Old Havana – pt. 1

Friday, November 8, 2013 – Architectural tour of the old city, Taller Experimental de Grafica, Contemporary Art and the Printmaking Biennial

Havana is slowly unfolding, like an onion revealing it’s layers.  Each day something new is revealed and we are fortunate to have the equivalent of master chefs peeling back each layer for us (Roberto Garcia, our interpreter and Eduardo Hernández Santos, artist and our host).  Today Eduardo and Roberto gave us the architectural tour of old Havana.  A cacophony of sights and sounds. Gorgeous neo classical, art deco and baroque buildings in varying states of being – gorgeously restored with gleaming marble columns and floors, shabbily beautiful with peeling paint and dry wooden doors, deteriorating facades and crumbling concrete right down to ruins of former glories with trees and ferns growing from the remnants of walls.  It’s overwhelming. 

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And in the midst of this architectural wonder are throngs of people, all shades of brown, all ages, pedi cabs and taxicabs and people on foot.  Card games on the broken sidewalks, people sitting in doorways and shaded interiors.  Constant honking of horns, voices.  Music spilling from radios and in the tourist areas from musicians.  People hawking souvenirs to tourists, waiters calling out as you pass to come eat at their restaurant.  School children in uniforms walking to and from school, nappily dressed young people and women in tight lycra, fruit vendors and street cleaners sweeping with palm frond brooms, and the elders with shopping bags shuffling among the crowds.  It feels like everyone is out in the streets.  Old cars – really old cars which are taxis and the gas fumes fill the air.  There is trash in the streets in piles, and blowing in the tropical breezes.  No one seems to care; they toss their garbage in their wake.  There is a decaying splendor that is unmistakable.

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While in the old part of the city we visited the Taller Experimental de Grafica – the biggest printmaking studio in Havana.  Large open space in a former factory – a small gallery, 6 presses.  Yamillis Brito, one of the directors said they have 120 members and someone has to die for a space to open up.  15 people can work at one time.  Every press was occupied and the center passageway was lined with prints for sale.  Being in the center of the city and near the old cathedral, they cater to many tourists.  The presses were old and rusty, but well loved.  Intaglio is rare because the materials are hard to get- metal plates nearly impossible.  So it’s woodcut and linocut and collagraphy and silkscreen, and so much of it.

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We also went to a contemporary art gallery in old Havana and saw a great show, conceptual and design focused.  All the work is about life here – some explicit and some more subtle, but subtlety is not the norm – commentary may be veiled in symbolism, but commentary is strong.  And the work is sophisticated and combines the vernacular of the contemporary art world with that which is uniquely Cuban.

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Our last art stop of the day was the Printmaking Biennial – a national exhibition that is supposed to happen every two years but hasn’t for six.  Each major taller submitted work by their best artists.  In many ways it’s a political system and some really exceptional artists are not included (Eduardo, for example).  But the work that was included is really impressive.  The work was large scale mostly, including installations and sculptural prints – some work was very conceptual.  I’ve seen nothing decorative.  It’s clear that printmaking is vitally alive here.

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