Art and Revolution in Cuba: An International Perspective

Havana. Source: Flickr, Pedro Szekely.Havana. Source: Flickr, Pedro Szekely.

Havana is a paradise for artists and art lovers. Creative pursuits are at the centre of life in the city, formally and informally. Art abounds: government-run museums and art collectives sit amongst privately-owned boutiques selling handmade crafts. The prestigious Havana International Film Festival attracts filmmakers from around the world, with moviegoers willingly enduring queues of over two hours in hopes of catching a glimpse of the latest in cinema (ice cream optional). Equally, there is an electric energy in the street, with tourists and locals alike responding to Havana’s seemingly omnipresent communal soundtrack of reggaeton, salsa, and jazz with resplendent displays of dancing and singing in streets and shops.

As a foreigner visiting the city for the first time, I was immediately taken aback by the rich visual landscape that inspired both engagement and introspection. Walking down 23rd Avenue, Havana’s main boulevard, on a Saturday night was a striking multisensorial experience: groups of young men and women danced around boomboxes and Bluetooth speakers to create their own makeshift nightclubs, families took after-dinner strolls to local ice cream shops, and couples shared intimate moments in the shadows of the inescapable neon lights emanating from nearby businesses.

The vibrancy and excitement of Havana might be best encapsulated in La Fábrica de Arte Cubano: an art gallery and bar in a factory that formerly produced cooking oil. Neither a private business nor state-owned enterprise, the Fábrica is technically a “community project” led by counterculture musician X-Alfonso. This status gives the Fábrica a fair amount of independence, allowing for unusually provocative exhibitions to be displayed in public: perhaps a harbinger of a more open Cuba to come. The Fábrica is diverse and energetic, uniting art and nightlife to create an experience enjoyed by those of all ages and backgrounds. It is a place to engage with new concepts and meet people from around the world, all while enjoying some of the best music and mojitos Havana has to offer.

The Havana Film Festival

The Havana Film Festival

From a more traditional perspective, Cuba is known for its excellence in arts education. The island nation is home to two universities with international reputations: its International School of Film and Television in San Antonio de los Baños, which has produced some of the greatest documentary filmmakers in the Global South; and the Cuban National Ballet School, which enrols over 3,000 students, making it the largest of its kind in the world. Achievements notwithstanding, Cuba tends to get lost in today’s oversaturated global art market, despite the popularity of artistic pursuits inside the country.

Art as a Revolutionary Tool

Politics and culture in Cuban society have been intertwined since the revolution, fostering an environment ripe for artistic creation. Communist revolutionary Fidel Castro talked extensively about the role of artists in society, viewing art as a tool for social progress. The importance Castro placed on such cultural pursuits can be seen in his 1961 “Address to Intellectual,” given in the Ceremonial Hall of the José Martí National Library in Havana. The speech came at a time of great uncertainty: American politicians were lobbing threats on a daily basis, 300,000 Cubans (over 4% of the population at the time) were in armed units fighting counterrevolutionary forces, and the US blockade was beginning to affect food supplies. Given this somewhat extreme backdrop, the mere fact that Castro found the time to discuss the role of intellectuals in society shows its centrality to his revolutionary project.

In the address, Castro argued that “one of the fundamental goals or intentions of the revolution is to develop art and culture, precisely so that art and culture come to be a real heritage of the people.” He noted that artists should not be concerned about political oppression or censorship, even if they have certain reservations about the revolutionary project. Employing the phrase which would become a popular refrain, “within the revolution, everything; against the revolution, nothing,” Castro claimed that the only artists that might face censorship (or, perhaps, worse) are counterrevolutionaries.


Che Guevara, portrayed by Andy Warhol

Outside Cuba at this time, there was cult-like interest in the country’s leadership and politics that bled into the art world. Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick adapted the photograph “Guerrillero Heroico” by Cuban artist Alberto Korda to create the now-ubiquitous image of Che Guevara donning his signature military beret and looking nobly into the distance, presumably towards a bright future for the revolution. The image was discovered by Andy Warhol and his associate Gerard Malanga, who created a piece of art that repeated the image nine times using individual colour palettes in Warhol’s signature pop art style. This creation was then discovered by Cuban artist Raúl Martínez, who made his own version of the image, “Fénix” (Phoenix), thus reclaiming the work’s original Cuban identity.

There is a certain irony in this revolutionary photograph being appropriated by artists that Guevara himself might have described as ‘imperialist,’ and used for commercial gains abroad before then returning to the corpus of Cuban art. However, the history of this particular image offers a clear example of international interest in Cuba and Cuban art, as well as the contradictory nature of Cuban art’s role on the international stage.

Art in Contemporary Cuban Society

Is Cuba’s art scene today as much of a vestige of the country’s revolutionary past as the ubiquitous tarnishing tanks and crumbling concrete that can be seen throughout the city? Or could it instead be viewed as cutting-edge and worthy of international recognition?

