UNPACK STUDIO is an independent platform for artistic collaboration based in Toronto, Canada. It is aimed at coordinating and curating contemporary art projects.
Our mandate is to provide a context for aesthetic research developed in the cultural, linguistic and political articulations of knowledge, particularly reflecting on the understandings of migration, race, gender and power. We are interested in investigations aimed at exploring the conceptual intersections and points of rupture of these definitions.
We seek to potentiate artworks that reflect on the negotiations that discrete concepts and fields of knowledge are subjected to when extrapolated to other cultural spaces or disciplines, whether through life experience or research. Our objective is to promote the work of artists and curators that question the validity of definitions as absolutes, in light of the trans-disciplinary nature of contemporary thinking.
UNPACK STUDIO IS A
The UNPACK STUDIOHavana Art Residency program is open to visual artists, curators and researchers. The residency runs from three to seven weeks and comprises of independent workdays, meetings with an internationally recognized Art Contact and possible presentations at art institutions in Havana.
The artist can create local-foreign collaborations, interact with contemporary Cuban practitioners and give Cuban art students the opportunity to see diverse practices. Creatives can research, produce new work individually or in collaboration, network with artists, art students, galleries, curators, and explore Havana.
Unpack Studio residency in Cuba is strategically situated in Vedado, a central and popular neighbourhood of Havana, with easy access to all areas of the city (view map). There is walking distance access to food markets, stores, internet wifi spots, jazz bars, swimming pools, art galleries, cinemas and theatres.
My experience with Unpack Studio Havana Art Residency far exceeded my expectations! As a professor in Interior Architecture and Design at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, I came to Havana to document Cuban architecture and current preservation practices, both through meeting with and interviewing preservationist professionals and by creating a photographic documentary series. I was fortunate to have my husband, Frank Hellwig, join me the first 2 weeks to support the project. This enabled me to do some things that I would not have been able to accomplish on my own.
On the first day of the residency, we arranged a tour of Havana Vieja with Unpack Studio’s Project Coordinator, Laura Rodríguez Balbuzano. Learning the history from a local’s point of view and gaining an overall feel for the area was invaluable, but the experience was also very overwhelming. It was hard for my mind to wrap around the contrast of beautiful and unsightly; rich and poor; generosity and desperation. And my documentation project…there were so many beautiful buildings in full decay, many being restored, but hundreds suffering from demolition by neglect, yet the resiliency of the Cuban people was evident as they made do with and lived in buildings that would be condemned in North America.
By the third day, we were ready to jump into the project and started in our neighbourhood, Vedado. Because my Spanish is at an elementary level, Frank and I had to get creative. We created a script in Spanish explaining what we were doing…and it worked. Although somewhat a crude method, I was able to interview workmen on building job-sites, while Frank captured everything through video recordings. The same method worked to convince people to allow me into buildings to document the interiors, including the famous Casa de Catalina Lasa y Juan de Pedro Baró. I found most people interested in my project and tolerant of my poor Spanish. This method of inquiry, along with my business card, also led to our entrance into preservation trade schools in Havana Vieja. We were able to document students learning the traditional methods of preservation including masonry, stonework and metal-work. A special thank you to Juan Jesús Gesen Musa and Maikel Moreno Fujon for showing us around and answering all our questions.
On our eighth day, Laura took us to El Cerro, once a wealthy colonial neighbourhood, now one of the poorest. Seeing the original colonial architecture, it is not hard to understand why Havana is known as the City of Columns. While in El Cerro we were allowed to document one of the city’s most luxurious summer homes built by the Count of Santovenia and now a nursing home. More than architecture, we learned about healthcare and aging practices in Cuba.
Day 10 marked the highlight of the trip. Unpack had arranged for us to meet with Leonardo Gómez González, curator at the Presidential Palace, also known as the Museo de la Revolución, along with one of his colleagues, Alejandro Rojas Santana. Leonardo and Alejandro shared their methods of restoration, along with the challenges unique to Cuba due to the embargo. We were allowed to see and document rooms in the palace not open to the public including Fulgencio Batista’s personal rooms. The experience was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!
