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As 2019 draws to a close, the Global Media Center takes a look back at an extraordinary trip to Havana, Cuba, organized by the UMGC Arts Program. The 17 art lovers who traveled there in April for the county's 13th art biennial—the XIII Bienal de La Habana—soon learned Cuban art offers a good bit of the unexpected. This is the first of three stories that reflect on that experience and preview the in-depth feature article and photo spread, "Art. Freedom. Cuba." in the upcoming Winter 2020 issue of Achiever Magazine.

It appears that little in Cuba is “as usual.” Take, for instance, the name of the well-known arts festival that the island nation hosts—the Havana art biennial. It’s a misnomer.

For one thing, the biennial festival, founded in 1984, has been a triennial since 1994. And to maintain that three-year schedule, this year’s event—Havana’s 13th art biennial—should have taken place in 2018 but it was canceled, making the April 2019 event a quadrennial occurrence.

Officially, the 2018 festival was quashed because Cuba was still recovering from the aftereffects of Hurricane Irma, which struck in September 2017 and devastated the infrastructure across Havana and the island at large. But, according to word on the street, that explanation was a ruse. Many artists and other observers who quietly protested the cancellation suggest that the Cuban government sanctions only one big event at a time so it can best maintain social order and control—and in April 2018 Cuba was busy installing its new Council of State Miguel Díaz-Canel, who is now Cuba’s president.

Here’s another oddity about the name: As reincarnated in 2019—and for the first time in its history—the Havana art biennial extended well beyond the capital city’s limits to select locations across the island, making this year’s iteration a Cuba-wide, not just a Havana citywide event.

Matanzas and Varadero

From Havana, travel about 90 miles east along the Via Blanca toll road—roughly a three-hour trip by bus—to the resort town of Varadero, which rests on the 13-mile long Hicacos peninsula in Matanzas Province. Varadero is best known for its beach, touted by Lonely Planet and World Travel Guide among other vacation-planning sites as one of the best stretches of sand across the Caribbean.

Photo ops: UMGC Arts Program Director Eric Key leads group members on a 10-minute beach break after visiting Varadero's premier ceramics workshop, Taller Ceramica Artistica

But Varadero is also home to the ceramics workshop and gallery, Taller de Ceramica Artistica. There, visitors can interact with ceramicists and other artisans, watch them at work, and purchase their wares. Not coincidentally, the gallery is co-located with the Matanzas Branch of the Cuban Cultural Property Fund, the chief entity responsible for marketing the region’s cultural products.

Matanzas,  itself, is the capital of Matanzas Province and is known by a variety of nicknames that evoke some of Europe’s greatest artistic and literary cultures—and the city’s own rich, centuries-long cultural heritage. Water, too, figures prominently in the history and legacy of Matanzas: For centuries, the city was a hub of Cuba’s sugar industry.

The cityscape literally curves around three sides of Matanzas Bay. And a total of 17 bridges span the three rivers—the Rio Yumuri, the San Juan and the Canimar—that wind throughout Matanzas and give rise to the epithet, “the Venice of Cuba.”

Wall mural along Calle Narváez, the promenade along the San Juan River

Since the 18th and, most particularly the mid-19th centuries, Matanzas has often been referred to as "the Athens of Cuba," for the many internationally known artists who traveled there to perform—and for its proliferation of resident artists and poets. Matanzas “set new cultural benchmarks with the development of a newspaper, a public library, a high school, a theater and a philharmonic society,” during the late 19th century, according to the write-up on Lonely Planet’s website.

The Sauto Theater, which opened in Matanzas in 1863, counts French actress Sarah Bernhardt, Russian dancer Anna Pavlova, Cuban composer José White Lafitte, Italian opera singer Enrico Caruso, and Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia among the world-famous performers who have appeared there.

U.S.-based Cuban artist María Magdalena Campos-Pons, a Matanzas native and Vanderbilt University professor, used the occasion of the 13th Havana Art Biennial to showcase the cultural heritage of Matanzas and the splendor of its creative workforce. In a May interview in Vanderbilt University News, she said she launched her project, “Ríos Intermitentes / Intermittent Rivers," to help garner the global recognition that the “gifted and talented” artists, poets, philosophers and other Matanzas “creatives” deserve, but have never received.

Campos-Pons added that “Ríos Intermitentes,” which she described as an artistic intervention that takes into account both the geography of Matanzas and the city’s “extraordinary” cultural history and traditions, sought to “empower the community and help it to renew itself with a sense of cultural pride.”