Characteristic of Cuban art is its distinctive mixture of cultures, ethnicities, and diasporas that are reflected in the diverse influences on its artists and their creations. The country’s art production runs the gamut from Spanish baroque paintings that would hardly look out of place in an 17th century European country estate to contemporary collagraphs with roots in Afro-Caribbean santería. Leveraging these various movements allows each artist to create their own individual definition of lo cubano: that which is Cuban. In a contemporary society which increasingly values cultural heterogeneity, Cuba has the advantage of these discourses being already at the centre of the country’s art community.

Globally, the Internet and social media have fundamentally changed the way we interact with art in the 21st century. The rise of Instagram-able art exhibitions hints at the increasingly blurred line between art and commerce by creating an environment in which consumers act as curators, dictating art trends through their digital footprint. However, Cuba has not been particularly affected by these changes because of its notoriously spotty internet service and omnipresent anti-capitalist rhetoric. Perhaps this lack of major technological innovation works to its benefit, fostering an environment in which capital (financial, cultural, or otherwise) does not control the art market. In Cuba, art does not exist to sell products, to promote a brand, or to be used as a vehicle for billionaires to store wealth; instead, the goal of art is to inform the populace, to pay homage to the past while looking forward to the future, and to be enjoyed.

On a tangible level, having limited access to international dialogue gives Cuban artists a certain “outsider status” on the world stage. Their inability to take part in the fickle global art trends of the moment allows them to step back and assess the world from a more objective, long-term point of view. For example, contemporary artist Juan Roberto Diago Durruthy is able to grapple with the complex legacy of slavery from a uniquely Cuban perspective, free from foreign narratives that might detract from his critical assessment of this period of the island’s history. It can be said that time is on Cuba’s side: the country is increasingly opening and internationalising, a trend which will inevitably continue within the coming decades. As Cuban art gains mainstream interest, they will have created a body of work parallel to and critical of the world that has been created around it.

Island Isolation: Barriers to Art Production

As with many aspects of contemporary Cuban culture, its art scene’s strengths are also its weaknesses. In particular, the government’s relationship with artists has a tendency to veer into the realm of control over the very practitioners it is attempting to support. This question of artistic freedom is critical and has been debated since the beginning of the Revolution. In late 2018, there was a major controversy surrounding a decree from the Cuban government known as Decreto 349 that would place severe restrictions on cultural activity not authorized by the Ministry of Culture. A series of protests followed this declaration, leading to the arrest of ten prominent artists. Shortly thereafter, however, the government released the prisoners and announced that the policy would not go into effect.

Similarly, a recent article in the Financial Times highlighted the issue of government overreach when discussing the forthcoming opening of a new location of international art gallery Galleria Continua in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture. The reporter attempted to take a tour of the new space with its co-founder, but upon arrival they were confronted with a locked door. “We need to find out who has the key,” said the gallerist, rightly suspecting a miscommunication between his team and the government representatives.

The artist-gallery relationship in Cuba is distinct from that of other art markets around the world, since Cuban galleries are not permitted to sell the work of the artists they represent. Artists can, however, sell directly to patrons. This includes foreign buyers: a crucial demographic in a country where the official average salary hovers at around £15 per month. Still, without the direct assistance of a gallery, international or otherwise, it is difficult for artists to find and retain clients. This disadvantage is further compounded by the country’s underdeveloped Internet access, and its population’s comparatively lagging social media prowess – not to mention the US embargo against the country, which complicates matters even further.

Lessons to Learn

Challenges and barriers aside, there are a variety of lessons we in the Global North can take from Cuba’s unique art community. Firstly, we should highlight Cuba’s autonomy from the forces of capital that so strongly shape the global art market today. The trend towards social media-friendly art, widely used by artists across the spectrum, from film studios in Hollywood to art galleries in Soho, may currently seem like a non-issue. However, what we must realise is that artists are creating for the benefits of these platforms’ algorithms. In this constant fight for likes and virtual followers, the necessities of art as a thing of beauty, contemplation, and critique is lost.

Secondly, the art world urgently needs to embrace the many voices of society. Whilst we have made much progress in representing the values and lived experiences of artists from traditionally marginalised groups, many of the major names in the art world today are still those from the most privileged class. It has become increasingly clear that the market will not allow for this diversity, so we should promote government and non-profit art funding alongside that of private patrons.

Thirdly, in a world where ‘fake news’ dominates headlines, it is crucial to recognise and support the work of artists who speak truth to power. Generations before us have fought for the democratic freedoms that we take for granted, and the recent global rise of populist and authoritarian leaders is beginning to threaten these rights. By promoting art as a method of political engagement, as it has been in Cuba, we can leave the world a better place than we found it: lamentably, quite a lofty goal in 2019.