The photographic potential of Cuba has always captivated our imaginations. Its vibrant culture, rich history, and stunning landscapes have been relatively inaccessible for an entire generation of Americans.
Until recently, we had only dreamed about bringing our cameras to document its unique heritage. But when we learned that the recent political shifts essentially opened the door between the US and Cuba, we jumped at the chance to see this beautiful country for ourselves.
Film by Mat Rick
Stepping onto the streets of Havana was an oddly surreal experience. It’s a place that, as a result of various embargoes, has been inadvertently frozen in time. Classic cars rarely seen outside of auto shows in the US rumble by crowds of people gathered at outdoor wi-fi hotspots, heads buried in their connected device. Centuries-old buildings with crumbling facades house tiny, privately-owned shops selling bootlegged DVDs.
Despite its scars, the city is stunning. It’s lively, low-key vibe makes time slow down. None more evident than by how many people we saw spending their free time outside either in conversation with their neighbor or in quietly watching the world pass by. It’s a powerful reminder about the simplicity of life when you aren’t connected to a device or focused on making money.
Like most cities, graffiti has made its way onto the walls of Havana. Much of it is indistinguishable scrawled tagging, but some of the work is clearly art. Inspired by their creative expression, we made it our task to track down some of these artists so that we could talk to them about their work, inspirations, and purpose.
The first thing that was essential to our project was an “in,” and we found ours in Alain Lázaro Gutiérrez Almeida. Alain is a Cuban-born and bred photojournalist who not only knows the city like the back of his hand, but is extremely well-connected and respected in the Cuban art world. It felt as if we hadn’t even finished our request before Alain sprung to action, contacting artists he knew would pique our interest while at the same time making sure we knew what neighborhoods we should explore and which restaurants had the best food.
We began in the studio of Yulier Rodríguez, who is quite possibly the most prolific street artist in Havana. Yulier’s work is unmistakable in style, typically involving ethereal alien-like beings. The stories are intentionally ambiguous but inspired by Yulier’s own interpretation about the Cuban reality.
Three years ago Yulier grew impatient with the slow pace of showing his work in galleries, so he took his art to the streets where it could act as a conversation with the community. Now 26-years-old, it is hard to go anywhere in Havana without seeing his work on the wall. The inhuman faces found in his work have become artistic icons of new Havana.
Fabián Lobet Hernández is a young artist working out of Yulier’s studio who goes by the moniker “2+2=5”. The 19-year-old has been producing (not performing) street art for less than a year and was first inspired by his friends who were doing more traditional graffiti. Fabián quickly realized that he wanted his work to convey a message, so he made a shift to include modern Cuban societal & political themes.
Leo D’Lázaro has been creating art for 35 of his 51 years and his large studio in Old Havana sits filled to the brim with his paintings, sculptures, and photographs. The art school alumnus revealed to us how one of his primary motivations is to enrich the community and, by immersing himself in the most densely populated neighborhoods of Havana, he is doing exactly that. Leo’s current work largely involves what he describes as “fossilizing the present.”
One of our final days was spent coming and going from Hamel Alley (Callejon de Hamel), a small art and religious community founded by self-taught artist Salvador Gonzáles Escalona in 1990, a time that coincided with what is now known as The Special Period in Cuba. During this extremely difficult time of economic crisis, resources became so scarce that the entire Cuban way of life had to be modified for the sake of survival. In the art world, this meant a struggle to find materials like paints and brushes. Despite this, Salvador took it upon himself to cover all of the building surfaces in the community with murals. In his words, “A real artist can’t be stopped by anyone. He will paint with dirt if he needs to.”
The community of Hamel Alley is not only centered around art, but also Santería, the Afro-Caribbean religion common in the region that came about when descendents of African slaves merged their beliefs with the predominant Roman Catholicism. The murals in Hamel Alley relate to the stories and deities of this religious fusion. After decades, the community now functions like a well-oiled machine and draws crowds of visitors seeking to learn and experience a piece of this unique culture.
It appears as though Salvador’s lifelong mission for Hamel Alley to become known worldwide, not just for his art, but as a center for Cuban cultural identity, is well on its way to realization. He has always insisted that the art be for everyone and accessible to all for free. Support for the community comes from optional tour fees, donations, and sales of Salvador’s work to visitors like us (between us, we brought three of his pieces home!).
Upon returning to the streets of Havana after conversations with these artists, we began to think of the city differently, now having created a connection to the art and more importantly, the people behind the art. Passing murals by Julier and Fabián felt oddly comforting and we were eager to learn the stories behind the work we encountered by artists unknown to us. Mostly, though, we had a deeper appreciation for what drives artists to do the work they do in a country that has experienced so much turmoil and change over the past century. We returned to the US with a new perspective.