Caribbean Popular, Caribbean Contemporary: Current Artistic Practices of Havana, Cuba

December 19, 2017

This discussion of contemporary art in Cuba is the last piece of a web series of three articles also featuring commentary on the artistic communities of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; and Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Current artistic production from the Caribbean region vividly reflects, perhaps with more intensity than in any other part of the Americas, the rooted relationship between modern art movements and popular art traditions. The historically fluid nature of so-called high and low art in the Caribbean serves today as a platform for contemporary artists to discuss the limits of the art object, the social responsiveness of their practice, and the state of their local art field. Influenced by these contextual elements, the potency of their visual language evidences a bourgeoning artistic impulse, which resists historicization through non-permeable and hierarchical analytical categories. Instead, it invites us to think of interstices, hybridization and liminal spaces – all concepts well-established in post-modern and post-colonial theories – to better understand an aesthetic ethos with a shared presence in a region that is both geographically and culturally fragmented. I encountered the work of artists and cultural agents from La Habana, Cuba included here during a summer 2017 sojourn in the Caribbean made possible by the support of the White-Levy Travel Grant from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University.

One week before Hurricane Irma swept through the Caribbean, I was exploring La Habana by getting acquainted with galleries, museums, and artists in their studios. After I left, when news of the flooding of the Cuban capital and damages to the already deteriorated architecture and living conditions of Habaneros started circulating, the opportunity I had had to navigate freely around the city felt even more like an incredible privilege.

Mixed feelings of bliss and awe resonated with the unresolved tensions I perceived in the work of two Habana-based artists who, through different approaches, are both interested in conversing with styles typically associated with vernacular or popular aesthetics. Although varied in style, intention, and outreach, the practices of Glenda León and Yulier Rodríguez, also known as Yulier P., spoke deeply of a dual sensitivity positioned between the impact of Cuba’s political drama of the twentieth century and broader issues dealing with contemporary understanding of the human condition. The location of their work in this undetermined area of intention together with the purposeful use of visual elements deriving from artistic currents historically categorized as self-taught attempt to open channels for greater artistic agency under a context of restrained political expression. 

Well-established in her career, Glenda León (b. 1976) has gained international recognition for her conceptual and minimalist work featuring an array of genres including painting, photography, and video installation.

Artist Glenda León in her studio in Havana, Cuba. Photo: Julián Sánchez González

Each room of her studio, housed in the first floor of a residence in the Vedado neighborhood of La Habana, showcases sample works from series that are both significant in the development of her career and compelling in the satirical playfulness of their content and material. Pieces where human hair is used as a medium for creating painterly compositions are notable examples, as they explore the extent to which the appreciation of the object of desire is determined by context. However, the interest in resignifying everyday objects and exploring new perceptive approaches to our understanding of them finds a powerful spin in León’s photographs of chewing gum that has been spit out, stepped on, and blackened with grime. Línea masticada (2007) and Estrellas masticadas III (2015) explore two channels within the elastic and disposable qualities of this raw material of the aesthetic possibilities imbued in the imagery of the ordinary.

Glenda León, Estrellas masticadas III (2015). Crayon on photograph printed on cardboard. Photo courtesy of the artist

In these works, the superfluity of chewing gum as a food that recreates, with no nutritional purpose, the primary pleasure of masticating, starkly contrasts with its portrayal as a brushstroke of great plasticity, or, discarded onto the asphalt and turned pitch black from street dirt, used as the connecting dots, reminiscent of stars, of a fictional urban constellation. The juxtaposition of an aesthetics of decay and the elevated imaginative process behind interstellar abstraction finds playful resolution in the evocation of children’s pastimes, whereby the work exceeds the defeating act of capturing the pavement and becomes relatable to the viewer. Under this lens, Estrellas masticadas reflects on artistic neo-avant-gardist trends of the second half of the twentieth century in which infantile aesthetics were posited as an act of liberation against the rationalizing project of scientific modernization rooted in Western societies, particularly after the widespread strengthening of nineteenth-century positivist thought.

