art. Julia also hosts concerts in her home, and there was brief talk about having a Cuban art and music reunion for the group. Half the group lives in Montclair, the rest, beside myself and Astrid, in Manhattan. So it is feasible, though I don't know that it would actually happen. I wouldn’t mind at all keeping in touch with some of these folks, although most don't seem to use fb aside from Lori, with whom I've already become friends. Lori is a self taught artist (an art school dropout, as she said to me.) She showed me a piece on her phone, but it wasn't really visible. I could only appreciate it when I saw it later on facebook at home. It is incredible, and there is a certain resemblance to some of the magic realistic work we saw in Havana. Lori is the one whose daughter Ava knows my niece Naomi at college.
I realize I've been writing more about people than art, but that's okay. There was so much art that it's hard for me to focus in and decide what to write about. I'll try to describe the places where I bought my four pieces. One was from Norberto, married to Janette, whose collective we visited, and then studio by the beach. It was Janette who really appealed to me personally. She's vivacious, and talented. I would love to have bought something of hers. Her work, though, was mostly large, many in tryptichs, ie three different sections though considered as one, bigger and more expensive that I could consider. But Norberto had several small pieces, finally something I could afford and (hopefully) find space for. I'd set myself a $500 maximum, and this was $150. The piece I chose is largely black and white, with some bright color in the middle. It depicts a head hinged and open, with another creature inside.  I'm sure there's much more that I haven't yet noticed or deciphered. Several others in the group also gravitated toward that piece, and one of them might have bought it if I hadn’t noticed it first
 Norberto and Janette came to lunch with us that day, and another day later on as well. They had done a residency at the Mass College of Art last winter. When I mentioned that I attended classes at BU, Janette told me that they had worked in the printmaking studio there as well. Astrid had been involved, I think, in making the arrangements. She told us a funny story, which Janette continued, about how they had been stranded in their dorm residence during the big snowstorm, when classes and transportation were cancelled. And they had never experienced snow before.
I realize I've mentioned Janette a lot more than Norberto. He talked a lot less, probably because he doesn't speak English very much, but maybe also because Janette is more outgoing.
One day we visited ISA, the prestigious art school. Just about 10% of those who apply are accepted. We visited ceramic, painting, and printmaking studios there. At the printmaking studio I purchased another piece, done by one of the professors there. That's the one with the two mothers of the waters.
And, at the ceramics workshop, I bought a heavy piece (although the artist, a student, obviously wanting to sell his work, told me it was hollow and therefore not that heavy. lord knows what it might have weighed if solid.) I'll try to describe it. It's a cross section, half of some type of citrus fruit, maybe a grapefruit? There are six sections, and three of them, instead of consisting of fruit, are filled with myriad small gears, as from a watch. Any significance? I don't know. He also had pieces that were the shape and size of a conch shell, encrusted with the same type of gears. 
Astrid's strong advice was that we pack the ceramics in our checked luggage, not carry-on, as I'd intended to do. The reason - it might be considered a weapon, ie to bonk someone on the head with, and therefore could be confiscated. Okay. I wasn’t clear on whether this would be by Cuban or US customs. But I carefully packed all my dirty laundry around my ceramic fruit with gears and hoped for the best. Decided I'd rather risk it being broken than confiscated, although the result for me would be much the same.  Good news - it made it home fine, as did Leonora's plate. One problem, it is very dusty in among all those tiny gears. The artist indicated I should clean the ceramic part with water, and the gears with oil. But I haven't figured out how to get in among all those tiny gears. I may try first with a Q-tip.  I didn't really talk to him much, except to bargain a bit about price (he had three, asked $200, or $300 for two. I asked a couple of my group if they wanted one, no takers, so he eventually did sell me one for $150.) I have his last name only because I asked him to sign it.
One of the artists we met, Kcho, was mentioned in today's Boston Globe and a day or two on NPR's Newshour. Not so much for his art as for his open community free internet access. Cuba is just starting this week to open its access a bit, and that's what led to the mention of Kcho. He has a gallery workshop, a classroom to teach kids printmaking, and some installations as part of the Bienal, all of which I took photos of and will post. And, the internet access. It's not really a cafe, but just an outdoor area to which people can bring their own devices. That there seems to be plenty of, people with phones and computers. And there they were, dozens of them, just sitting and using their devices in the sun. At least one of my travelling companions did as well.
