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Blogging from Havana

Gabrielle Lockwood Estrin

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 what has changed and to experience again the complexities and confusions of being there.

It was wonderful to have Omar and Laura as support. They showed such generosity and commitment to helping by discussing my work and suggesting artists, writers and philosophers who might be of interest to me. Laura was so brilliant in showing places of interest in and around Havana and being there to translate when needed. This support was very much appreciated.

Vedado, the area in which the residency is situated, is such a great location. It is leafy and breezy with such nice parks and just a few blocks from the Malecón. I spent a lot of time walking around the area just absorbing the vibrancy of the colours and the beautiful old crumbling buildings functioning as homes for so many families. Observing the way that people have adapted and fixed homes in precarious and beautiful ways. The juxtaposing of huge great big flats next to tiny colonial staircases, pinks next to greens, above painted columns in bright orange. Materials that have been reused and adapted for functions they were never intended for, holding or supporting another structure. Examining the way that air travels through the buildings, the positive and negative space relations. Homes that have been built and adapted in ways to combat the heat.

Positive and negative space under buildings
Neighbours

Ossain Raggi came over to the apartment to view my work and, because I was a former student there, he was able to arrange for me to use the print studio at ISA. This was one of the highlights of my time. It was wonderful to go back there working again in a studio where I had worked so many years ago. It is a beautiful set-up in the centre of the art school. I was amazed by the generosity of the staff and students in the studio to share space and materials with me. I was lucky enough to be introduced to stone lithography by Brian Lara, an expert in this area. I also was able to base myself there for a few days to work on mono-prints. It is amazing to be working in a fully functioning print room that has absolutely no materials. No metal, no inks, no tissue paper. I work in an art school print workshop in London where every day we go through bin bags full of tissue paper, rags and scrap paper. Working in a place that simply does not have the supplies, everyone is forced to find other ways; to reuse, to borrow, to find. This is extremely refreshing; especially as the work produced there is of such a high standard. I found myself wishing I had filled up my suitcase with rags to bring over from the UK. And now that I am back, I find myself viewing scraps and off-cuts in different ways- something of the potential of each little thing.

My only criticism is that I was not at the residency long enough. In Cuba everything happens slowly and three weeks flew by! I felt it was just a taste of being back. I started to make connections with artists and reconnect with old friends, which was lovely. I was reminded of Cuban people’s resourcefulness and persistence in the face of problems. The lack of basic supplies causes everyone to be endlessly flexible and innovative which is so refreshing to be surrounded by. It is such a fantastic mental state to get into as a creative person.

Dying paper
Print studio
Gallery show room at ISA

I had many conversations with old friends about the state of Cuba now. It was extremely interesting to hear. Spending time there forces one to requisition re- examine morals, ideas of freedom and systems of power. Through discussions with people living there, one realizes something of the complexity of the situation.

As an artist based in London trying to juggle life and work in a busy city, I spend much of my time worrying about things that might go wrong. Some of which do and some which don’t. In Cuba, everything goes wrong constantly. Things break, the infrastructure is unstable, basic things are hard to find and things are much slower. But somehow, everyone has got so used to living like this that there are a multitude of potential solutions, and friendly people ready to help. Being used to living with chaos has caused an acceptance and calmness around calamity and problems. This sits alongside kindness and resourcefulness. Cuba is such a unique place. We are at a time where the western world has got so used to ‘efficiently’; being able to order anything we may need on the Internet and have it arrive at our door the following day. Shops with hundreds of the same product in different brands, ready for us to buy. We have Google constantly at our fingertips, ready to give us the answer to any question. We get so used to not taking the long route around, not getting lost and finding ourselves again, not taking risks, or having to search out a part and try and find a new way. Fear of failure in this environment becomes paramount; we seek the most direct route. I think that for me being in Cuba reminded me of what is lost by not knowing. Not having the back up of the Internet constantly and having to work things out slower using trial and error. Being aware that it may well fail, but if it does that just leads to trying a new route. For me, for making work, this seems to be a good way of going about things.

The residency offered me a great base for my time in Havana. I felt well supported in a wonderful location. It allowed me to react to being there, to create prints and visual diaries of my time. I am already planning my next visit, which I hope will be a longer period of time.

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