Art in Cuba

Just when an artist can't find a tube of paint or a strip of canvas, the international art world has come knocking on Havana's door -- with money in hand

The crucial ingredient in this new recipe for success, of course, is the foreigner (as one Havana gallery director put it dryly: "Cubans don't buy art. In Cuba food is the priority"). And this Fifth Biennial provided important opportunities for ambitious artists eager to make a sale, or at least a contact. An enthusiastic international crowd of art professionals -- curators, art dealers, and collectors -- converged on Havana in early May, at least 150 of them from the Uni-ted States alone.(Works of art, like books, music, or films, are classified as informational material and are therefore exempt from the U.S. trade embargo.) A few of the visitors, most notably German chocolate mogul Peter Ludwig, were well-known collectors of Cuban art. Some were museum curators who came to select the work of specific artists for group exhibitions already planned for 1995. But for most, drawn by mere curiosity about Cuba and Cuban art, it was their first visit to the island.

In the days just before the exhibition opened, the tiled patio bar of the recently renovated Hotel Seville, the setting for Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana, became an artworld meeting place, an international salon. The round white tables were constantly filled with casually attired English-speakers, which confused the pretty young mulatta prostitutes who normally use the area to meet their middle-age European cutomers. After a few attempts to engage the newcomers the girls were told gently by some Cuban artists that they wouldn't have much luck with this group, and they moved sulkily to some sofas in the lobby.

The foreigners downed endless bottles of Cuban beer and ate an occasional Cuban sandwich (the only item on the limited menu besides olives). They shouted over the songs of a Harry Belafonte look-alike who appeared in the bar with an even louder female performer early each evening. Cuban artists came and went periodically, toting their catalogues and their sets of slides. Sometimes they allowed a new acquaintance to buy them a drink using American dollars. More often they politely declined.

"People here work more on their careers than they used to," observed Elio Rodriguez, one of the more nimble table-hoppers at the Seville. "For example, you take care of your look." Tall and nappy-haired, he appeared at the Seville almost daily in a seemingly endless array of T-shirts with African motifs, which he wore with a fresh pair of Levi's. "The way you present yourself as an artist is important. So is the way you present your art. Before, people would come here and ask to see your work, and you'd have a couple of amateurish-looking slides and say, 'Hey look, this is my work.' Then we realized that just doesn't sell."

Rodriguez, who seemed to take delight in presenting himself as a sort of black Cuban version of the market-savvy American conceptual artist Jeff Koons, is more sophisticated about the rules of the market than many of his Havana colleagues. More than once the hotel lobby was the scene of an awkward dance between buyer and seller. Unlike the souvenir merchants who hawked overpriced maracas near the elevator, the young artists weren't at all sure what to charge for paintings some foreigners asked to purchase from them directly. The buyers themselves had no better idea what was an acceptable amount to pay. After fumbled exchanges and lots of nervous smiling an amount would be agreed upon, usually never more than a couple of hundred dollars. The prices at state-run galleries are usually higher than those reached in a private sale, but even gallery prices are far below what the same work would bring in Miami.

During the Biennial a number of artists made important contacts with foreign dealers and curators, not the least of whom was Rodriguez. But he was also nostalgic for the days, not long ago, when artists would meet in each other's homes to talk about their work and debate political issues, not making deals with strangers in hotels. However, he acknowledged the change as necessary. "Maybe it's not good for the spirit, but it's good for your stomach," he laughed. "Cuba is a really crazy place. You can't be in Cuba thinking about your spirit; you have to survive."

The instinct for economic survival was evident among organizers of the Biennial as well. In one instance foreign artists were invited to a party at a cultural center where the staff unexpectedly informed them of an admission price of five dollars. Once inside it appeared that no Cuban artists had been invited, though there were numerous souvenir shops on the premises. The next day employees of the same center roped off separate exhibition rooms and attempted to charge three dollars admission to each, much to the dismay and frustration of Cuban artists whose work was on display inside. At another exhibition the gallery director charged visitors five dollars to take photographs of the works. One Cuban artist who witnessed the scene burst out laughing: "What I ask myself is if the Biennial is a declaration of independence from the First World or more a desire to be part of it."

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