A tall, haunting, sculpture of a woman draped from head to toe in a shadowy American flag-colored robe grabbed our attention at Fabrica de Arte Cubano.
Only a dark emptiness existed where the woman’s face should have been. It made me think of Hillary Clinton — larger than life, wrapped in patriotic colors as the Democratic Party’s first woman nominated for president. But we never see who she really is.
In Havana and throughout Cuba last month, our National Association for Multicultural Education group was immersed in this nation overflowing with art. What’s striking is that art thrives in this impoverished country despite the economically choking U.S. embargo that followed Fidel Castro’s 1959 successful revolution.
Maria Shriver, a journalist, author and niece of President John F. Kennedy, said, “Even in difficult economic times — especially in difficult economic times — the arts are essential.”
Neither Castro’s communism nor human rights abuses have killed art in Cuba. Friedrich Schiller, an 18th century German poet, philosopher, physician, historian and playwright, said, “Art is the daughter of freedom.” In fact, art seems to thrive more in Cuba than in the U.S., where funding for arts programs and education are suffering budget cuts. Kennedy, one of many presidents aligned against Castro, even said, “If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.”
We saw that freedom in Cuba. In a video art display at the Fabrica de Arte Cubano, a black Cuban bricked up a window that looks toward the sea. The first video was in black and white. The second video was in color, showing the man removing the bricks, which with white mortar formed a large U.S. flag. It symbolized more than 50 years of hostility being removed with talks to normalize relations, beginning Dec. 17, 2014. What also was striking about the art at Fabrica de Arte Cubano and elsewhere in Cuba was how often U.S. images showed up.
In this large gallery filled with young people were images of Tupac, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, John Lennon and Yoko Ono. In Cienfuegos, Cuba, at the Hotel Jagua, where we stayed, the lobby was filled with murals of American music and movie stars such as Michael Jackson and Clint Eastwood. We saw photos and busts of Abraham Lincoln, who is revered in Cuba as a great emancipator, with artwork of great Cubans such as Jose Marti, a 19th century Cuban revolutionary and freedom fighter. Fidel Castro is in a few places, but there are more images of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, including a 22-foot statue at the museum and memorial for him in Santa Clara.
We visited a community the size of the Country Club Plaza filled with ceramist and painter Jose Fuster’s art and had lunch at his home and studio. We made an unscheduled stop at the Organic Museum, where Alexis Leiva Machado, a Cuban sculptor known as Kcho, works and provides space for others for the experimentation, development and dissemination of art and human understanding. It’s also where Google this year built a studio with laptops, cellphones and other high-tech equipment in the Google+Kcho.Mor studio, where many young people were connected to the internet for free.
We were dazzled by Cuban performing artists such as Okan-Tomi at Alba Theater and children in the Community Project Abracadabra. They got members of our group to dance and perform with them.
Cuban art also was sold by vendors on the street and at the Arts and Crafts Market we visited in Havana. The wealth we found in the arts in Cuba is something the U.S. could gain from closer ties with its neighbor. What’s obvious is that bond is more likely to continue with Clinton as president than Republican Donald Trump.