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 the sound of children playing, the crash of the waves or horse carts going by on the roads in the countryside.
When I arrived in Havana, I was greeted by Omar Alberto, my fixer (Daily Coordinator) and all round nice guy with a smile to die for. He arranged for Ossian Raggi, the Vice Dean of Visual Arts at ISA (University of Arts), the professional art school here in Havana, to meet with me the next evening to discuss about how we might work together. An evening of Cuban history and discussions of art ensued. Shortly after my arrival, Omar arranged for me to meet Dannys Montes de Oca Moreda, the Director of the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo Wifredo Lam and one of the curators of the Bienal de La Habana, whom I’ll be working with twice a week while I’m here and she couldn’t have been more welcoming.
I spent the following day becoming acquainted with the ins and out of Vedado and how to hail and negotiate a taxi colectivo, which I have to say, I’ve become rather good at. These are the local cars which drive certain routes, picking up passengers until they are filled to the brim. He also showed me the best cafeterias near the apartment, which are the little restaurant stands people have set up outside their homes, offering a light breakfast or lunch. During the afternoon, I embarked on my own discovery of La Habana Vieja: visiting the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana specializing in Cuban art (wonderful!) and later meeting up with Ossian and Omar for an art opening.
I decided to take a few days and visit Valle de Viñales in the Sierra de los Órganos mountains located in the province of Pinar del Río, two hours west of La Habana which has the most spectacular scenery, mogotes, tobacco fields and large caves accessible on foot and by boat. After a leisurely six hour walk through the landscape, I stumbled upon a large group of locals who gather to horserace down a dusty stretch of road every Sunday, and capped off the evening with a smoking hot salsa band in the village square. The next day I set off for Soroa, where I stayed for two days to stay with Jesús Gastell, considered by many to be the best drawing artist in Cuba and from what I saw, he certainly is! This mountain village is off the tourist map, except for a David Lynch type hotel from the early 60’s which is still up and running. One of the highlights of the visit was a stroll through the Soroa Orchid Botanical Gardens, which usually takes tourists fifteen minutes, but took me three hours after the scientists from the University of Pinar del Río extended an invitation into their ‘off limits’ orchid research station located in the park, giving me a thorough tour, including full-grown orchids about the size of a mosquito. The orchids they have are not only from Cuba, but from around the world, some which they are trying to save from extinction.
Yesterday afternoon, the Malecón (seawall) breached the walls and flooded the part of Vedado where I am living. Omar says it happens occasionally, but he has never seen it so extensive. The water travelled five blocks right up to our door, but luckily crested just before entering the house. Our neighbours were not so lucky. With the water reaching four to five feet deep in a matter of minutes, homes, cars and precious belongings were ruined. What was amazing however, was the Cuban spirit. Everyone came onto the streets, helping their neighbours salvage whatever they could. When the water receded, mud and objects from the sea filled the streets, electric cables had fallen and people were getting ready for the work ahead. In the early morning, the neighbourhood was alive again, but this time with everyone cleaning the streets. It is now just after 12pm and except for piles of debris, the streets are cleaned and swept and it’s almost as if it never happened. I marvel at the collective spirit I witnessed over these two days.
This past week, I was introduced to several curators and artists in Havana. What I continue to be struck by during this residency, is that all the people I am being introduced to are not only extraordinary artists but also such lovely warm people. Last night, I went to another art opening which was extremely well attended and the work, very bold politically. I also went to speak to the visual art students at ISA (visual art, dance, theatre and music). Several students came to my talk and I had the opportunity to see some examples of their work which was wonderful and illuminating. Omar Alberto did an excellent job translating throughout.
It’s Valentine’s Day and at this moment in time and for all it is giving me, my valentine is Havana. I’m finding I am slowing down, observing small things on my daily walks – a flower growing out of a crack of broken cement, a distant view of woman cooking alone as I pass a doorway, three children playing baseball and the kindness extended in the people I encounter. It is this I will work with in my performance this coming weekend. I’m assembling a team, a photographer, video artist and cameraman, to join my performance action and together we will see if kindness’ elusive nature, by that I mean the precise moment of its extension, can be captured. In essence, the performance walk will be a mediation on kindness.
In the performance today, we uncovered some beautiful moments, which will be worked with as material in another form. The actions took place in the neighbourhoods of Vedado and Centro Habana, lasting five hours, with the light marking the time. What is it about magic of the moment when a stranger lets you in … the moment when the door is actually being opened? It happens in a blink of an eye when the invisible curtain between two people is raised.
Today is the last day of my residency. It certainly doesn’t feel like an ending, but rather a beginning, as it has given me the opportunity to build relationships with the artistic community here. Working with Dannys has been wonderful. Through her insights into my work and curatorial guidance, I have met several artists who share similar aesthetic sensibilities to my own. She has brought into focus not only my current work during my residency but also projects for the future.
Unpack Studio takes you right to the heart of the art world here in Havana, giving context to its present form and helping forge relationships with the community here, all the while customizing one’s experience here to the artist’s needs.
Thank you Unpack!
Beau Coleman is a multidisciplinary artist whose work has been performed and/or exhibited across North America, Europe and in parts of Africa, Australia and Asia. She has made works for a diverse range of locations and contexts, whether situated in galleries, theatres, suspended over rivers or projected onto buildings. Previous creations include live art, intermedia, transmedia, site-specific performance, theatre, dance, film, video and installation. Themes of isolation, suspension, intimacy and loss are interrogated in her work. Recent performances and exhibitions include What Have You Lost? (SubArtctic, Edmonton, Canada) Let Me Tell You That I Love You (Distant Islands) (Copenhagen, Denmark, Torshaven, Faroe Islands & Nuuk, Greenland 2015), Let Me Tell You That I Love You (Nuit Rose, Toronto, 2014), These Are Not My Mother’s Hands (Trinity Square Video, Toronto 2013) and Clock Piece (GlougAIR, Month of Performance Art Festival, Berlin, 2012). She is currently working on a series of performances, videos and installations focusing on the act of forgetting and the performance of grief. Beau received her training at the National Theatre School of Canada and the Yale School of Drama (MFA). She is currently on faculty at the University of Alberta where she is the Coordinator of the MFA Directing Program and specializes in interdisciplinary performance, theatre and live art.