THE STREET ART OF HAVANA
Evan Dale // July 25, 2019
‘Havana is for art’ my new Friend, Raquel explains as he, I, and a third friend, Lazaro, walk into the opening exposición of a photography gallery in Plaza Vieja. By way of any non-Cubano, the saying would be overwhelmingly forced, but from Raquel – a Habanero – the words read duly romantic. Underneath such a double standard exists the magic of Havana. It would be difficult to exist in the city at any point creatively uninspired. Drowning in the pseudo-preserved, pseudo-retrofitted relics of the best design humanity has ever known – Spanish Colonial architecture, mid-century American automotive, communist and minimalist idealism – those who call home to Havana aren’t only bred to be artists.
They have no choice and it shows.
Anywhere else in the world, the opening of a 2-room, deeply sexual photography exhibition of a local artist would go largely unnoticed, and from an uncomfortable public, quietly scoffed. But in Cuba, it’s embraced, fairly reviewed, and enjoyed. The presence of free Cuba Libres certainly aids in everyone’s commentary on the pieces, but the general crowd’s appreciation was never soberly in question. Everyone here is a critic of the contemporary, a scholar of the classic, and a fan of anything and everything creative.
We depart from the exhibition en route to a favorite Mojito bar. ‘A Simple and classic recipe’ Lazaro explains to me, ‘is all a mojito should ever need.’ As the two conversate, I watch the bartender work smoothly and paced. A whole lime – freshly squeezed, a sprig of mint plucked from the stone window sill, raw sugar, plenty of Havana Club – the only real option for a cocktail in Havana, two dashes of Angostura, and soda water.
With each concoction, every bartender, every cook shows their inner artist’s liveliness. World-class restaurants and bars offering undoubtedly local cuisine at doubtfully local prices line every cobblestone street in Havana Vieja and the Prado. All of them make perfect representations of Cuba’s cocktail tradition. The Mojito, the Daiquiri, the Cuba Libre, the Cubanito, the Canchanchara, El Presidente were all invented here.
Beyond the expression of taste, creativity also thrives at the personal level. Music and style draw inspiration not only from hundreds of years of fiery Cuban culture and countless fights for eventual independence, but also from a breadth of global culture only replicated and further inspired elsewhere in the Caribbean. Spanish, French, and English influence melts with West African and North American diaspora and mixes with an offbeat, fervent influence from generations of Chinese immigrants to triangulate the Caribbean and Cuba – with Havana at the helm – in the center of some of the world’s most key cultural hotspots. It’s true that Habaneros have a natural affinity and environmentally-driven talent for visual design, just as it’s true that most can sing and dance, and all are impeccably detailed yet effortless with their personal style – hair to tapered cuffs. The creative effortlessness, attention to detail, and care for the genuinely unique unquestionably arises from Habanero surroundings and roots. Raquel and Lazaro are minimally detailed, yet oriented without error in light-wash fitted jeans and pressed button-ups. A simple recipe.
As we begin walking again, this time towards the Malecón to catch sunset, they point out piece after piece of street art, stopping to admire and discuss them as if wandering through a fine gallery. And really, that’s exactly what Havana is. Framed in colonial, ornamental borders, graffiti joins the already teal and amarillo wall-scape to paint the city a patchwork of epochal and stylistic boundlessness. Cubanos, tourists, and old Chevrolets alike are living exhibitions themselves, each introducing new elements and cultural explorations to the city’s palette. Under the harshness of bright Caribbean Summer sun, there is no shortage of color.
The street art, too, is blinding and prevalent. Nearly every empty space on the walls of every block is teeming with the over-spillage of Cuban creativity. And unlike amateur graffiti elsewhere in the world, the graffiti in Havana is appreciated, discussed and reviewed by locals and tourists, and embraced by the public in every way as much as the exposicións, the galleries, and the countless museums fine and contemporary.
