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.
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.
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.
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.
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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."