On day 11 we were fortunate to be given a tour of Colón Cemetery by Irma Bergantinos who took interest in my project and set up an appointment for me to meet local preservationist, Carlos Buata Martín. Carlos is renowned for the restoration of The Christ of Havana and is currently working on the Capital dome. He took me to The Christ and shared with me its history and how it was restored.
My final interview of note was with Nathan Biondolino, who invited me to document the carefully restored Casa de Bernardo Solís which serves as the headquarters for UNESCO in the Caribbean. Viewing my Vedado neighbourhood from the roof of this prestigious building was a special moment.
Between all this work we enjoyed learning about the Cuban culture by attending the Ballet, the National Aquarium, the Tropicana Club, art museums, enjoying the parks and exploring the historic hotels, such and the Riviera and the Hotel Nacional. We loved the live traditional Cuban music and salsa dancing.
Unpack Studio provided invaluable assistance and feedback along the way. Laura was a continual sounding board, always willing to push limits to create further opportunities for me. My favorite was the night she arranged a night photography shoot inside one of the oldest homes in Vedado! Both Dannys Montes de Oca Moreda, Director of the Wifredo Lam Center for Contemporary Arts, and Ossain Raggi, Vice Dean of Visual Arts at ISA, were full of recommendations and feedback along the way. And then there is Paco, who waited tirelessly at the airport to pick us up on our first day, and served as our driver over and over again…what a great guy! But I don’t know if I could have survived without Matilda who came to the apartment twice a week to clean and wash our clothes. Thank you doesn’t seem enough!
Just a note about Laura…I can’t imagine this experience without her. She is so smart and generous with her time and knowledge. She was not only an asset to my project, but I left Havana knowing that I had made a friend for life!
Unpack Studio, 7 y C, Vedado, Habana April 2017 Week 1 I arrive in a heat wave so hot I will need a coping strategy. I rent a bike that’s too expensive and realize I should have bought one to donate to Unpack. Oh well, I am happy to be freewheeling through the colourful streets… Read Full Post
My residency at Unpack was my second visit to Cuba. My first was in 2008 when I was a student at ISA on a study abroad placement. This was an incredibly influential time and I was keen to return and experience working in Havana again. I found my visit to be extremely interesting to see… Read Full Post
Cuba felt like home but with its unique twist. I’m a visual artist hailing from the islands of Trinidad and Tobago… So being introduced to my Caribbean cousins was, in short, an experience like none other. The people are some of the warmest hearts I’ve felt. Starting with Omar Alberto, the ever smiling daily coordinator… Read Full Post
My name is Norman Barney, from Ontario, Canada. I just returned home from a short fifteen day stay at the Unpack Studio Artist Residency in Havana, Cuba. I have had two residencies at the Banff Centre last fall (2016) as well as the spring residency in 2015. Having gone to Cuba now and then for… Read Full Post
January 12th Almost a couple of weeks in Cuba and I feel like I’m just starting to get into the island rhythm. There’s a lot to adjust to here, but what I’ve enjoyed most is the warmth of the people I’ve met and the simple day to day moments of life, whether it be… Read Full Post
I am a photo-based artist. I’ve been working on a long-term project that involves travelling in Latin America. I have participated in numerous artist residency programs while pursuing this project, but my experience at Unpack Studio Havana Art Residency has been my favourite. I’m Mexican, but I have a long personal history with Cuba. I… Read Full Post
Upon my arrival to Havana, it quickly became clear that Cuba is not an easy place to navigate for a foreigner, much less if you don’t speak Spanish. During my stay at Unpack Studio Havana Art Residency they arranged studio visits with artists’ whose work was relevant to my own, planned excursions outside of the city, and… Read Full Post
My residency in January 2015, was the second time I had been to Havana. The first time I went, I wanted to see the sites, experience the space, and try to understand how to move about the streets. The second time I went I wanted to meet people and start producing artwork. Having the opportunity… Read Full Post