And just like exhibitions, galleries, and museums, street art’s inspiration in Havana runs myriad in its roots. Habanero street art is a continuation of the traditions of endless design elsewhere across the city’s history; it’s often in ode to Cuba’s brutal, centuries-long fight for independence; it draws influence from Spain, France, England, West Africa, China, North America, and the rest of the Caribbean. It is a true and virtuous reflection of its immensely complicated, intensely vivid state as a worldly city like none other.
Che Guevarra is the most notable Cuban figurehead of the revolution or otherwise. Installed and adorned across the city’s walls, skyscrapers, t-shirts, and handbags, his prominent stare gazes through anyone venturing out for a stroll. But akin to Che, the visages of Celia Sanchez, Vilma Espin, Juan Almieda, Fidel and Raúl Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos, and Frank Pais – all of which local heroes every bit as important, simply less picturesque and iconic when compared to the face of Che – too adorn everything from buildings to ballcaps. Their images, bearded, dirty, and wild are a sign of governmental solidarity and freedom for Cubans – and Latin Americans – everywhere. Naturally, their additions to the walls of Havana street art are a sign that the vibrant attitude and willingness to fight for themselves still runs rampant in local culture. Pride is endless. But with less enemies to fight against these days – Cuba is more focused on rebuilding a deteriorated economy – attitude and poverty becomes expressed as art.
Past the renditions of Che’s beret and Fidel’s beard subsist countless explorations of Havana’s diversity. The street art is boundless in color – owing its courageous swatches primarily to West Africa, the island’s history as strong and oft-undercelebrated hub for Chinese immigrants, and the region’s predominant influence as a cultural center for Latin America as a whole.
Mostly the modern ancestors of slaves brought to the island to harvest sugar and coffee, the Afro Cuban population, akin to all other black populations in nations across the Caribbean and the Americas, are a vibrant source of the cultural direction and invention. From music to fashion to visual art, traditions cut of the West African cloth and its ongoings are omnipresent in Havana. In Habana Vieja, a museum dedicated to the African influence on the island provides a glimpse into its history. But to see what that history has given creative birth to in modernity, one need only but to open their eyes. Caribbean color palettes owe their vivacity to their West African roots in equal measure to the natural color spectrum provided by the region’s environment. And not only is colonial architecture bursting with intense teals, pastel greens, and an endless array of yellow, so too is the art that compliments its facades. Comparable in its extremes to the street art adorning the cities if Southeast Asia, color is perhaps graffiti’s strongest directional force in Havana, and is perhaps only second to thematic discourse and pride.
In the mid-1800’s, waves of Chinese immigrants who had first relocated to California began establishing a community on the North end of Habana Vieja. Today, Chinatown – like all of Havana – boasts a harmonious display of equality and diversity thanks to the social reform put in place by Fidel Castro to largely end segregation and institutionalized racism. But the wealth of Chinese influence on the island’s culture continues to be prominent. Restaurants, traditional Gong-bi painting style, and hand fans are perhaps the most obvious Chinese additions to the Habanero cityscape. It’s also apparent in the street art. Chinese characters, figures, and thematic discourse work their way onto walls reaching far beyond the colonial quarter of the city.
Like any major regional capital, Havana continues to be a landing spot for modern immigrants. These days, due to its diversity, relative openness, cultural vibrancy, and proximity to the US, Havana is home to immigrants from across the Caribbean and Latin America. With immigration, French, Portuguese, and English language has become even more prevalent, and art even more diverse. Haitian and Jamaican culture adds to the expressions of Neo-African roots; Puerto Rican and Mexican influence enhances the dynamic patchwork of Hispanic culture; All of it interconnected as Caribbean harmony and wide-ranging creative boundlessness.
And if one delineation of the artistic direction of Havana is most fervent – it’s an existence as a cultural capital of the Caribbean. At a time when Caribbean and West African culture are being explored and myriad elements of them being utilized across global fashion, music, photography, cinematography, and design, Havana may very well find its economic future founded in art. Sure, Spanish, French, English, and American culture have played their roles, but with a successful campaign for independence from colonial pasts comes a forward-moving break from that influence. The vivid color, cultural patchwork, and explosive diversity of Havana is purely Cuban. Nothing else. So is its street art.