Following a similar contraposition of purposefully used naïve aesthetics and modern systems of cognition, León’s series of watercolors Formas de salvar al mundo (2015) makes an audacious call for the global uses of psychotropic drugs as the ultimate healing fix to the world’s maladies. The outrageousness of the proposal, which contemplates a global scenario temporarily under the effects of, for instance, hallucinogenic mushrooms, is belied by the simple, schematic manner in which the earth and adjacent helicopter spraying these substances around it are depicted.

Glenda León, Formas de salvar al mundo II n. 3 [Rocear (sic) con MDMA al mundo entero una vez cada 21 días durante cinco años] from the series Formas de salvar al mundo (2015). Watercolor and ink on cardboard. Photo courtesy of the artist

On a historical level, these pieces reminisce of the consumption of psychotropic substances in the second half of the twentieth century. In their countercultural search for societal unity and understanding of human difference, these practices were a timely and powerful act of civil resistance in a time of post-war political polarization. If we ponder the fact that Cuba is today one of the few surviving states ruled by a socialist government with traceable roots to the contested global politics of the Cold War, we see that this series of watercolors seems to strive for a connection with the current political arena of León’s home country. However, far from taking an accusatory stand towards a specific local context, Formas de salvar al mundo takes the subtleties of seemingly apolitical infantile aesthetics as a conceptual and artistic strategy for proposing escapist or irreverent solutions to social dynamics of individual surveillance and political oppression imbued in contemporary societies, even after turning to the twenty-first century. Thus, by intentionally deploying a style similar to children’s art, the artist creates an ingenious vessel of apparent innocence for conveying a compelling message about the need for societal transformation and human improvement. Each piece of this series, then, becomes an essential part of an open letter to humanity stressing the impossibility of progress-driven dreams for social change and recalling the transgressive power of subconscious forces only accessed through the windows of temporary, self-induced madness. 

The visual universe of street artist Yulier Rodríguez Pérez (b. 1988) catapults into the public realm another style commonly associated with popular art: the visionary and self-taught. Easily identifiable on the walls of La Habana not only by his signature, Yulier P., but also by the characteristically macabre and distorted figures of his urban interventions, he is recognized as one of the few contemporary urban artists to daringly defy state and private sponsorship in Cuba.

Yulier P., Graffiti on wall (n.d.). Photo: Julián Sánchez González

In terms of style, he cites graffiti artist Banksy as one of his major influences, although Yulier P.'s work, other than intervening in public spaces, has no apparent resemblance to his British counterpart.[1] However, both Banksy and Yulier P. seem to share a leitmotif of intention, as the latter’s fantastical and grotesque creatures dialogue with decaying and abandoned places of the city with such potency that the undercurrents of human despair, perhaps alluding to the Cuban nation, seem to effloresce at a glance. This, I believe, is only possible through Yulier’s use of iconographic elements autochthonous to the history of Cuban artistic developments, which are, nonetheless, unrecognized, even rejected, by the artist.[2] It could be argued, however, that his depiction of beheaded, ghastly, and incongruous figures resonate as the laic dystopian future of the syncretic, yet synthetic, spiritual elements and compositions present in the work of Manuel Mendive Hoyo (b. 1944), an Afro-Cuban artist whose imagery derived mainly from Yoruba symbolic traditions.[3] Their iconographic resemblance is not gratuitous: the series of anthropomorphic three-legged or two-faced, yet visually harmonious, figures in Mendive’s El ojo de dios te mira (2007) seem to converge in the work of Yulier P. as unitary visions from an apocalyptic world.[4]

Yulier P., Graffiti on wall, Cuba (n.d.). Photo: Julián Sánchez González


Manuel Mendive Hoyo, El ojo de dios te mira (1974). Oil on canvas, metal work, and cowry snail shells. This work is part of the Collection Von Christierson now in exhibition at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana. Photo: Julián Sánchez González

Thus, while the former offers a glimpse of a series of concatenated and separate episodes where different stages of life and death speak of a sense of balance between the forces of good and evil, the latter purposefully loses all narrative to dialogue in its eerie aesthetics with the deteriorated space where they are strategically depicted.