Since most of the population only gets the $20 monthly, like my friend Giselle the math professor, it is still an elite, those in the travel, music, and art fields, and those with family abroad, who can afford the technology, and the restaurants, and the night clubs, etc. I just hope the new opening up will bring more equality between the haves and have nots. Ironic, given the spirit of the revolution, that there is such a disparity. Not that we don't have it in the US, but it is so contrary to what the revolution was meant to bring.  And I must admit I feel uncomfortable being part of the elite. That's true anywhere I travel. But here there seem to be less choices. There aren't any greasy spoon restaurants or corner cafes, at least not that I came across. We were fed sumptuous meals at elegant restaurants, something I can appreciate periodially, but not daily. And although I thoroughly enjoyed the hotel, as I did when we were in Havana before, I think I prefer the casas particulares, ie bed and breakfasts,  that Loring and I stayed at, in Havana and in La Boca, outside Trinidad, where we stayed for a week on our last trip.
Back to artists, there was also Choco, an impressive looking black man in white overalls, whose work we saw at the Bienal and then also at his studio. This was one of the real delights of the trip, meeting artists personally in their studios after seeing their work at the Bienal. And in a few cases, for me, going back and seeing their work again at El Morro, the fortress which was the main venue where we saw the majority of the art.
Choco's work at the exhibition featured pieces comprising flattened soda and/or beer cans, made into large portraits. I am a big fan of art using recyled materials, and there certainly is a lot of it in Havana. unfortunately, the photos I took of his work on exhibit don't at all do him justice, nor, I fear, do my words.. Some of the work at his studio, and of him, came out better so I will post some of those on fb.
Another artist that impressed me used mostly buttons, and some other found materials, to make a portrait of a woman. It wasn't evident until you got close what it was comprised of, as was true also of Choco's beer can portraits.
One night some of the group went to a place called FAC, and raved about it so much that the rest of us went the following night. I'd describe it as a nightclub cum art gallery, peopled by Havana's young elite. It was fascinating just for the scene, but also the art, and we met several of the artists there. With your admission you got a card on which the bar would stamp each drink. Upon exiting you turned in the card and paid for the drinks.
At FAC we ran  into Susana Delahante Matienzo, an artist we’d met on our first day. Her work for the Bienal was an ongoing performance piece relating to black women’s hair. While we were there, a lecture about black female hair and self images was taking place. The room was filled with many women, and some men. Some of the women were just gorgeous in their afro hair styles. I particularly noticed a woman who was probably in her 80’s, with a silver white head of Afro styled hair.  Unfortunately most of us couldn’t understand most of the lecture, delivered in a rapid Spanish. We left, but had had the opportunity to speak with Susana personally, a treat. She explained that the culmination of the exhibit would be a contest for people with Afro style hair, adults and kids, women and men.  Although I’m not sure I like the idea of a contest, and wondered what the criteria would be, it would have been interesting to see the contestants and variety of hair.  Perhaps it has been posted online, I’ll have to look.
So, back to FAC, the gallery/nightclub. We ran into Susanna there, feeling pleased to recognize and have a chance to chat with her again. Next, as we wandered through the corridors, a woman approached me and greeted me, as if she knew me. I told her I wasn’t who she had mistaken me for. She then introduced herself as the curator of the site. I wish I had taken the time to talk with her further. I wonder who she’d mistaken me for.
One of the most striking works at FAC was a room size installation, in a round room, a large scale photograph of a group of men, each with arms on the shoulders of those beside him, in a semi circle enveloping the viewers.  Each man was wearing blue underpants, and that was all. In the background music was playing. It was reminiscent of a folk dance, perhaps Greek, I later found out that the artist was Cuban born, but raised and lived in Israel. It turned out that Robyn, who’d been in Havana last year, had purchased a piece of his then but hadn’t met him. She was very pleased to meet him, and he seemed quite pleased to see a photo of his photo on her wall at home.
In the middle of the room was a bin with what looked like the same underpants, lots of them. I thought it would be interesting if observers tried to don a piece. But when I went to touch them, they were all connected, in a long chain. Meaning, who knows? Interesting, definitely.
