Café con Retché

Little Havana struggles to reinvent a once-growing arts scene

After speaking with Lopez, I checked out some of the other Little Havana spaces to see what was percolating.

The Marta G. Ismail Fine Art Gallery, located near Domino Park, is a picturesque spot sporting a back deck covered with orchids, where birds splashed in a bath while a snazzy bolero sweetened the air.

The artist, who lived in Paris for fifteen years, has divided her eponymous studio and gallery space to feature paintings of the French countryside on one wall and Cuban nostalgia on another. "All tourists want here is folklore," she shrugged.

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

Ismail, who recently opened her space, confesses artists in the area have to pay their bills, and that's why she's happy to paint scenes of hens laying eggs while nesting in a Cuban flag.

Many of her quaint, folkloric pictures, depicting comparsa dancers near Havana's Malecón or the city's colonial façades, are typical of items sold in the area's souvenir shops and restaurants, as well as the ceramics and crafts offered during Viernes Culturales.

Most of the Calle Ocho Art District Association's studios and galleries are located on Little Havana's main artery, between Sixteenth and Seventeenth avenues.

The most serious galleries on the strip are Latin Art Core and Maxoly Cuban Fine Art, which share a space on the corner of SW Eighth Street and Sixteenth Avenue.

Maxoly, the oldest gallery in the area, features a permanent exhibit of Cuban masters, including works by Mariano Rodríguez, Amelia Peláez, and René Portocarrero in the rear of the space.

Latin Art Core was exhibiting contemporary Cuban artists and featured several drawings by Roberto Fabelo and a large painting by Arturo Rodríguez, who recently had a solo show at the Bass Museum of Art.

Maxoly made local headlines in 2002 when Vigilia Mambisa, a right-wing Cuban exile group that picketed the space, deemed an exhibit by César Beltrán "pro-Castro." At the time, Máximo Sarracino, Maxoly's owner, took down the exhibit after gunshots shattered the gallery's windows.

So it was surprising to see Beltrán's work from that controversial exhibit decorating the walls of Sarracino's upscale souvenir and clothing store next door.

The Little Havana dealer was also the brain trust behind a proposal to Congress in 2005, calling for Miami-Dade and Monroe counties to be cleaved from the rest of Florida and united with the different provinces of Cuba to create "Havami," the 51st state of the Union.

He has been a driving force behind the Calle Ocho Art District, pushing for members to organize events in the hope that Little Havana will register on the radar during the next installment of Art Basel Miami Beach.

On the west end of the block, Mildred Guillot calls Little Havana a "diamond in the rough." A staple of the Coral Gables scene for nearly a decade, Guillot moved her studio and gallery to Calle Ocho two years ago.

The Viernes Culturales board member says people who visit for the festival atmosphere during the last Friday of the month are beginning to return on other nights to frequent cafés and hear live music on weekends. "This is one of the few pedestrian-friendly areas of the city, and a unique place where people can enjoy Latin American culture in all its diversity," Guillot said.

With its leather couch, rocking chairs, antique phonograph, and potted poinsettia plants, Guillot's space is a cozy environment for her impressionistic paintings of ballet dancers and women and children.

"I sell more paintings to Europeans here than I ever did in the Gables," Guillot, who exhibits only her own work, explained while smiling from behind a paint-streaked apron. "What people like about coming here is experiencing an artist in the process of painting in their studio."

Even though more than half of the so-called galleries in the area are actually vanity spaces where artists peddle their own stuff, not everything is gag-inducing.

At Molina Fine Art, Luis Molina's eye-catching paintings of Afro-Cuban deities were among some of the more interesting works I came across.

His stylized and richly hued depictions of orishas — like Babalu Aye, the patron saint of the ill and downtrodden; or Elegguá, a trickster figure — stood out like sore thumbs from the folkloric jumble blighting the neighborhood.

When most tourists visit Little Havana, their lasting impressions are likely of Domino Park, the rancid fiberglass roosters masquerading as public art on street corners, or painted maracas purchased from Little Havana to Go, the hood's seemingly official souvenir shop. Every day tourist buses swoop in, visitors are corralled into the shop for coffee and kitsch, and then they are sped away.

"I guarantee you someone's getting some kickbacks here," brayed a nearby tobacconist. "These politicians are treating us merchants like a three-dollar ho."

Galería Arche's owner, Alexis Estupiñán-Arche, agrees that when a visitor's highlight of the area is a stop at the cash register at Little Havana to Go, it's time to fold the tent. "They are strangling local businesses; it's the only place those buses now stop," she said. "I'm thinking of selling the gallery."

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