In mid-August this year (2017), Yulier P. was arrested by the Cuban Police for the first time and held captive for two consecutive days under accusations of “damage to social property.”[5]  His release was reportedly contingent on his agreeing to erase his over two hundred interventions from the streets of La Habana, the artist stands today in public defense of his of work,  claiming that such conditions remain legally non-binding as they were enforced through psychological pressure.[6] Although this kind of censorship of artists in Cuba is not a novelty—think of Tania Bruguera’s detention of 2015—it remains baffling that, given Rodríguez’s numerous and visually prominent interventions throughout the city, his first deprivation of liberty only happened very recently.[7] A possible explanation could lie in how Rodríguez, following compositional strategies similar to those found in the work of León, creates his work by navigating the interstitial, undetermined space between the local and the universal when dealing with subjects whose nature delves into the political realm of civil resistance. Previous encounters between the artist and police forces in La Habana confirm this perception, since his work has been, up until a public critique of the Cuban government was made by the artist in international news outlets, deemed a type of “doodling” with contents unrelated to actual politics.[8] This of course raises questions about who determines the political in any given artistic output and how—particularly in a country where propaganda has been the legitimized means of public visual communication for the past half century. Under this view, it seems that the labeling of an action of resistance as political is dependent upon how closely it emulates the language of public spectacularity and outreach embedded in propaganda. However, by making use of a familiar yet disorienting and, at times, unintelligible visual language, the subtleties of poetic confrontation found in Rodríguez’s works became, under these circumstances, a different category of public disruption—one where a fictional social balance finds itself jeopardized through actions of Foucauldian micro-political resistance.

Yulier P., Graffiti on wall (n.d.). Photo: Julián Sánchez González

Thus, by avoiding grandiose gestures and, perhaps unconsciously, reinterpreting the cultural repertoire of artists working with vernacular culture like Mendive, the interventions in the streets of La Habana by Rodríguez signal the presence of an artistic interest in the contestatory interplay of local and universal contents as a strategy of both opposition and survival.

Analyzing the works of León and Rodríguez through their uses of popular aesthetics and reclaiming of the public space reiterates, through a specific case study, an interpretative approach calling upon the diffused limits of high and low in contemporary art. However, when placed amidst Cuba’s artistic and political milieu, this conversation calls on an additional element of understanding focused on the strategic visual negotiation engaged by artists when their expressive agency is curtailed by institutional censorship. As a result, the infantile or visionary interpretation of the historical styles associated with the vernacular serves as leverage for the artist’s expression inasmuch as it enables the exploration of social critique on both the local and universal levels. The responsiveness of their work is preserved through an aesthetic solution that is neither so specific in scope that it compromises their practice, nor so broad in its outreach that the work is misunderstood.

[2] Never accepted as a student to the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes de San Alejandro and constantly rejected by art galleries in La Habana, Yulier P. resorted to intervening the streets in a decided commitment to his artistic vision. This declared act of opposition to institutions supporting a specific aesthetic taste and educational parameters is a feat the artist still stands for as a public figure. It is also a possible explanation for his reluctance to recognize Cuban artistic influences in his work. See interview with the artist from 2015:

[3] ArteCubano Ediciones del Consejo Nacional de las Artes Plásticas (2016). Manuel Mendive. Sevilla, España: Escandón Impresores.

[4] Currently in exhibition at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes as part of the temporary show “Sin mascaras – Arte afrocubano contemporáneo” curated by Orlando Hernández.

[5] See one of the many news pieces covering the event in: Amnesty International’s report on his detention is also valuable for understanding the background of this specific episode:

[6] See video interview with the artist: