Alice Arnold explores Havana’s street art after Castro’s death to see what the “pictures on the walls” are transmitting about the interesting state of political and economic change in Cuba.
Street Art in Havana
Street art is a very immediate form of public expression. For the passersby who see it, it can offer a little jolt, a tug, away from mundane commutes and or tuned out states of consciousness. Encounters with street art can sharpen our attention to our surroundings, stimulate creative thinking, and provide insight into a place – and to people, whose voices are often underrepresented in the mass media channels of newspapers, network television and prime time radio. On a recent trip to Cuba, shortly after the death of Fidel Castro, I went in search of street art in Havana, to see what the “pictures on the walls” were transmitting.
Cuba is in an interesting state of political and economic change. The country is undergoing a process of economic decentralization, loosening control on the centrally planned economy and relaxing restrictions on private enterprise. More and more Cubans now work for themselves, as taxi drivers, restaurant owners and Airbnb landlords. Internet availability has increased, allowing for a greater flow of information and media (though it is still a scarce and expensive commodity, for Cubans as well as tourists). And significantly, the United States recently re-established diplomatic ties with Cuba. This is an important first step in potentially unleashing a flow of US investments in Cuba. If this happens, it will significantly alter the rhythms of everyday life for Cubans, because this is a country without the accruements of a consumer culture: there are no fancy shopping malls, big box retailers, fast food chains, or outdoor advertising industry in Havana. Yet.
Havana, founded in the 16th century by the Spanish, is currently a sprawling city of over 2 million inhabitants. The central part of the city, however, is compact. It is made up of three contiguous neighborhoods that stretch from east to west, parallel to the Straits of Florida (the body of water that separates Cuba and Florida): Havana Vieja, Centro and Vedado. Vieja, the oldest part of the city, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The renovated Baroque buildings, small streets, cafes and art galleries are charming and tourist friendly.
Centro, the adjoining neighborhood, is a working class district and one of the poorest and most dense areas of the city. Vedado, which extends from Centro to the Malecon (the sea wall), was built up in the 19th century as a middle class neighborhood.
Both Vedado and Centro are currently undergoing gentrification. The streets in Centro are being torn up to improve utilities and water infrastructure and there are many buildings that are either under renovation or are standing empty, roofless and windowless, like prop buildings on a movie set, except that the facades are crumbling from decades of wear and tear, sea water and high humidity. Nearly twenty years ago, when I last visited Havana, these buildings were packed with families, whose lives overflowed on to the streets. Where are these people living now? From what I was told, people are being paid by private investors to move out to newer houses on the periphery, so that the central area can be remade into a fancier neighborhood with higher real estate values. There are already a few trendy restaurants, bars and clubs populating these working class streets.
This combination of empty buildings, blank wall space, tourism and street traffic are ideal conditions for street art and graffiti to flourish. The images shown here were taken mainly along Neptuno Street, one of the main boulevards through the Centro district. My path took me from the start of Neptuno, at Paseo de Marti, an elegant promenade near the Capitol building, to its terminus at the University of Havana, and then into the Vedado neighborhood.
Near the corner of Neptuno and Paseo de Marti several large street art paintings on the facade and building columns announce the Taller Comunitario Jose Marti, artist studios where some of Havana’s street artists have studio space. The works are a mix of styles and sensibilities, but they share a street art ethos of connecting the image to the wall, in spatial terms and in the integration of the facade texture into the work.
Continuing down Neptuno, through the heart of the Centro district, the neighborhood is in a simultaneous state of decay and rebuilding. People, cars and bicycle taxis pick their way through rubble, open trenches, and construction zones.
Images above: Centro
An empty store front, next to a food stand, is embellished by a large grinning cat. Is it a reference to Chris Marker’s film, “The Case of the Grinning Cat,” which explores international politics, street protests and street art at the turn of the millennium? Is it smiling or smirking at me? I see two more of these surreal, fantastic cats with their “Cheshire” grins nearby. This iconography, alluding to mischief, false smiles, inside jokes, masks and hidden power, has a lot of “teeth,” so I will keep my eyes peeled for more work by this street artist.
Images above: “Grinning Cat”, artist unknown, in Centro, Havana
A woman deep in thought, wearing a sleeveless t-shirt with “PARIS” emblazoned on it along with images of the Eiffel Tower and a glamorous woman, walks underneath the staring eyes of a large face with heart shaped tears. The lady on the wall holds a heart over her patterned t-shirt with the words, “El amor de Cuba verdadero” written on it. “The true Cuban love.” Hearts and tears… The image blends seamlessly into the curve of the weathered wall and turns this corner into a space of sidewalk communication, as evidenced by the lovers’ tags that have sprung up nearby.
Several masked, anonymous faces with the tag, 2 + 2 = 5 stand sentry on many of walls in Centro. I’m stopped in my tracks by the prescient allusion to George Orwell’s book 1984. The subversive nature of these images, which deftly connotes fake news and state lies, sends a powerful message from the streets about propaganda and social control (and this is in a country where the state controls the channels of mass media).
Other faces confront me on the walls. The blank face of a guerilla fighter, a sly reference to the Cuban hero Che Guevara, whose face appears throughout the city on public artworks as well as circulates widely on paintings, posters and t-shirts that are produced for the tourists trade. The icon has become anonymous, a blank slate, an everyman. Perhaps this erasure is a way to create new dreams, for the twenty-first century.
A trio of unearthly looking faces, painted with fluid black strokes, suggests a dimensionality of time. I’m reminded of Cubism, where multiple viewpoints showing the dimensionality of a person or object are used to expand our understanding and perception of the world. Here on this wall, the dominant face in the center expresses a primal scream. In the lower face there is no mouth, only large eyes. This is a face of repressed silence. The scream is swallowed. Traveling upwards to the top face, the scream turns into a small, calm smile and the eyes are closed, as if in bliss.
A one-eyed creature with a big mouth and sharp teeth is painted on an eroding wall. Will this mutant creature come off the wall, or will it seep into the wall?
And finally, at my last stop in Vedado, I spot a sketch of a contemplative man, wedged into a wall between two doors. His eyes, nose and lips are shaded with shades of ochers on the white paper. In front of him are two chairs. It is as if he is encouraging us to sit and contemplate the city, with wide-open eyes.
Alice Arnold is a photographer, documentary filmmaker and an educator. Her photographs have been widely published and she is the recipient of a NYFA Photography Fellowship for her work examining urban cultural forms and experiences. Arnold’s documentary films, which focus on public space and urban environments, are in the collections of university libraries throughout the United States and have screened at MoMA and other festivals. She is a Fulbright Fellow (2007) and teaches media and design at the City University of New York.