Havana is a city known for its vivid colours, timeworn beauty, and startling contrasts. The deteriorating facades of colonial buildings can make your imagination run wild with visions of past grandeur. But beyond the historical riches, it’s the future of Cuba that’s stirring curiosity in travellers around the globe. With restored diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States after a 54-year embargo on trade and travel, the country is in a period of transformation. And as with any kind of change, it’s the artists who are spearheading the nation’s critical voice.
Travelling to Havana to experience the city’s independent art scene involves a bit of advance research regarding where to explore. While the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana boasts an impressive collection of works by Cuban artists, the city’s contemporary art scene thrives in a handful of autonomous galleries, studios, and creative collectives.
“Artists in Cuba are more free than ever before,” says artist Max Delgado inside the Taller experimental de Grafica, a printmaking studio located on the same block as the famous Bodeguita del Medio in Old Havana. Founded in 1962 by mural artist Orlando Suarez with the support of Che Guevara, the studio opened as the first experimental artist collective in Cuba.
“We preserve traditional grabado [printmaking] techniques but create work with new perspectives,” says Delgado, as he shows us the studio’s latest exhibit about United States and Cuban relations, a topic that has pervaded galleries and discussions across the country.
Delgado, who lived in Spain with his family for 10 years before returning to Cuba, is part of the country’s privileged artistic class. In a country where citizens are paid an average salary of just over $23 a month, artists reserve the right to earn money outside of the country and keep the profits from the direct sales of their work—a rule that has been in place since the late 1980s.
At that time, a new generation of Cuban artists were catalysts of change. One curator in particular was instrumental to injecting the Cuban art world with a contemporary critical voice: Gerardo Mosquera. After publishing investigations on two artists who were marginalized as a result of homophobic policies, Mosquera pushed the Ministry of Culture to introduce more liberal regulations. He later became one of the organizers of the first Havana Biennial in 1984, but resigned in 1989 due to increasing repression in the cultural sector.
“During the 1980s, a critical culture developed that is still in place today. The problem is, the market now has a very strong impact on Cuban work. People live in a very poor society and need to maintain a standard of life,” says Mosquera. “This hampers their critical approach because they’re creating art according to what the commercial market wants, and now, what American collectors want.”
Mosquera says he believes not-for-profit initiatives are an antidote to commercialization. He points to Espacio Aglutinador, the oldest independent art space in Cuba run by artist Sandra Ceballos. Roughly translated to “melting pot,” the space in the Vedado district gives censored and oppressed artists a place to exhibit their work.
“It’s run in a completely free way. Of course, she’s had many conflicts with the government over the last 15 years but she’s managed to keep it going because she’s committed,” says Mosquera.
Another not-for-profit gallery, Factoría Habana, has transformed a historic 20th century industrial building into a cultural hub. Opened by Spanish art aficionado Concha Fontenla in 2009, the gallery’s program focuses on highlighting emerging local artists such as Lázaro Saavedra and René Francisco, as well as international talents.
The not-for-profit arts movement has also inspired Cuban artists who have found international success, such as Wilfredo Prieto, to return to the capital. Prieto recently purchased a colonial mansion in Vedado and has transformed the house into artist residences and an exhibition space.
“These efforts are very necessary to support serious artists who aren’t working on a commercial level,” says Mosquera. “We need more of it, but change is a result of dedication.”
In the bustling streets of Havana, you can sense a shift is on the horizon. While the historic buildings and vintage cars are beautiful vestiges of the past, the future is being shaped by the pioneers behind closed doors—the artists who are transforming Cuba from the inside out.