Cuba’s political murals are one of the most potent images of this country: the faces of Che and Castro, strong and resolute, looking out over their people. You happen upon them like old friends: some images remain vibrant, freshly painted by teams of fastidious workers; others are faded and chipped, the walls crumbling beneath them, a potent metaphor for the aging administration. These murals are as omnipresent as advertising is in America, using every available surface to share the ‘triumphs of the Revolution’.
But in recent years, new voices have emerged: they started as a clandestine whisper, a few words - often in English - here and there; but the voices are rising in volume and noise, and graffiti has begun to change the urban landscape. A call to arms by the government, over half a century old, alongside a call to arms by a young street artist, with his own political message to share, creating a fascinating layering, a conversation between individuals and state, played out across generations.
The most famous and prolific of Cuba’s street artists is a passionate young man known as El Sexto, who creates irreverent and politically charged images all over the city, as well working in paint and multimedia. His distinctive tag even appeared on the Museum of Fine Arts, a two fingers up to an institution which won’t or can’t accept him. He has already been arrested on several occasions for his art, and in the last report I could find (July 2014) he was imprisoned and awaiting trial. According to dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez, at first officials talked to him about his potentially profitable art career if he would only put his talents to a different use. But he views artistic expression as something spontaneous, rebellious by nature, and free of cultural bureaucracy. He’s not alone.
Only graffiti created with State approval is considered art by the powers that be, and anything else is defacement of public property, liable for prosecution. That’s not to say there aren’t some stunning pieces of state-sanctioned work. For many years, non-political murals have brightened the already colourful streets of Havana, such as the incredible Afro-Cuban work by Salvador Gonzáles Escalona along Callejón de Hamel. Street art has often been used as a means of social outreach. Art project Muraleando began in 2001, when two local artists started teaching art classes to young people in the community. They focused on beautifying their neighbourhood, and soon they were painting on the walls. To this day the art classes continue, and international artists visit to paint murals alongside the locals. Notably, in 2011 there was a collaboration between US and Cuban artists, working to transform a 100-year-old water storage tank – now known as El Tanque - into a workshop, office and art gallery for the initiative.
For the 11th Havana Biennial, UNEAC invited a number of artists to paint the city’s walls, including Cuban emigrants like Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada or children of exile families like José Parlá (both now US based). Miami-born Parlá teamed up with French street artist JR to create 25 portraits of Cuba's oldest citizens, the cracks in the walls becoming the lines in their weathered faces, evoking the hardships they’ve suffered. These people were everyday heroes, images of hope for any who saw them. In many ways, seeing the power of these works, made many artists realise the potential of the city walls as a canvas, and they began moving their work from the privacy of the studio into the public spaces of the street.
The line between official and unofficial isn’t always clean cut. When it comes to street art, there is a constant interplay between ‘art’ and ‘vandalism’, questioning what is art and who has the right to decide. While this debate is hardly new, what has changed for Cuba in recent years is the introduction of the spray can into the equation. The cultural canvas has been spread wide open, so to speak, and suddenly ‘unofficial’ art is not just created, but it is witnessed and absorbed by every single person who happens to walk by.
As originally published in my column for leading US-Cuba travel specialists, Insight Cuba