I come from everywhere
And I am going toward everywhere*

*Excerpt: ‘Yo soy un hombre sincero’ from ‘Versos Sencillios’ José Martí (1853-1895), Cuba. Adapted into the popular song ‘Guantanamera’ by Joseito Fernandez Diaz.

Cuba is renowned for its rich cultural mix. But how did it develop? According to Fernando Ortiz, an early Cuban ethnologist, the answer can be found using a culinary metaphor. Ortiz compared Cuba’s culture to ajiaco, a stew cooked by the indigenous island population.

The Taíno people mixed vegetables with iguana or turtle meat to make a rich broth. The Europeans arrived in the 15th century, replacing the traditional meats with pork or beef and added turnips and squash. Enslaved Africans brought by Spanish colonialists and contract labour from China introduced guinea fowl, plantains and yams, mixed with Chinese spices. But as the ingredients cooked, not all of them dissolved. The smooth broth of cultural homogenisation was avoided, Ortiz contended because new cultures continued to arrive and influences were absorbed from elsewhere in the Caribbean, the Middle East, North America and the southern hemisphere. A process of endless transformation.

A broth like arts culture

This mash-up culture is evident on the island everywhere. Son, the most recognisable Cuban music, promoted worldwide by the Buena Vista Social Club, has roots in the complex rhythms and dances performed for the orisha gods of the West African religious beliefs brought to the island with slavery, but also in Europe and elsewhere. Ortiz described Son as, “A love affair between the African drum and the Spanish guitar”.

In the visual arts, Wifredo Lam (1902-1982), one of Cuba’s most famous Modernist painter, was inspired by santeria, as this animistic religion became known when devotees sought to preserve their beliefs by merging them with elements of Spanish Catholicism. A major retrospective of Lam opens at London’s Tate Modern in September 2016, following highly acclaimed shows in Paris and Madrid.

The international ballet star Carlos Acosta has attracted thousands to London’s Royal Opera House and other venues worldwide, and in the process over the last 20 years broken new ground in introducing men of colour to the traditionally pale world of classical ballet. Buena Vista Social Club (number one best selling ‘world music’ album ever) and now world renowned Afro-Cuban jazz pianist Chucho Valdés are all fresh from performing at the White House for President Obama as part of the start of new US-Cuban relations. Despite more than 50 years of the blockade imposed by the USA, Cuba’s musicians, in particular, have shown immense talent and creativity in many genres from classical to jazz to salsa, hip-hop and electronic music, creating new fusions. Cuban films, although rarely promoted by the mass international distribution networks they deserve, regularly win awards internationally.

University of the Arts HavanaUniversity of the Arts, Havana. Visual arts studios
Photo: Music Fund for Cuba

Cuba 1959: touch the blue paper for arts

1959 brought sweeping changes in Cuba, placing culture at the heart of the revolution. For the first time, regardless of background, any child with talent in fields such as ballet, the visual and performing arts and music, had the opportunity to attend a specialist school. This specialisation continues today beyond graduate level, with all teaching, books and other materials supplied for free. The formal education system is supplemented by a network of well-used community cultural centres, even in the most remote rural areas. According to World Bank figures, Cuba spends more as a proportion of its GDP on education than any other country in the world. Between 2009-2013 it spent 12.9% compared to 6% in Britain and 5.4% in the US. The identification of the Cuban people with their culture is remarkably tenacious.

Cuban art: centre stage

With world class education in place, it is not surprising that today Cuba’s visual arts are moving to the centre of the art world. The Havana Biennial has long featured on the international art calendar since its very first edition in 1984. With a stated desire to develop contact between under-represented artists worldwide and to forge links between artists and their broader communities, it aims to offer an alternative to the market-driven concerns of the host of Biennials that have appeared in other cities since that time. The 12th Biennial in May 2015 was celebrated for the excellence of the art shown and for Cuba’s continuing support for artists in the developing world.

In recent years, international interest in Cuban art has grown and the Ministry of Culture has set up – a number of new galleries where artists can show and sell their work. Any visitor to the island must see the Museo Nacional de Bellas Arte’s (National Art Gallery) outstanding collection and will also be welcomed to the studios and galleries of the island’s more established artists. The art being made right now is shaping perceptions of Cuba and engaging with a diverse range of issues. Amongst others, themes such as globalisation, US-Cuba relations, racial prejudice, and the environment feature in imaginative work by the current generation of artists living and working on the island.

A Cuban exhibition in London

Reflections on these and other themes are evident in of the art that will feature in a unique exhibition to open in London, 6-29 October at Southwark’s GX Gallery. Presente! Contemporary Art from Cuba is presented by the UK-based charity, the Music Fund of Cuba, in collaboration with Cuba’s Ministry of Culture. Expressing the concerns and conflicts of contemporary Cuba, the show will offer a snapshot of the diversity of current visual artistic practice through painting, photography, mixed media, drawing and print.

The economic blockade by the US government which remains in force despite the restoration of diplomatic relations has undermined opportunities for cultural exchange. So, for the first time in London, viewers will have the opportunity to see art created by up to 30 artists drawn from different generations. They will also be able to support art education in Cuba as surplus from sales of the art will fund art materials for future education projects in Cuba. Work by two of the exhibiting artists features in the following pages.

Further information about the exhibition and purchase of artwork from presentecubanart.org