The view from the seventh story window of the Hotel Nacional in Havana looks out on fountains, palm-shaded terraces, caged tropical birds and a quartet playing tunes from Buena Vista Social Club. White-suited waiters serve cocktails to elegant Cuban women in the company of foreigners who, once they have paid for the drinks in dollars, don't hesitate to place a proprietary hand on their companion's knee. Where the terraces end, the Malecón begins: a dilapidated ocean-front promenade with a sparse traffic of hump-backed Soviet buses (camelos) and ancient American cars that are relics from pre-Castro days. Vendors on the waterfront sell maize for pesos.
Beyond it all is an intense ocean, dense as the bars of a prison. On the color television in the hotel room (30 square meters rather than the ten allocated to ordinary Cubans for living space), Fidel Castro speaks passionately in defense of Cuba's actions during the1962 missile crisis. It is a CNN documentary that most Cubans, restricted to six hours of official television and radio broadcasting a day, will never see. Likewise, this text is one that few will read. Although the Ministry of Tourism has a website, ordinary Cubans are denied use of the Internet.
Two Cubas -- one local and controlled, the other with access to international capital -- occupy the same landscape, each with its distinct rules, economy and reality. At the interstice between them, an emergent generation of Cuban artists. One desperately humid morning in September I meet five of the 13 members of Galeria DUPP in their studio at the Instituto Superior de Arte. DUPP is an acronym for "Desde una Pragmática Pedagógica" (From a Pragmatic Pedagogy) and its members are students of René Francisco, an art professor whose previous alumni include Los Carpinteros, another collaborative enterprise now familiar on the international circuit for their meticulously crafted installations.
Constituted by manifesto in 1997, DUPP proclaimed itself "a virtual gallery" aiming to "appropriate a variety of spaces and convert them into outlets for the artistic education of a diverse public." One action was to invite prominent figures in the Cuban art scene to participate in a pilgrimage to the caves of Jaruco, where the late Ana Mendieta had engaged in her now-famous body-art earthworks just a decade earlier. Earlier this year, DUPP launched its initiative onto the streets of Havana.
At the state-run department store "La Epoca," each member of the group made an "intervention" in a section of the shop. "This is a hard-currency store," I was told, "everything must be paid for in dollars so ordinary people come here only to look. We wanted to exploit that." Dozens of simple wooden airplanes were suspended from the ceiling of the toy department; a vast wrought iron gate in the form of a cross was placed at the entrance of the store; dispensers of inedible food languished in the grocery section; and clothes, meticulously sewn together from rubbish, hung in the fashion department.
DUPP was designing a further series of interventions to take place at the five-star Hotel Meliá Cohiba. Plans called for a video of passengers' feet as they board an overcrowded camelo to be projected onto the automatic sliding doors of the hotel, symbolically giving ordinary Cubans access to a place normally denied to them.
"Because René's students are tied into the system here," says Gerardo Mosquera, "their work is more engaged with everyday reality than that of the older, internationally successful generation who lead a nomadic life-style and have an export mentality." Yet Mosquera -- the Cuban critic who founded the Havana Biennial and now is curator at the New Museum in New York -- is himself a victim of the situation he describes.
From the garden of his home in Havana, he expounds on his list of future projects: a survey of work by the Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles co-curated with Dan Cameron at the New Museum (Nov. 19, 1999-Mar. 5, 2000); a group show, "No es Solo lo que Ves" ("It's Not Just What You See") of work by artists such as Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Mona Hatoum, "all of whom in some sense perverted the course of Minimalism" at Madrid's Museo Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in December; and a number of publications, including contributions to the second volume of Cream, the "contemporary art exhibition in a book" scheduled for publication by Phaidon in October 2000.
Mosquera seems melancholy despite his impressive accomplishments. He explains that since the beginning of the Periodo Especial -- a desperate euphemism used to describe the economic crisis that has prevailed since the fall of the Soviet Union -- things have become increasingly difficult. "The Havana Museum of Fine Arts is closed indefinitely and the maintenance of a national collection is being neglected. The Casa de las Américas -- active in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution -- has fallen into bureaucratic paralysis. There are frequent instances of censorship and we have lost many of our best teachers. For my own part, I no longer receive official invitations to anything. I am considered a dissident."
Paradoxically, as Mosquera later concedes, state intervention and the routine discomforts of daily existence do not necessarily equal diluted political agendas or compromised quality when it comes to cultural activity. To take one obvious example, the members of DUPP are all beneficiaries of Cuba's free system of higher education. Then there is the Centro Wifredo Lam, the host organization of the Havana Biennial, (next scheduled for 2001), which maintains an active program focused on non-Western art, and the Ludwig Foundation of Cuba, established in 1995 for the protection and promotion of experimental, non-market-oriented Cuban art.
