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

It came as no surprise to see Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez strolling around the Morro Castle one evening shortly before the Biennial, and not just because of his affiliation with a film school in Cuba. The country could be taken straight out of one of his fantastic stories. Local citizens frequently describe the current situation in Havana as "surreal." The week the Biennial opened, for instance, Castro announced the imminent implementation of new regulations that would include further cutbacks in food supplies and household goods, and price hikes for telephone service and electricity.

"They're raising prices on things that don't exist!" scoffed one artist who constantly picks up a dead phone and had been ten days without power for a refrigerator and lights, during which he often viewed the nightly voyage of a huge Spanish galleon blaring disco music as it cruised Havana harbor, its rigging decorated with enough bulbs to illuminate a couple of dozen homes.

One tourist not likely to be found on a party boat is wealthy German businessman Peter Ludwig, the most significant player in the contemporary Cuban art game. Ludwig has been collecting art in Cuba only since 1992, but after four or five trips to Havana and several buying sprees he has purchased 120 works, paying for them in a lump sum to the Cuban Ministry of Culture, which in turn has distributed 50 percent of the money to the individual artists.

To the young and aspiring artists on the island Ludwig represents an unsettling cross between a benevolent Medici and a colonizing Christopher Columbus A they are happy to have his interest and his money, but are suspicious of his influence. To the government, on the other hand, the German collector seems to be a godsend. He has had bestowed upon him various official orders of merit for his contributions to Cuban culture, and has received an honorary doctoral degree from the University of Havana. A Social Democrat known for his political leanings to the right, Ludwig on occasion has visited with Castro. Those meetings, according to Wolfgang Becker, director of the Ludwig Museum in Aachen, Germany, have centered on discussions of culture and literature.

The Ludwig Foundation, also in Aachen, offers four-month residencies to Cuban artists, a program modeled on a similar enterprise created by the foundation for Soviet artists in the late Seventies. In the coming months Ludwig plans to open a second foundation in Havana to implement cultural programs in Cuba. His initial funding for the organization will amount to about $35,000 a year, administered by a director appointed by the Cuban National Arts Council. As for the Biennial itself, it was helped along substantially by Ludwig's donation of $17,000 to the Cuban Ministry of Culture toward basic organizational costs. (In a highly unusual move for an international, nonprofit art event, Ludwig will pack up the entire show and bring it to his Ludwig Museum for display this September, along with 40 new Cuban works from his collection. The museum will pay all transportation and production costs.)

For most Cuban artists, having a work in the Ludwig collection is prized as an important stepping stone to other opportunities, although they often grumble that Ludwig is known for paying lower prices than other collectors, and even putting works on reserve but never claiming them (and thus preventing the artists from selling them to someone else). "Sometimes I see Ludwig as a sweet little old man and sometimes I see him as the devil," sighed Carlos Estevez, who, like most artists, cannot afford to turn down an offer made by any potential buyer, especially one as prestigious as Ludwig. "He has us up against the wall. The problem for Cuban artists today is that your work can be interesting, but you have to have the [financial and material] means to develop it, and in order to have that, someone has to 'discover' you."

Jose Toirac is one artist who has declined to sell to Ludwig. "I already have a foot in the door," he noted, referring to the fact that he is represented by a gallery in Madrid and has been included in several exhibitions abroad. "Ludwig comes here and he always wants to buy my work. So I can permit myself certain luxuries that other artists can't. If he offers me just $700 for a painting that I think is worth more, I'd rather just keep it. I do think he could give artists more money if he is really so concerned about them."

Carlos Estevez lives with his wife and child in a three-room, street-level apartment a block from the port in Old Havana where the Malec centsn, the fabled oceanfront avenue, begins its graceful curve around the city. A large, rough-hewn, Christlike figure was visible through the doorway as the artist greeted visitors who had come to look at slides of his work.

The front door opened onto a small sitting room that, like the rest of the impeccably neat apartment, was framed by water-stained, buckled walls. The sculpture, originally shown with a set of large detachable wings, was made from wood Estevez had gathered from the rubble of collapsed buildings in his neighborhood. Such debris in Old Havana is a popular resource for young artists whose ingenuity compensates for their lack of materials. Others have found that political banners, ripped from the streets in the night, make a decent substitute for canvas. (Those who are still enrolled at the Instituto Superior de Arte are far luckier. Students have comparatively plentiful access to paint, canvas, and other supplies, and it is well-known that many of them squirrel away as much as they can so they'll have something to work with after they graduate.)

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