Graphic Arts Magic in Havana
By DAVID GONZALEZ
HAVANA — The future of Cuban graphic arts is found among thick stones
and ancient presses down a dead-end street just off the Cathedral Plaza.
ever-present curbside trio singing old Cuban songs in the faux-festive tourist atmosphere, the real party is inside the Experimental Graphics Studio, where
printmakers, poets and musicians share ideas and inspiration.
For 40 years, the Old Havana studio, with its gallery, has been home
to the island's leading graphic artists, who have gone on to win honors
at biennials in Europe,
Japan and Latin America. Yet an easygoing camaraderie prevails inside the high-ceilinged room, which smells of paint and strong cigarettes, where established artists
and newcomers work side by side. It is part salon, where singers or writers may drop in for a visit, and part classroom without walls, where there are no secrets of
technique or opinion.
"It is not a school in the formal sense, but it is the best school because
you are not obliged to stick to one lesson," said Raimundo Respall, who
runs the studio's
gallery. "Artists learn from each other. You need someone to look at what you are doing. All that flows inside this studio, and that is our great value. Anything else is
just a printmaking factory."
The studio was started in 1962 to revive printmaking techniques that
had once been used to make labels and cigar rings. A handful of lithographers
had been to
Mexico, Mr. Respall said, to learn from masters there. But the art did not thrive until a chance encounter with the poet Pablo Neruda.
The old presses had been abandoned in a warehouse and the thick stones
used for lithographs had been tossed aside in the street, Mr. Respall said.
founders asked Neruda to persuade his friend Che Guevara, then Cuba's minister of industry, to give them the presses and a place to work.
"The studio made sure that the graphic arts in Cuba did not die," said
Eduardo Roca Salazar, one of the island's most distinguished printmakers,
who started at the
studio in 1975 and is known as Choco. "It is one of the most impressive places in the world, not just Cuba, for all the magic that has gone on here."
Some might say that the real magic has been how the studio has thrived
despite the high cost of paper and ink — all imported — as well as prohibitions
its work in the United States. The gallery helps offset costs, selling prints for anywhere from $40 to more than $500.
"I was really impressed by how much they do with how little they have,"
said Marjorie Devon, the director of the Tamarind Institute in New Mexico,
master printmakers. "The work was strong and it had passion."
Resourcefulness is itself an art perfected by Cubans, who pepper their
conversations with references to "resolving the situation" by improvising.
The fall of the Soviet
Union in the early 1990's set off serious hardship on the island, artists said, which tested their creativity in unexpected ways: inks were improvised from black powder
and soap, and beer cans were split open to make engraving plates, for example.
"We learned to do things on our own," said José Omar Torres,
the studio's artistic director. "It was an era of misery, no doubt. What
you had to save was the spirit.
Misery passes, but if you kill the spirit, you kill the man."
Yet that same era ushered in opportunities for the artists to begin
showing their work to a wider audience, as the island turned to tourism
for its economic salvation.
Collectors from Spain and Japan eagerly snapped up prints and invited artists to cultural exchanges. And even though there are formal prohibitions against Americans'
doing business with Cuba, it is said that there are more than a few art dealers in Manhattan and Miami who quietly offer Cuban prints.
The work itself is varied, which Mr. Respall said is by design. Unlike
artists in the Soviet Union, where socialist realism dominated, the Cuban
such hokey heroism, he said, preferring to root themselves in their Caribbean culture. To this day, he said, there is no pressure to parrot themes or slogans.
Choco's deep-hued and textured prints, with their evocative Afro-Cuban
religious themes, can hang alongside Eduardo Abela's wry woodcuts that
turn the harbor's
famous lighthouse into a bottle-shaped ad for "Absolut Kuba."
There are sly political takes, too. Mr. Abela has one woodcut of a taxi-turned-rowboat
filled with migrants. Another artist drew a stark and angular seaside street,
where a solitary figure peered into the vast and empty sea. In "Collective Vigilance" an artist shows a daisy chain of figures spying on each other with telescopes.
While many artists are able to travel abroad for shows, they face more
obstacles to visiting the United States. As Cuban musicians, dancers and
writers have found,
American authorities have been reluctant to grant many visas to artists, despite past policies that promoted cultural exchanges.
The biggest debates at the studio in recent years have not been about
politics but art. Newcomers in the 1990's began to dismiss the work of
older artists as
sentimental or too literal, Mr. Respall said, and embraced extravagantly intellectual approaches that required too many explanations to make sense.
"They called it conceptual art, but that is debatable because to me
it had no concept," Mr. Respall said. "They were artists who cared more
about words. And they
spoke about past artists as if they had done nothing new in the present."
Choco, one of the targets of the new critics, had made prints of rural
life in the 1970's, but it was only a reflection of the country's priorities
at the time, when
thousands of people were obliged to take up machetes and help cut sugar cane.
His current work is intense with color, with traditional elements done in a modern style that would be at home in Chelsea or SoHo.
Choco now has his own studio inside a former warehouse, where he makes
prints and paintings to the sound of Miles Davis on the boombox. It is
a big, comfortable
space, removed from yet intimately connected to the old studio, which he still visits.
"The studio was the start," he said. "Without them, all this would have been impossible. How could I have done art without them? I had no machines or material."
One of the current rising stars, Julio Cesar Peña, can relate
to that view. He came from a rough-and-tumble neighborhood in Havana, and
his family had no idea that a
man could make a living at art. Mr. Peña started drawing as a hobby, teaching himself, and became so hooked that he tried, without much luck, to get into art school.
The studio accepted him in 1997.
"This is what fed me," he said. "I learned from those great masters there. This has been my school. I do not know if it is luck or grace, but that is how I learned. Here."
Today his prints of skeletons engaged in everyday street scenes are
among the workshop's most popular images. His print "Rumberos del Momento,"
skeletons' street party, was featured on the cover of the 2001 catalog for the Kanagawa International Print Triennial in Japan, where it won first prize.
"Life brings with it the guarantee of death," Mr. Peña said. "Death is always with us, so I want to touch life. You have a skeleton inside you already."
Mr. Peña himself looks like a skeleton, with a buzz cut and body
that is all bones and angles, and he moves and speaks at a machine-gun
pace. True to his roots and
the moment and wearing a T-shirt that declared "Working Class Hero," he walked into an Old Havana bar, embracing everyone from the waitress to the house band.
"You have to dance!" the singer shouted to him. "You have to."
Mr. Peña, who was sketching on a scrap of paper, did a quick step with a smile. The streets, it seemed, were as much a school as the studio.
"It's important to know the life of an artist," he said. "I do my work, and I enjoy the moment, drinking, dancing. That is my work, too."