Although ostensibly funded by the late art collector and chocolate magnate Peter Ludwig, the eponymous foundation also receives support from the Cuban state, not least in the form of its facility, a spectacular top-floor apartment in a block not far from the Hotel Nacional. Since its inauguration, the Ludwig has organized more than 150 exhibitions and theatrical performances (mainly in Cuba) and participated in the sponsorship of more than 50 projects abroad -- many of them overtly critical of the Castro regime.
On the day of my visit, Los Carpinteros are installing a work in the stairwell and a press conference to promote controversial theater director Carlos Diaz's latest work is in full swing. Diaz gained notoriety for a production of Camus' Caligula last year. When the authorities attempted to censor the work as an attack against the state, Diaz countered that not a single word of the original text had been altered. The state officials backed off, but by the time the play had finished its run, no one was left in any doubt as to the true identity of the corrupt power-monger of its title.
Mosquera has recommended that I see one of Diaz' productions and I am invited to a rehearsal. Arriving at the Teatro Trianón at the appointed hour I find the building shrouded in darkness: the lights have blown and no one knows how long it will take to get them fixed. Unfazed, two members of the cast, one in full drag, run through a scene in the natural light of the lobby. I depart for the Casa de las Américas, which is hosting a rather dull survey of Latin American graphic art, "Huellas Graficas 1949-1999."
When I produce my press credentials the woman at the desk apologizes profusely and explains that she will have to charge me admission -- since the onset of the Periodo Especial all foreigners must pay for museums and galleries. I perambulate round the exhibition feeling depressed. It is apparently composed of works donated to the institution. There are a number of exceptional Lams but the overriding impression is one of a clumsy official chronology. I return to the theater where light has been restored but there is now a problem with sound.
One result of the unpredictability that characterizes Cuban life is that when an artist does chance upon something worthwhile it is subjected to rigorous scrutiny. I meet Pedro Alvarez, one of the "nomadic generation," on the eve of his departure for the Istanbul Biennial. With an air of ceremony, he shows me a book of 19th-century Cuban cigarette labels. Discovered by chance in a Madrid bookstore three years ago, the book has served as a departure point for much his work since. In the ten-panel polyptych, The Story of Cuban Art Has Already Been Told (1999), each label, clearly reflecting the economic, racial and political conditions of its historical context, is ironically reconfigured to recount an alternative history.
I encounter another work from the same series by Alvarez in exhibition "Queloides," curated by Ariel Ribeaux Diago at the Center for the Development of Visual Arts in Old Havana. Visiting the Centre a few days earlier to speak with Yalili Mora, I found the generous spaces of this converted 18th-century palace filled with her brooding meditations on the ambiguous fragility of the home environment: a wooden framed house covered in gauze; a rustic looking roof suspended over an assortment of domestic detritus.
During the show, the building is pulsating with activity. A sound system has been set up in the patio where people are beginning to dance, the stairways are packed and drinks are flowing. The uppermost floors are occupied by an installation of mandalas meticulously crafted in sand by Juan Carlos Rodriquez. In the rest of the building, all available wall space is hung with work in a variety of mediums, all of which in some sense address issues of race and color.
Some 78 percent of Cubans are black and mestizo and although the Revolution was committed to wiping out discrimination, one cannot help but notice that the vast majority of successful cultural figures are decidedly pale-skinned. Mosquera responded to my question on this issue by replying that "artists have more important problems to deal with than racism." Now he stands sipping a Cuba Libre, attached to a ring on the wall by a thick rope threaded through his belt. Mosquera's "leash" is the work of Alexis Esquivel Bermudez, who has wrapped his own head in rope and is now asking if I happen to have a knife to cut him loose.
"Queloides," Esquivel explains as I tentatively cut through his mask, "are keloids; the smooth pinkish scar tissue that grows at the site of an injury usually occurring in dark-skinned races. As recently as the 1950s, rope cordons segregating blacks from whites were slung across the floors of public dance halls. We are still dealing with the hangover from those days. This is the first exhibition to address the theme of race relations in Cuba and there was a great deal of opposition to it."
As I complete the customs form on the flight back to Toronto, the pen that I have been using to make notes throughout my trip starts to leak. As opaque tears of black ink spill onto the page I am reminded of a poem by writer and artist Tonel (Antonio Eligio Fernández). The Nueva Trova of the title is the "New Song," a musical movement spawned by the Revolution and now, like so much else which is of value in this beleaguered island, another topical cultural export.
HOMENAJE cultural a la NUEVA TROVA
Aunque las cosas cambien
Te VEO mal color
COLOR de CUBA
Cambiaste de color to páncreas,
Enfermate y muerete.
Las pequeñas cosas
CAMBIEN PASA el tiempo
De cuando yo leía pionero
Cambien las cosas
Pase el tiempo
Color y watercolor
Y KODACHROME Y
Televisión en Blanco y Negro
pasa el tiempo.
CLARE CAROLIN is curator and writer living in London.