The artist spoke with Robyn and Ben, and Deb, the other person who’d attended UNM and who is a master print maker. As Deb told me later, his next project was going to be a series of photos of faces, with the mouths covered, so only visible from the nose up. He asked Deb to model for him, because, she said, he liked her nose!  I don’t know if they managed to connect or not.
I haven’t yet mentioned Abel Barroso. We didn’t meet him, but I already was familiar with his work from an exhibit we’d seen at the museum during our previous trip. And his work was on exhibit at El Morro, the large venue we visited early on, and to where I went back a few days later on my own. He’s the only contemporary Cuban artist with whom I was familiar before this trip, aside from Tanja Brugiera, an internationally known performance artist who is quite provocative, and currently in the news for an event she organized for the Bienal. She’s now under house arrest.

But back to Barroso. He works mostly in wood, sometimes quite whimsically, often with political commentary. From the previous exhibit I especially remember life size pinball machines and large scale monopoly boards. The spaces on the board were the names of Latin American countries. So commentary on American rather than Cuban government.
Currently, he seems to be using a lot of pencils, and pencil points, and shavings, in his two dimensional pieces. Again, not sure of the significance, but they are visually impressive and pleasing. In the bookstore at El Morro, I bought the only copy of a book on Barroso, and am glad to have it. I’m not sure if it includes his most recent work, probably not, but it has good quality photos of many others.
I’d like to describe some of the restaurants we went to. They are called paladares. They were on of the first private enterprises allowed in the country, beginning in 1994. They were originally in a room of a private home, and limited to 4 tables, although many or most snuck in another few tables in a back room. All the paladares we went to, one a day for lunch, are still family owned, with, I believe, family still living in a part of the premises. In most cases, we met the restauranteur. But they are far from the humble establishments they must have been when they were conceived. They are elegant, filled with antiques, memorabilia, items of whimsy, art. And the meals match the environment in elegance and quantity. Some of them served a choice of several entrees, lobster or fish or chicken or lamb. Others served a similar menu, but family style. There were hors d’ouevres and salads, mojitos or beer and desserts, more than most of us could eat.
It was wonderful, but after three or four days, I tired of lobster and shrimp, hard to believe, and began eating other entrees. I was rarely hungry at suppertime, just as well, although did go out a couple of times, once with Julia, John, Daniel and   the Reuters correspondent we met with one night, at about midnight. Once with Giselle. Although I wasn’t really hungry I wanted to take her out to dinner. (I think the dinner we took her to three years ago may have been the first restaurant meal she’d ever had.) And the last night our farewell dinner was included, so two big meals that day, too.
I loved the environment of the big mansion filled with antiques and memorabilia, just my kind of place, every wall space and nook and cranny filled. (and the ceilings were probably 18 or 20 feet high!)  And I loved the place with the whimsical structures and art – ie a ferris wheel looking type thing made of old typewriters, and, on the toilet stall walls, beautiful white roses made of toilet paper.
Probably the most atmospheric old building we dined at was the one located on the top, third floor of a building, very elegant, but with the lower floors in a state of decay typical of the city. I had mixed feelings about the environment – atmospheric, yes, but it also felt a bit as if the poverty and decay was being exploited as a design element. I wondered how the people on the lower floors felt about the restaurant. My impression was that there were a number of people still living there. But when I talked to Lori, after our return home, she said she’d talked with a friend who knew the restaurant, and said that the owner had relocated all the tenants into better housing. Perhaps I was mistaken, and the people I saw didn’t live there. I hope so.
On the floor below the restaurant, which looked as though it might once have been a grand ballroom, there were pieces of white cloth, hung very regularly along ropes strung diagonally across the vast space. I first assumed that it was an installation related to the Bienal. I like it. Later, as we left the restaurant, there was a woman unclipping the pieces of cloth from the line. It was the restaurant’s napkins hung out to dry. Art is everywhere.
I briefly mentioned the writer from Reuters above. His name is Marc Frank. He is American, married to a Cuban, and has lived in Cuba for 25 years. He has recently written a book about his experiences and impressions. He talked to a few of us one evening in the very pleasant courtyard of our hotel. Before we knew it, after several mojitos, several hours had gone by, and we adjourned to a nearby restaurant. He said the publishing of the book was very well timed, in view of the recent progress in US/Cuban relations. Because his is one of the most recent books on the country, sales are going very well. I’ve put it on my kindle list wish, although I may need to take a hiatus from Cuba themed books after I finish Leonardo Padura’s Havana Blue, second one I’ve read of his Havana Quartet.