(Left) Detail of Our Lady of Charity by Matanzas artist Adrián Sancho; (Right) UMGC tour group members take it all in

Art installations along Calle Narváez, the promenade along the San Juan River, brought her intent to a sharp point. The sculpture, "La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre / Our Lady of Charity," by Matanzas artist Adrián Sancho, speaks to European colonialism; the African Diaspora; ethnic, spiritual, cultural, and sociopolitical diversity; and how, over time, vast oceans, and seas, and rivers conveyed a multiplicity of people to Cuba’s shores—many willingly, many unwillingly—and how that mix defines Cuba.

Our Lady of Charity is a patron saint of Cuba, the island’s incarnation of the Virgin Mary, and an iconic representation of hope and salvation that reporter David Montgomery described as “a quintessential symbol of Cuban identity,” in his September 2015 Washington Post article, written on the occasion of the Mass that Pope Francis celebrated in the Saint’s honor at the El Cobre, Cuba, basilica that bears her name.

Ladder to the riverbank intervention Contrahuella by architects Bernabeu and Wendy Pérez

Farther ahead on the promenade, a series of colored ladders gave viewers the opportunity to interact with the actual riverbank, in effect becoming a human bridge between Matanzas’ present and past. The installation, “Contrahuella: Intervención Urbana / Counterpoint: Urban Intervention," by architects Rubier Bernabeu and Wendy Pérez, was situated between two historic bridges that span the San Juan and aimed to “encourage the conservation of the tangible and intangible values of the area,” according to the artists’ written statement about their work.

La Lengua de la Jirafa offered a bit of whimsy along the San Juan promenade

Other installations offered a sense of wonder and whimsy. A playful sculpture, "La Lengua de la Jirafa / Giraffe’s Tongue," by an unidentified artist was among the many works that graced the banks of the San Juan.

When Art Masquerades as a Book

Augustina Ponce had been speaking enthusiastically in Spanish. So perhaps something had been lost in translation because her description of the art enterprise where she worked—as relayed in English by our tour guide—was rather matter of fact.

“This historic house was made in 1919. The oldest house in the square is from the 19th century. Here, we publish poetry, narration [narrative] essays, books for children . . . and we have a literary magazine.”

Ponce is director of Ediciones Vigia, translated as Watchtower Editions, an independent publishing collective that derives its name from its location in Matanzas, on the Plaza de la Vigía —Watchtower Square. And there is nothing matter of fact about the materials Ediciones Vigia publishes.

Ediciones Vigia was founded in 1985 by designer and draftsman Rolando Estévez Jordán and poet Alfredo Zaldívar. What began as a simple space where writers and other artists could share and discuss their work has become a wellspring of limited-edition literary artworks, made by hand from repurposed materials.

(Left) a work station tucks under a staircase in the antique-filled Ediciones Vigia publishing house; (Center) limited editions displayed on a vintage bookcase; (Right) the curtain rises in bas-relief on the cover of Ágora by theater critic Omara Valiño's collected writings about performances at Havana's Argos Theater

In her essay “Ediciones Vigia: An Introduction” published on the University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archaeology web page, “Artist Books of Cuba’s Ediciones Vigia,” Kim Nochi wrote that artisans use paper from the local butcher, yarn, fabric, leaves, dried flowers, tin foil, and various other materials to build each book—then publish a maximum of 200 issues. But because they are rendered by hand, while each issue of a given book has the same text, form and general imagery as the next, artistic details may vary.

Nochi quoted Vigia founder Estévez, who reflected on “this hand-crafted ‘editorial aesthetic. [It] was not chosen in 1985 out of material need or because there existed no other possibilities. Vigía emerges out of aesthetic necessities.’”

It seems Vigía’s goal is not just to publish books, but to publish beautiful books, Nochi concludes.

Watch the short YouTube trailer for the film “Ediciones Vigía: Poéticas visuales / Visual Poetics” to view commentary from publishing house founder Estévez and see artisans at work crafting books, HERE.

Photo Credits:

  • Matanzas ship: La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre / Our Lady of Charity by Cynthia Friedman, director of Institutional Marketing at UMGC
  • Other photos by Carole Mahoney, senior editor-writer, UMGC Office of Communications
 Cover Image Caption: At Taller Ceramica Artistica in Varadero, ceramic artist Corazón works on a sculpture. One of his finished pieces, a decorative plate, is shown in the insert.