PEM in Cuba

Earlier this month, we traveled to Cuba with a group of PEM friends and supporters. Our journey was initially inspired by the sculptures we commissioned from Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons. Our early 2016 exhibition  Alchemy of the Soul mined her memories of the sugar cane fields, abandoned factories, and disused distilleries that dot the Cuban landscape. (Learn more from our exhibition digital publication.)

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Detail of a sculpture in Alchemy of the Soul. Photo by Peter Vanderwarker.


The freight elevator experience to the exhibition. Photo by Kathy Tarantola.

Based on our experience of Magda’s work and that of her husband musician Neil Leonard, we knew how important it was to gain a multi-layered understanding of Cuba: its history, its culture, its economic development, and its artists.


Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons and her husband Neil Leonard in Cuba during a trip to research the PEM exhibition. Courtesy photo.

Cuba stands at an interesting crossroads, with certain industries (tourism key among them) opening to entrepreneurial activities and official joint ventures. There has also been a significant increase in tourism from the United States since the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with our country.

One clear sign of this transformation are the numerous Paladars (private restaurants) and bars that have enlivened the dining scene in Havana. Among the most dramatic and long established of these is Paladar La Guarida, which is positioned on the third floor of a crumbling mansion in Old Havana. The walk up to the restaurant offers a glimpse into the history and daily life of this beautiful city.


Map of Cuba made with keys.

We visited several artist studios: El Apartmento, 331Artspace, 7 y 60 as well as the extraordinary Fabrica de Arte Cubano, an extraordinary venue containing galleries of visual art, video screenings, bars and restaurants. It’s housed in an old cooking oil factory and retains that strong industrial look.

There were long lines of people waiting to get in, to experience the art and energy together.

Many artist studios are more than just the working spaces we are more used to but also serve as co-operative exhibition spaces. Among the most moving experiences for the group was our visit to the studio of Yoan Capote, whose work provides a kind of portrait of the Cuban situation by massing together and deploying highly specific vernacular objects such as fish hooks or door hinges.


Visiting the studio of Yoan Capote (second from left).


Yoan’s canvas on the left uses fishhooks to create the seascape.

We learned that during what is known in Cuba as the Special Period, (following the fall of the Soviet Union and the simultaneous tightening of American regulations around sending currency to Cuba) art materials became extremely hard to come by. Electricity and food were scarce.

Paper, paints, brushes, etc. were virtually impossible to obtain. In response, many artists worked with found objects and discarded materials.


A car at Finca La Vigia, Ernest Hemingway’s Cuban home.

Trevor Smith, PEM’s Curator of the Present Tense, pointed out that this capacity to keep things running, to keep going even when the usual tools are not available, is also evident in the meticulously maintained old cars. Some cars are extraordinary, lovingly maintained showpieces, while others are a testimony to creativity and fortitude, such as the 1950s Buick, with a 1990s Toyota dashboard and homemade upholstery, that drove us to dinner one evening.


We were driven to our farewell dinner in old cars – a caravan along the Malecon!

One of the most lasting memories is that of the incredible richness of Cuban music. It seemed like every restaurant and bar had a small combo that might play everything from pop covers to salsa or rumba. On the final evening in Havana, several of the most intrepid amongst us traveled 45 minutes outside the center of Havana to experience Los Hermanos Arango, a 12 piece Afro-Cuban music ensemble, who performed for us in their own home. Their extraordinary musicianship and theatricality was the perfect conclusion to our extraordinary week in Havana.

Sharing an adventure like this really brings home what is special about PEM — that it is a place committed to connection and interaction. The museum connects culture, time, place and people, when bridges are increasingly important in our world.

On this trip, through talking with people we met and with each other, we were reminded that there are always more bridges than chasms.  Maybe it’s the lens of art and creativity that helps us to see those bridges more clearly. Maybe it’s simply a shared commitment to really looking for them.  Either way, each of us came away from our Cuba adventure, newly inspired by the power of connection.


Dancing to Los Hermanos Arango!

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