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Cuba Reveals a Country Rich in Artistic Expression

Alex Kasten
By Alex Kasten
  • Arts Program |
  • News

An educational trip to Cuba, sponsored by University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) and its Art Advisory Board, drew on the African influences that have shaped the island’s art and culture. The immersive experience in April included trips to historic attractions, guided museum tours and visits to the studios of artists working in sculpture, jewelry, printmaking and other media.

The group of 16, led by UMGC Arts Program Director Eric Key, who organized the tour, was particularly struck by the constant juxtaposition of old and new. An exploration of Old Havana, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a panoramic tour around modern Havana in privately owned vintage cars reinforced the blend of past and present. 

Print by Professor Andres Dumenigo at the ISA: Universidad De Las Artes

A day on the tour where African influences in the Americas were highlighted included a private visit to the studio of contemporary artist Eduardo Roca, better known as Choco. The painter, engraver and sculptor has gained world renown for haptic textures and tonal contrasts. The group also took a ferryboat across Havana harbor to the municipality of Regla, where it visited a church dedicated to the Virgin of Regla, a Black religious figure worshipped by both Roman Catholics as the patron saint of sailors and by Santería practitioners as Yemayá, the African goddess of the sea.

“An event that stood out to me the most was a side trip to see the sculpture of African Cuban Freedom Fighters,” said tour member Ervin McDaniel. “The monument to them was bigger than life and touched me personally as an African American.”

A visit to the Fábrica de Arte, gallery and club in Havana, which opened in 2014 inside a former cooking oil factory, defied categorization. It is one of the city’s premier centers of artistic expression but also features food, music, movie screenings and dancing.

“The art, music and multiple spaces containing Cuban creativity stimulated all of the senses,” said tour group member L. Christina Waddler.

The UMGC group had an opportunity to speak with several artists who opened their galleries, among them Kadir Lopez, whose work is inspired by a meditation on time; Mabel Poblet, a multimedia artist working in photography, paint, kinetic installations and performance; sculptor and jeweler Remberto Ramirez; and emerging artists Amalia Abreu, Lisandra Ramirez and Gabriela Pez.

“The visits to the various art galleries and artist studios and printmaking workshops were an art lovers dream,” said Waddler.

Tour member Russell Davis noted: “Each artist opened up curiosities and exposed me to their creative genius in their own way.” 

Haban Compas Dance performance

The tour group also ventured out of Havana to see other neighborhoods and provinces. In addition to Regla, they visited Matanzas City and its historic Versalles neighborhood, as well as the Viñales Valley in Pinar del Rio, where a tour guide shared a wealth of knowledge of Cuba’s history, economy, artists and political landscape.

During one part of the trip, group member Donna Dupree observed some of the realities of living in Cuba.

“Look up,” Alex Hernandez, the group’s tour guide, warned. “You will see why we need to walk in the middle of the street.” Just then wastewater cascaded from a pipe jutting from an overhead balcony onto the crumbling sidewalk.

Dupree had come to Cuba expecting that criticisms of conditions would be feared or prohibited. What she saw, instead, was a frank and open explanation from Hernandez about the country’s economic and political challenges. 

Cuba may be beset by shortages, but the members of the UMGC tour found it rich in diversity, artistic expression and generosity.

“Among everything I saw in Cuba, its people’s apparent acceptance of this diversity made the most lasting impression on me,” said Dupree. “It is something we in the U.S. would do well to emulate.”