Padura is one of Cuba’s most renowned writers. His books are literary mysteries. He’s a wonderful writer, but I have found his plots quite subservient to his descriptions. I may or may not read the remaining two.
The other book I read while there is The Other Side of Paradise, by Julia Cooke. She’s lived in Havana, went to school there, and has made trips back, and her descriptions of the place, people, and culture are illluminating, and it’s a good read. Several times I came across things she mentioned, like Avenida G (a hangout for young Cubans) which gave me a better understanding of the place. John, a quasi-member of our group ( he came primarily so that he had a legal visa, but had other things planned and didn’t spend much time with us) had read the book and felt the writer’s approach was too negative. I think it got more negative toward the end, but was generally well-balanced. It’s also fairly recent, and I recommend it for anyone in getting some insight into Havana.
I’ve mentioned Giselle once or twice, and wrote at length about her after my previous Cuba trip. We met her through another friend, someone I knew briefly in Europe during one of my volunteer projects, and had stayed in contact with thru facebook. Giselle is a math professor at a University outside of Havana, a highly regarded IT school. She looks quite young, and I was startled when we met her to realize she was a professor. She was 27 then, and so about 30 now. She loves her country, but also doesn’t hesitate to criticize the things she finds wrong. She earns the typical $20 monthly beyond her basic living costs, room and board at the university, health care, etc. She told us then that she saved enough money each month to buy a new pair of shoes once a year, an item of clothing once.  When I asked what to bring this trip, she asked for razors, soap. I brought both, and a few items of clothing, including Red Sox shirts. And some of my traveler friends took the toiletries from their hotel rooms and a few other things to add to the mix. Giselle was beyond grateful, almost in tears.
At dinner, she ordered fish. My immediate assumption was that was because it was familiar. I remembered her discomfort over ordering from the menu three years before, because she was overwhelmed. After we ordered, though, Giselle commented that she never ate fish, and how ironic it was that in an island country all the fish went to the tourists.
I walked her to the bus stop, a couple of blocks away, and waited with her until the bus came. It was one of three buses she had to take to get home, an hour and a half trip. She wasn’t sure if they were still running that late at night. I asked if she had a way to check the schedule. She was incredulous that buses ran on schedules in the US.  I saw her off and hoped she’d make it home okay. She’d told me, when I asked her how often she came to Havana, that she never did, never really went out at night or left campus at all.
I asked what she’d do if the other buses weren’t running, and how far the one from the Old City would take her. She said to the edge of the city, and a taxi from there would be about $20. I gave her $20, a month’s salary for her, the cost of a restaurant meal in Havana for me.
I heard from Giselle a few days after I’d gotten home, thanking me again for everything. She reiterated her previous offer that if we ever came to Cuba again we had a home at her family home. It’s in Holguin, an eight hour bus ride from Havana. She only goes there twice a year .Her parents and sister have never been to Havana. She didn’t mention how her trip back to her University had been that night. She also wrote that she’d repay me the $20 that she was embarrassed to take from me, the next time I saw her.  And that the nice smelling soap in the beautiful box, that I’d bought at Marshall’s for her was so nice, wasn’t sure she could actually use it, might just keep it and enjoy the scent in the beautiful box.
Well, it will take her a while to get through all the small hotel bars that I and the others passed along to her. Perhaps by that time she’ll have gotten enough enjoyment from the fancy one that she can bring herself to use it. Or the restrictions will have been lifted enough so that she has enough money to buy her own. Right.
I’m glad, for the most part, to note the small changes In the three years between my visits. It’s nice to see small individual vendors in the streets, even if they are hawking Che t-shirts and toy wooden cars circa 1959. I just hope Havana doesn’t get too Disneyfied in its frozen in time quality, and that some of the changes bring some good to the people who live there.
Am I taking a break from Cuba themed literature as I mentioned above? Not yet. I’m already into the next one, about Cuba’s “Sugar King”. And I’ve put Cuban Revalations, by Marc Frank, the Reuter writer we met, on my kindle wish list. After that, it’s on to my next travel related theme, and my next trip, Paris. I’ll be writing again soon.

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