Café con Retché

Little Havana struggles to reinvent a once-growing arts scene

In May 2000, when Little Havana's monthly schlock street festival Viernes Culturales (Cultural Fridays) began, the area already boasted an edgy arts scene that attracted multiculti crowds from throughout the city.

There was a late Friday-night rumba every week at Adalberto Delgado's gritty pioneer space, 6G. Black-box performances (including Surreal Saturdays) at Susan Caraballo's avant haven, PS742, made for some of the most memorable nights out in the hood. El Hueco (The Hole) was a makeshift theater that presented monologue slams and funky music performances inside a video store.

There were places like Café Neuralgia, a crummy pizza joint run by a balsero musician, which held a weekly descarga, or jam session. The eatery seemed spawned straight from a Fellini film, its waitstaff consisting of Comandante Rodolfo Frometa, leader of the anti-Castro militia Comandos F-4, easily recognizable for his scraggly Ho Chi Minh beard.

Luis Molina's stylized and richly hued painting of orisha Babalu Aye
Luis Molina's stylized and richly hued painting of orisha Babalu Aye

Vivian Marthell and I ran Lab6, an incubator for experimentation, on SW Sixth Street, around the corner from Neuralgia.

That March, during the Elián González custody battle, Vivian placed a five-foot latex penis with an eye in its head in our storefront window for an exhibit called "Monkey Boy and the Parallel Bio-Narrative," a cheeky sendup of the Elián hoo-ha riling the neighborhood. As protesters walked by our space, they would trigger a motion sensor, causing the eye to blink and follow them.

All of these artistic outposts helped juice the alternative-barrio vibe. Within the span of two years, though, most places had folded or fled.

The first Viernes Culturales was embraced by locals as a timely despojo, or cleansing, after Elián was returned to his father by an INS SWAT team and Little Havana boiled over in the aftermath. With Miami polarized, local pols figured Little Havana needed an enema, and Viernes Culturales became Calle Ocho's splashy hose.

Although the early blowouts were spontaneous and great fun, they quickly became formulaic, damping and sanitizing a once-promising scene.

When I recently visited Corinna Moebius, outgoing director of Viernes Culturales, I couldn't help but mention the irony that her office was located across from a psychiatrist's office, given the fact that the organization has undergone an identity crisis in the past few years.

"We are trying to get more street performers and mimes to participate now and be more stringent with selecting artists that apply to exhibit," Moebius said. Unfortunately she has flamed out after six months of dealing with meddling bosses, and now leaves Viernes Culturales for someone else to fix.

Although a new Calle Ocho Art District Association has been created to freshen the image of what many people consider to be the armpit of Miami's cultural scene, Little Havana's current arts community is still a far cry from what it once was. None of its galleries showcases anything compelling enough to lure serious art aficionados. Forget photography, video, installation, or conceptual work — you won't find it here.

The association boasts thirteen spaces, the majority owned and operated by artists. They banded together this past October in hopes of drawing the public to the area on nights other than Viernes Culturales.

"What's happened is that the artists whose work is shown on sidewalks here during Viernes Culturales are not the very best," said Manny Lopez, owner of Zu Galería Fine Arts. "There are a lot of bad trinkets and knickknacks, and I wanted to get away from that. I believe the area is in an upswing, with lots of new spaces coming, and wanted to be competitive with a wide selection of art for my clients."

The 37-year-old travel agent opened his space next door to the headquarters of Alpha 66 and shares a rear courtyard with the aging anti-Castro paramilitary group.

"They have been supersupportive," the dealer said of the geezer guerrillas who often pop in with a colada to chat. "They have even offered to loan me folding chairs for my events."

Lopez is exhibiting several artists' works, hung salon-style floor to ceiling in the narrow space. One wall — choked with images of a mulata scaling a fish, nude circus acrobats, landscapes, and still lifes, all by Manolo Rodríguez — is a mishmash display lacking a cultivated curatorial eye. One of Rodríguez's paintings, depicting a leering pickaninny holding a slice of watermelon, roiled the scrote and left me anxious to leave before a brick came flying through the window.

On an opposing wall, Salvador Lorenzo shanks Picasso and Chagall. He fuses their styles to create lurid imagery of chickens, peasants, and bare-breasted bimbos balancing papayas on their heads — shamelessly pandering to the tourist trade. In the back of the gallery, Magda Audifred's pastel drawings of demitasse cups on tropical beaches serves up more of the same.

Although Lopez seems well intentioned, here's hoping he keeps his day job. Unless he polishes his act and rethinks some of the racist imagery on display, he might find those fossils next door to be the only protection he has.

Amazingly he sold eighteen works during his December opening, he says, which drew a crowd of several hundred, some from as far away as Hollywood. He is planning Valentine's Day and Mother's Day shindigs along with other galleries in the district.

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